The Benefits of Yoga & Mindfulness on Your Mental Health

Mindfulness is our ability to be present in any moment. Yoga is one type of mindfulness practice.

Practiced by millions of people worldwide, Yoga is widely recognized in the West for its physical benefits, including balance and flexibility. While the physical benefits may bring many people to the mat, the benefits of yoga and mindfulness on mental health are typically what keeps people coming back.

Here are 5 evidence-based ways yoga and mindfulness can benefit the mental health of children and adults.

1. Reduce stress and anxiety

Yoga and mindfulness help people cope with stress. A recent study found that people who practice yoga experience both lower perceived stress (i.e. felt a greater sense of control over their life) and lower stress reactivity (i.e. found it easier to relax) (Park et al, 2020).

The benefits are found in youth as well. A 2018 randomized controlled study conducted by Tulane University found that Yoga Ed. programs may improve symptoms of anxiety among students (Bazzano et al., 2018).

In addition to perceived benefits, yoga and mindfulness have been shown to change how the brain is wired for stress. The amygdala is the center of our fight or flight response. Mindfulness practitioners have been shown to have lower amygdala activation and smaller size (Taren et al., 2013).

2. Improve focus, memory, and learning

Yoga and mindfulness can strengthen the part of the brain involved in memory, attention, awareness, decision making, reasoning, and learning (Gothe et al, 2019; Holzel et al, 2010).

Studies show that people who more regularly practice yoga had a thicker cerebral cortex (center of executive function) and hippocampus (center of memory) compared with people who did not (Santaella et al., 2019; Goethe et al., 2018; Afonso et al., 2017; Froeliger et. al 2012).

A 2014 study conducted by the California State University of Fullerton examined the perceived benefits of incorporating chair yoga activities into classroom teaching. The study found that yoga-based activities produced perceived benefits in such areas as attention, concentration, joy, self-esteem, self-confidence, physical well-being, and daily behaviors (Chen et al., 2014).

3. Feel good

Yoga can help us feel better. The above study also demonstrated that yoga and mindfulness can have positive effects on how students and teachers feel by increasing joy, self-esteem, and self-confidence (Chen et al., 2014).

By moving the body and calming the mind, yoga can stimulate the release of brain chemicals that are responsible for how good we feel, such as GABA, dopamine, and serotonin (Krishnakumar et al., 2015; Streeter et al., 2010). While most exercise triggers the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, yoga may compound this effect by purposely drawing your attention to how you feel.

4. Improve sleep

Sleep quality directly affects our mental health. Poor sleep can lead us to feel tired, cranky, and moody. Over time, poor sleep can also put our physical health at risk.

Yoga can positively influence our and our kids’ ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Yoga can improve sleep quality by tiring the body and mind, increasing overall relaxation, and equipping us with relaxation tools to fall asleep (Wang et al., 2020; Khalsa, 2004).

5. Protect mental health over time

For youth, the effects of yoga can have powerful mental health benefits when introduced during critical periods of development.

In 2012, a Harvard study conducted by Sat Bir Khalsa evaluated the potential mental health benefits of Yoga Ed. programs for adolescents in secondary school. Students completed a baseline test along with a self-report at the end of the program to measure mood, anxiety, perceived stress, resilience, and other mental health variables.

Most outcome measures exhibited a pattern of worsening in the control group over time. Changes in the yoga group over time were either minimal or showed slight improvements, suggesting that implementation of yoga has the potential of playing a protective or preventive role in maintaining mental health (Khalsa et al., 2012).

Mindfulness is available to you at any moment. It doesn’t have to be long and you don’t need a yoga mat. Here’s one practice to find a mindful moment today:

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Julia Bond

A strategist by trade and scientist at heart, Julia informs the neuroscience and psychology of yoga and mindfulness at Yoga Ed.

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