The Science of Yoga and Mood

Walking is integral to my personal practice– as important to me as the time I set aside for asana and formal meditation. The breath and movement of a morning walk will clear out any tangled thoughts and reconnect me to the feeling of my feet on the earth. In a sense, the walk itself is a form of vinyasa and meditation.

So I was intrigued when a colleague forwarded me notice of a new study about mood, yoga, and walking in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. This study compares the effects of yoga and walking on mood, anxiety, and GABA levels in the brain.

The researchers found that yoga improved mood and anxiety more than walking. It also found correlations with GABA levels, particularly between mood improvement and increased GABA in the brains of the yoga group.

Perhaps doing a yoga practice might improve my mood more than a walk around the hill. And this yoga effect could be linked to neurotransmitter levels in my brain. Why am I not surprised that the nervous system, and specifically the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system), is in on the action?

I’m fascinated by the burgeoning research on the benefits of yoga and meditation for what we may learn about healing ourselves. Also because of the questions the research itself raises. And because I’m curious about the strategy of investigating body awareness, movement, and spiritual practices with tools of science.

This week, I’m in the middle of reading a history of yoga, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Over a hundred years ago, supporters of the first yogis who traveled to the West to teach, such as Swami Vivekananda, touted the science of yoga. Here we are a century later, regaining the same ground to make the case for yoga.

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