When I was in my early 20’s, I was high strung, type A, emotional, a mess! I took everything so seriously, and the littlest event would throw me into a tailspin. I distinctly remember a moment that changed my life. I had had a horribly frazzled day, so I decided to take a yoga class. During the class everything outside just melted away. I felt whole, happy, centered…even blissful…I was completely in the present moment and it felt amazing! It was after that class that I realized practicing yoga unraveled my emotional tangles and made me feel alright. What I didn’t know is that one of the health benefits of yoga is that it really does elevate the mood & make you feel, well HAPPY!
More and more research is finding that yoga has a lot of emotional benefits. Yoga encourages relaxation and rest. It focuses on the present moment, encourages slow deep breaths, and mindful movement. All of these practices shift the body and mind from the flight -or-fight response, away from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic system, the relaxation response. Studies show that yoga is calming and restorative, lowers heart and breathing rate, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, and increases blood flow to the intestines and vital organs. This just all adds up to the physiology that leads to a happy mood.
Many health professionals now recommend yoga as a complementary therapy for problems such as depression, anxiety, stress, and insomnia. A study by BioPsychoSocial Medicine revealed that yoga practice significantly reduced fear, anger, and fatigue. “The long-term yoga practitioners had, on average, lower mental disturbance, tension-anxiety, anger-hostility, and fatigue scores than the control group.”* Another study found that the longer and more often you did yoga, the more likely you were to gain the psychological benefits of practice. In other words the greater the dose produced a greater effect.
Another reason that yoga improves the mood is that tests show that practicing yoga increases the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a chemical in the brain that helps to regulate nerve activity. Typically people with anxiety, depression, and mood disorders have lower levels of GABA. And drugs that increase GABA are prescribed to decrease anxiety and improve mood. Yoga is a natural way to increase GABA in your system.
In another study, Pranayama, the breathing exercises practiced in yoga were found very beneficial for elevating the mood:
Pranayamic breathing, defined as a manipulation of breath movement, has been shown to contribute to a physiologic response characterized by the presence of decreased oxygen consumption, decreased heart rate, and decreased blood pressure, as well as increased theta wave amplitude in EEG recordings, increased parasympathetic activity accompanied by the experience of alertness and reinvigoration.**
I think some of the most important evidence for me comes from the testimonials of my yoga students. I love to hear how practicing yoga has improved their lives. How it keeps them sane in an otherwise hectic world. How they feel better, happier, and more fulfilled since they started yoga. How they are calm even in bad situations and they feel less stressed than before yoga. That is all I need to declare definitively, “Practicing yoga makes you feel HAPPY!”