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The psychological benefits of yoga

Yoga is a very ancient physical and mental practice that has been spreading all over the world because of its benefits and because it guarantees a firm body, a stable mind and a benevolent spirit.

It is an ancient art that has amply demonstrated that it can improve our quality of life, not only physically but also mentally and spiritually.

Psychology and yoga

It consists of postures (asanas), relaxation (savasana), meditation (dhyana), breathing (pranayama), kriyas (cleanses), mudras (energy seals), kirtan (chanting), mantra or rituals. In addition to an exercise, for many, it is a way of life that seeks wellbeing, inner peace and implies a lifestyle that commits to the observance of ethical guidelines, principles of life and a proper diet.

Yoga achieves the integration of movement and breath until they are no longer two separate entities but become one. Its practice becomes an extremely powerful agent of transformation that brings about profound changes in our health. In fact, its use is seen as a preventive or rehabilitative medicine because it stimulates metabolic and anabolic processes and improves energy circulation, oxygenating the body. When we talk about yoga, we can not only refer to the physiological benefits (e.g. increased flexibility, decreased muscle stiffness, etc.), but we have to mention the positive consequences it produces on the mind, emotional well-being and the brain.

Here, from Psychology and Mind, we present the six psychological benefits of practising yoga.

Reduces stress

The lifestyle of western societies can lead many people to suffer from stress, causing psychological health problems such as depression, anxiety, etc. A study by Thirthalli and Naveen (2013) shows that yoga treatment reduces levels of cortisol, a hormone that is released in response to stress.

Cortisol is necessary for the body as it regulates and mobilises energy in stressful situations, but if we have too much of it or it increases in situations where we don’t need it, it produces many side effects. By practising yoga we can lower the levels of this hormone, and therefore reduce stress.

Improves sleep

Serotonin (5-HT) is a neurotransmitter derived from an amino acid called tryptophan. It sends messages within the brain and through the nervous system, and is involved in many processes such as regulating mood and appetite. In addition, one of its main tasks is to increase the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep cycles.

For a peaceful rest, serotonin also plays a role in controlling stress and body temperature. “Practising yoga increases serotonin levels and therefore helps you sleep better,” explains Dr Murali Doraiswam, author of a Duke University study that included a review of more than 100 research papers on yoga.

Improves mood

As mentioned in the previous point, serotonin (5-HT) also regulates mood. Low levels of 5-HT are associated with depressive and obsessive behaviour. Research by Cabral, Meyer and Ames (2011) found that regular yoga practice produces significant improvements in patients with depression and anxiety in a similar way to physical exercise, due to the increase in serotonin.

Another neurotransmitter that seems to influence this is GABA. A recent study by Boston University and the University of Utah has shown that there is also an increase in this neurotransmitter in yoga practitioners.

It prolongs life and prevents degenerative diseases.

American researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital have shown, following a study, that yoga and meditation increase the size of telomeres, structures located at the ends of chromosomes that are directly related to ageing, the development of certain pathologies and even premature death.

The study concludes that there appears to be a positive correlation between healthy, large telomeres and increased longevity, prevention of degenerative diseases and health. Doing yoga for only 15 minutes a day is enough to produce biochemical changes in the brain and neurons.