Sunday, April 10, 2011

Yoga Improves Mood and Lessens Anxiety, Study Says

A study shows yoga results in increased GABA levels.
(Photo © Matthew Wakem)

I recently attended a Vinyasa yoga class during which instructor Ashley West Roberts asked us to stay low in Utkatasana for at least 10 breaths so that we could “sit with our negative feelings.” If you’ve practiced Chair Pose before, you know exactly what negative feelings Ashley was talking about. Your leg muscles burn, your arms start to get heavy, and you just want to stand up and shake it all out. But you don’t. You take deep ujjayi breaths instead. And if you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you challenge yourself to sit a little lower.

Strangely enough, it’s moments like these that keep me coming back to the mat. That’s because there’s a certain feeling of peace that comes with each deep breath. The tension in your muscles begins to release. Your heart rate slows down to a steady pace. And this happens regardless of how difficult the pose is.

I used to call this feeling the yoga bug and watched as more and more of my friends were bitten by it. But according to the results of a 12-week study conducted by doctors at the Boston University School of Medicine, the calming feeling yoga induces has nothing to do bugs at all. Rather, it’s the result of an increase in GABA levels in the body.

GABA (or gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that suppresses the action of nerve cells. Think of it as a natural calming agent released by the brain that signals muscles to relax. Brain scans of study participants who reported a relaxed mood and decreased levels of anxiety after practicing yoga revealed that certain areas of their brains were flooded with GABA. Though more studies are required to determine the role GABA plays in lessening anxiety among yoga practitioners, there’s no doubt a regular yoga practice is a surefire stress reliever.

Of course, this study is just one more great reason to turn to yoga when you’re having an off day. So go ahead, unroll your mat, breathe through the tension, and let the GABA flow.


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