Reconnecting body and mind for relaxation: Yoga benefits for mental health
Can a 5000 years-old practice help to relax and rejuvenate your mind from the stress of the modern world? Latest research evidence affirms that it can. Yoga, which translates to “join” or re-direct your attention, is a practice that originated in ancient India. It involves the union of the mind and body, extending the mental benefits of yoga. Among its many benefits are its ability to help you relax, scientifically speaking, as seen on brain scans.
How does your brain stay balanced?
At a very basic level, your brain works by balancing stimulating and stabilising activity. It achieves that with a set of stimulating and stabilising brain chemicals. When you are solving a maths equation, your brain is favouring its stimulating brain signals. When you go to a spa, it relaxes and allows the stabilising/calming brain signals to dominate. In a stressful world full of brain stimulating demands, it is important to make time for rest by increasing the levels of calming brain chemicals to maintain a healthy balance. Your dominant relaxation brain chemical is GABA. What does GABA do in the brain? It balances the stimulating pathways and helps you calm, with its expansive network that occupies 44%  of your brain.
Your brain on yoga: What is happening?
There are different types of yoga. Most types involve breathing regulation, focused attention and practising different postures. When you are under stress, the body goes into fight or flight mode. When you practise yoga for stress relief, your brain goes from fight or flight mode into calm and relaxation mode  . Performing yoga involves refocusing your attention to the present moment, which helps in regulating the stress response. In your brain, yoga can help inhibit areas of fear and stimulate areas of reward, helping promote positive emotions .
A brain scan study found that participants who took up 12 weeks of yoga performing 2-3 sessions per week had higher levels of GABA after the sessions . These participants did 90 mins of yoga per session and found an increase in their relaxing brain chemical. This benefit was seen within a week of the practice, which means regular sessions are needed to sustain benefits.
A shortcut to relaxation boost: L-theanine
If you are pressed for time and looking for a quick way to increase your relative concentration of GABA, try a nutrient extracted from green tea called L-theanine. It will help you feel relaxed within 30 minutes, without any drowsiness, making it the perfect calming tool on a busy workday. Regular intake of 200-400 mg L-theanine was shown to have a stress reducing effect within 2 weeks . Try an all-natural 250 mg L-theanine, providing L-theanine equivalent to 15-20 cups of green tea. Additional 15% off your 1st order using code NEW15. Read more here.
GABA boost through yoga: How much, how often?
The better you get at your yoga practice; the higher your GABA levels will be. Those who were new to yoga and practised for an hour 3 times a week, saw a 13% increase in GABA levels . Yogic practitioners who did the same saw over a double increment with an increase by 27% . Is yoga good for stress? Though most studies recommend 1 hour of yoga to see GABA boost, even 15 mins of yoga can help you de-stress. Office employees performed 15 mins of a variety of yoga postures and reported an almost 7% decrease in stress levels , though GABA levels were unreported.
Everyday life comes with regular stress. Try yoga to bring back the balance and increase your relaxing brain chemical GABA. Perhaps yoga and L-theanine can be the perfect duo to a mental spa ending to a hectic week.
- Petroff, O.A.C. (2002). Book Review: GABA and Glutamate in the Human Brain. The Neuroscientist, [online] 8(6), pp.562–573.
- Woodyard C. (2011). Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International journal of yoga, 4(2), 49–54.
- Streeter, C.C. et al. (2020). Thalamic Gamma Aminobutyric Acid Level Changes in Major Depressive Disorder After a 12-Week Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing Intervention. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 26(3).
- Lopes Sakamoto, F. et al. (2019). Psychotropic effects of L-theanine and its clinical properties: From the management of anxiety and stress to a potential use in schizophrenia. Pharmacological Research, 147, p.104395
- Streeter, C.C. et al. (2010). Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(11), pp.1145–1152.
- Melville, G. W. et al. (2012). Fifteen minutes of chair-based yoga postures or guided meditation performed in the office can elicit a relaxation response. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2012, 501986.
- Streeter, C. C., Whitfield, T. H., Owen, L., Rein, T., Karri, S. K., Yakhkind, A., Perlmutter, R., Prescot, A., Renshaw, P. F., Ciraulo, D. A., & Jensen, J. E. (2010). Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomized controlled MRS study. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 16(11), 1145–1152.