Biological Changes From Yoga

The more time I put into my yoga practice, the more I notice its impacts on my body and mind.  Working hard in the poses helps me build strength, endurance and flexibility. Spending time in meditation challenges me to observe my thoughts and feelings, let go of what is less helpful and nurture a positive mindset.  I know yoga (and spending time with the supportive community at Maha) helps me feel better mentally, and many research studies confirm that yoga can help people feel better.  However, what is causing these changes?  I looked at recent research that aimed to track the biological impact of yoga on mental wellness to learn more.

Researchers Cahn et al. (2017) studied changes in people who attended a yoga retreat for 3 months.  Activities at the retreat primarily included daily meditation and, to a lesser extent, physical yoga practices.  The researchers asked people how they were feeling, and took samples of their blood and saliva, before and after the retreat.  

At the end of the yoga retreat, people in the study reported feeling less depression and anxiety.  They also had changes in a protein that helps brain cells to stay healthy, and had changes in their stress hormones that suggested they became more resistant to the effects of stress.  Other physical changes, related to their immune systems, indicated a likely increase in well-being typically seen when people exercise more.  These physical health changes are important, because other research has shown that people with mental illnesses may have shorter life expectancy, and are more likely to have health problems such as diabetes (for more information on this research, check out the Temple University Collaborative’s resources on physical activity).

This study is an exciting addition to the research about yoga and meditation because it goes beyond asking people how yoga makes them feel.  By looking at how people’s bodies and brains may have changed after yoga and mindfulness practices, we can create more targeted treatments for mental illnesses, and give people more options to support their health.  I hope future research about yoga will reveal more healthy biological changes that promote mental wellness.

Read more about the study here.


Mental Health Spotlight provided by Katie Pizziketti in collaboration with the Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion of Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities. 

The Temple University Collaborative receives funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number #90RT5021-02-00). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This article does not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.