Five Unexpected Psychological Benefits of Yoga

Yoga has experienced something of a renaissance over the past few years. Its scientifically-proven health benefits have unshackled it from its rather hippyish reputation of previous decades. Now, everyone from doctors to schoolchildren to CEOs are regularly hitting the mat. Alongside the more obvious physical benefits, such as greater flexibility, muscle strength and improved posture, its controlled breathing and meditative repetitions are credited by committed practitioners with quieting their busy minds. If you compare the timeframe of yoga’s increasing popularity against the increasingly all-consuming technological world we live in, the correlation does seem too close to be coincidental. 

So what is the attraction? What does yoga provide that working out at the gym, for example, might not? Here are five surprising long-term effects of a regular yoga routine that might make you consider signing up for a class near you.

A Better Body Image

A fitter, more toned body would help anyone think better of themselves, right? Well, actually, not always. Interestingly, yoga practitioners have been shown to have greater body esteem than people who engage in other types of physical exercise(1). Not only that, female yogis perceive less discrepancy between their actual and perceived silhouettes than regular gym bunnies. This has been credited to yoga’s focus on self awareness, which is itself correlated with higher levels of personal satisfaction and less self-criticism. In other words, yogis focus on their own body and the improvements they feel they are making with it, rather than comparing themselves with other people around them or in the media. This is one reason why yoga is now prescribed by doctors to people with eating disorders or body-image / self-esteem issues.

Improved Mental Health

It might be expected that, while you are in the middle of a tripod headstand with lotus legs, you won’t be thinking about the stressful meeting that you had that afternoon or your over-budget shopping list. Yoga is a practice that demands full concentration and, as such, can provide a welcoming relief from a wandering mind. But improved mental health has been repeatedly reported by practitioners even when they are NOT in class. Studies(2) have shown a yoga routine leads to decreased production of the hormone Cortisol (the stress hormone) when compared to a control group, resulting in lower levels of stress, anxiety, fatigue and depression. 

More Mindful Eating

Another reported result of yogis’ improved self-awareness is the increase in “mindfulness” in eating. And if you are rolling your eyes at that word, then you should take a look at the science first. There are many studies(3),(4),(5) that have clearly demonstrated a causal link between a regular yoga practice and an increase in healthy eating patterns and a reduction in blood sugar levels and eating disorder symptoms / preoccupation with food. Practitioners experience not just greater awareness of taste and pleasure in food, but they also develop increased awareness of satiety and are led more by how they are actually feeling rather than external cues. In other words, they eat when they feel hungry instead of when they pass a vending machine or see a plate of cookies in the office pantry. This double whammy of increased pleasure in food while simultaneously reducing the amount you eat is a definite motivation to drop into a downward dog!

Increased Quality of Life

An improved mood and lower fatigue have been shown in several studies of different groups of people, including elderly people(6) and chemotherapy patients(7). Yoga causes increases in Serotonin levels (the happiness hormone), which doesn’t just put a positive spin on your mood, but in some cases appears to actually lower levels of reported physical pain. Scientists are divided as to whether or not this results from a placebo effect (people feeling better because they believe they should rather than due to any actual physiological difference). But one could argue that this is perhaps irrelevant as long as the person does, indeed, feel better. Remarkably, long term yoga practitioners have even been shown to have developed a greater mass in the area of the brain associated with contentment.

Improved Social Relationships

So, are these healthy-eating, body-appreciating, stress-busting, pain-relieving yogis the type of people who you would ever want to be friends with? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes. A regular yoga practice helps develop friendliness, compassion and equanimity, assisting with friendships and romantic relationships. It improves your self-confidence, helping you to push yourself out of your comfort zone and get out and talk to people. It aids concentration, allowing you to listen to others better and respond appropriately. And it calms the mind, helping you to avoid nervous gabbling and express your thoughts clearly. No wonder it is increasingly suggested as beneficial to teenagers who are struggling to get to grips with their developing social skills.

So there you go, five unexpected psychological benefits of yoga that won’t have you running for the door before you can say “Namaste”. If you would like to give it a try, check out the events page on the Banyan Workspace website for upcoming classes.

Hatha Yoga with Lucie at Banyan Workspace
  1. Monika Bąk-Sosnowska, Anna Urban, Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 2017; 3: 58–68
  2. Andreas Michalsen, Paul Grossman, Ayhan Acil, Jost Langhorst, Rainer Lüdtke, Tobias Esch, George B Stefano, Gustav J Dobos. d Sci Monit 2005 Dec;11(12): CR555-561. Epub 2005 Nov 24.
  3. Carla K. Miller, PhD, RD, Associate Professor, Jean L. Kristeller, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Senior Research Scientist, Amy Headings, PhD, RD, Research Associate, Haikady Nagaraja, PhD, Professor, and  W. Fred Miser, MD, MA, Professor J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012 Nov; 112(11): 1835–1842.
  4. Kathryn M Godfrey, Linda C Gallo, Niloofar Afari.  J Behav Med 2015 Apr;38(2):348-62. doi: 10.1007/s10865-014-9610-5.Epub 2014 Nov 23.
  5. Tiffany Rain Carei, PhD, Amber L. Fyfe-Johnson, ND, Cora Collette Breuner, MD, MPH, and  Margaret A. Marshall, PhD J Adolesc Health. 2010 Apr; 46(4): 346–351.
  6. Barry S Oken, Daniel Zajdel, Shirley Kishiyama, Kristin Flegal, Cathleen Dehen, Mitchell Haas, Dale F Kraemer, Julie Lawrence, Joanne Leyva. Altern Ther Health Med. Jan-Feb 2006;12(1):40-7.
  7. R M Raghavendra, R Nagarathna, H R Nagendra, K S Gopinath, B S Srinath, B D Ravi, S Patil, B S Ramesh, R Nalini. J Cancer Care (Engl). 2007 Nov;16(6):462-74.doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2354.2006.00739.x.

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