With beats that bounce, Natalia Safran, left, moves to hip-hop at a YogaHop… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
As you stretch into warrior pose and inhale and exhale, you're not just stretching those hamstrings and lungs; you're also doing good for your brain with a practice that can stave off or relieve problems such as stress, depression and anxiety.
Yoga "gives some sense of sanity," says Sat Bir Khalsa, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "You're no longer washed away by the avalanche of your emotions. You are more in control."
Yoga practice can also lower heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure, and may make people less sensitive to pain.
In some cases — particularly for anxiety, depression and stress — yoga might be more effective than medication, though this hasn't been proved, says Dr. Murali Doraiswamy of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. While it won't get rid of whatever is causing you distress, it could make it easier for you to deal with the issues. Doraiswamy compares learning yoga to learning to surf: Once you've got the skills, you can ride the wave instead of drowning underneath it.
To find the right sort of yoga practice to calm your mind, it's best to shop around, says Khalsa, a certified yoga instructor and author of the recent ebook "Your Brain on Yoga." Studios and teachers have different styles. Although there's no rule for which practice best addresses the mind, Khalsa suggests seeking out traditional routines that include meditation. Yoga schools with a more physical focus, such as Bikram or power yoga, may provide less mental benefit.
Managing your breath is an important element of the practice, says yogi Cameron Alborzian of Los Angeles, author of the recent book "The One Plan" and host of the reality TV series "A Model Guru." Regulated breathing is where control of the mind begins, he says. In fact, the word "yoga" refers not to the postures alone but to the union of mind and body. Without the breathing and meditative elements, you're just having a nice stretch.
Some people may benefit from visiting a yoga therapist, who typically combines an understanding of yoga with medical knowledge. The therapist can create a custom practice for physical and mental needs. Therapists typically work with one patient or a small group at a time. Make sure your therapist has the right training to address your concerns.
While yoga is an ancient practice, science is starting to take notice of its mental health benefits. Doraiswamy balanced the evidence for yoga and mental disorders in a January review in the journal Frontiers in Affective Disorders and Psychosomatic Research. He and his coauthors found more than 100 scientific studies on yoga and mental health but focused on 16 they identified as high quality.
"Overall, most studies seemed to indicate a benefit," Doraiswamy says. "If this were a drug in the early stages of development, every company would be drooling over it."
However, since yoga is not a medicine that drug makers stand to make millions selling, no company has funded large, extensive trials. Therefore, science cannot offer many firm recommendations on yoga. Doraiswamy is not ready to suggest replacing medications with yoga, though it could make a good addition to treatment. And he cautions that even people with mild depression or anxiety should still visit a medical doctor. The symptoms could be due to an underlying condition that no number of sun salutations will relieve.
As far as depression and anxiety are concerned, yoga may help a person get back to normal or even avoid reaching the point where psychological difficulties develop, Doraiswamy says. Researchers also found potential benefits from yoga plus medication for people with schizophrenia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Doraiswamy also suspects, though he has no proof, that yoga practice could help older people stay mentally sharp.
And even if the studies aren't in, he notes, people who do yoga report that they feel great: They are happy and energetic, and they sleep well. "It makes you more content," Doraiswamy says.