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Yoga and mental health: a conversation between two professional scientists and professional yogis

Yoga means much more than simply doing impressive postures - it can help maintain or improve mental health too.

At Benevolent, Marton and Francesca are both Senior Data Scientists, Marton specialises in Cheminformatics, and Francesca in Bioinformatics. On top of being professional scientists, they are also professional yogis who have continued to teach weekly remote yoga classes to our Benevolent team throughout lockdown. In this special Mental Health Awareness Week blog, they discuss how these seemingly disparate fields interact, and evaluate the science behind the effect of yoga on mental health. 


What do you know of the history of yoga?

Márton Vass. Yoga is a tradition that goes back thousands of years. We don’t know when people started practicing yoga but we know that the sage Patañjali collated the ancient wisdom into 196 Yoga sutras sometime between 500 BCE and 400 CE. Patañjali not only wrote the Yoga sutras but also a systematic work on Sanskrit grammar and linguistics, and a medical text called Patanjalatantra. Thus he was, in the modern sense of the word, a yogi and a scientist as well. Most people who practice yoga report the physical and mental benefits they observe, however, these are sometimes difficult to explain in terms of Western anatomy, medical, and psychological sciences. 


What does it mean to you to be a yoga practitioner and a scientist at the same time?

Francesca Mulas. People often don’t know but there is some scientific evidence on the effects of yoga. In 2014 I was at Boston University, and one day we received an email about a study they were starting in the building just in front, at the Department of Psychology. They were recruiting people with different levels of depression and doing MRS scans after yoga sessions. The results of these studies are now published: they showed that brain GABA levels increased after a 60 minute session of yoga (ref). Later they also showed that thalamic GABA levels correlated with improved mood and decreased anxiety, and this effect was greater for yoga than other physical exercise (ref). The group proposed that yoga restores the homeostasis in stress response and can improve conditions like epilepsy, depression, and PTSD (ref). In studies of MDD patients they found that asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing) practice improved depression scores (ref), reduced suicidal ideation (ref), and increased feelings of positivity (ref). 


Tell me about the other articles you found about scientific research on yoga?

M.V. It is only in the last two decades or so that yoga has been properly studied by means of scientific methods. A search in PubMed for yoga and randomized controlled trials reveals that such studies were conducted mostly after 2004 (unfortunately double blinding doesn’t work in the case of yoga therapy). Yoga has been shown to have a positive effect at the biochemical level e.g. on β-endorphin, oxytocin, cortisol, melatonin, stress and inflammatory biomarker levels (ref, ref, ref, ref), and so can be implicated in various physical conditions, mood and sleep improvement, and general sense of well-being. These effects are believed to be brought about by stimulating the hormonal glands and modulating the blood flow in the different postures such as in the soothing forward bends and inversions, and mimicking psychoevolutionary effects of different body shapes on emotions such as the invigorating opening of the chest in backbends. Similar to the Boston study, other studies have also shown improvements in mild depression, anxiety, and general quality of life scales in young adults (ref) or distressed women (ref). So I think there is now compelling scientific evidence for the positive effects of yoga, but there may be a lack of knowledge on how exactly yoga exerts these positive effects in the body and the mind. When I read books explaining the physical benefits of specific poses or groups of poses, I sorely miss the reassuring reference page of a scientific article. And there is undisputed empirical evidence: most yoga students would say after the classes how they feel taller, calmer, happier, less affected by difficulties, and if you practice yoga regularly, this feeling will stay with you throughout the days also when you don’t have a yoga class. 


What part of the yoga teachings do you find most interesting?

F.M. My students also often tell me: “When I practice at lunch time, after yoga it feels like it is another day”. And it happens to me as well, I don’t like to wake up early to practice, but when I do it, it changes my mood. Yoga for me is a way of meditating, of slowing down from the mental chatter, from negative thoughts or preoccupations for the future to come back to the present moment. Pranayama, or yoga breathing, is especially great for relieving stress. During the teacher training, I practiced several styles and had to learn and reflect on the yoga philosophy and limbs. Two of these resonated with me as I wanted to practice them on the mat and in my life: one is Santosha/Contentment (ref): being happy with what you have; and another one Satya/Truthfulness (ref): engaging less in gossip or judgement of other people, as we remind ourselves we are yogi. I started to realise how these attitudes had a tremendous effect on my way of seeing things and I became more and more eager to learn about philosophy and techniques to increase inner awareness and positive thinking. In one of my now favourite books (particularly the audiobook), I found many of these principles and others that we practice in yoga: from the unconditional happiness and surrendering to the present moment, to the importance of finding the “middle way” / the Dao / the Yin and Yang. Some people know how to balance the two extremes of the pendulum, for example eating/fasting, staying too close to another person vs. being too independent, but sometimes we exaggerate towards one end. Both extremes are wrong and once we gravitate toward one, we then tend to go to the opposite extreme, but instead we need to find the balance, which is what we practice with yoga. Finally, the invitations from yoga to live life more spiritually and feel “one” with the other people and with the environment: it has a calming effect and the effect of feeling part of something all together. Now that the environment is showing the effects of our actions on the planet, I understand this even more. 


What does yoga practice mean to you?

M.V. During the teacher training we studied yoga philosophy and it touched me deeply. It became evident that yoga is not just about doing the poses better and better or being able to do the most extreme twists or backbends. Of course you have to work ardently to improve yourself, but it has to be accompanied by self study and surrendering the body, mind, and soul to something greater. Personally, I have always really enjoyed the focused attention and constant self analysis in yoga classes. Even if the poses are difficult at first, ultimately we are looking to achieve quietness in each of them. Yoga teaches us not to do the work with reaping the benefits of it in mind (ref), but instead with the aim of bettering ourselves and doing it for the benefit of all living things. The teachings of yoga are not far from modern compassion theory. The very definition of yoga in the Yoga sutras is to quieten the disturbances or fluctuations in consciousness (ref), aiming to avoid future pain (ref), and not being affected by dualities (ref), such as extreme emotions, the duality of the inner and outer worlds, and uniting the body, mind, and soul. As you said asana (posture) and pranayama (breathing) practice - what we most often do in a yoga class - are just two limbs out of eight in yoga. However, starting on the yogic path with these will cultivate also the yamas (moral imperatives, ref), niyamas (personal observances, ref), and lead the practitioner towards a deeper understanding, or the so-called inner quest. And what could benefit our mental health more than understanding ourselves and our place in the world.


With love from Francesca and Márton, your yoga teachers at Benevolent.

Namaste.


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