Experts found that yoga promoted better healing for cancer patients due to its ability to reduce stress.
Credit: Luis Alvarez

If you've ever practiced yoga, then you know it can be a killer workout. Switching from pose to pose while simultaneously keeping your balance and remembering to breathe through it all can work up a serious sweat. After a few yoga sessions, you may notice you're stronger, more flexible, and even more toned.

But while it's great to see physical changes in your body, yoga also has several benefits for your mental health that we shouldn't ignore. From increased mindfulness, happiness, and concentration (to name a few), there's a reason why therapists recommend doing yoga as a coping method for mental health disorders like anxiety or depression. "Yoga forces people to take a break from their daily lives and focus only on themselves," says New York City-based neuropsychologist, Dr. Sanam Hafeez M.D. "It teaches people to become emotionally stable, mindful, and concentrated."

Whether you're a yoga newbie or have mastered the art of Vinyasa, don't go another second without knowing the full benefits of this ancient practice. So, grab a yoga mat and get ready because you'll definitely want to get your savasana on after learning about these positive effects.

The mental benefits of yoga:

It regulates and boosts your mood.

According to Harvard Medical School, yoga can affect mood by increasing a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is associated with better mood. Dr. Hafeez also says that the brain can release other feel-good chemicals. "During a yoga class, the brain releases chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, which regulate moods and increase pleasure," she says.

Additionally, because of the mediative component in yoga, it can help regulate emotions. "Meditation reduces activity in the limbic system, which is a part of the brain dedicated to emotions," reports Harvard Health Publishing. As emotional reactivity decreases, you may notice that you encounter stressful situations more level-headed and calm. 

It reduces stress.

"Yoga can interfere with the brain's ability to release stress hormones," says Dr. Hafeez, which is why after a yoga session, you tend to feel more relaxed and calm. According to studies done by the National Library of Medicine, yoga creates a physiological response opposite of the flight-or-fight stress response. When your body isn't in a flight-or-fight state, it creates a sense of balance between the mind and body.

The same study found that yoga had positive impacts on cancer patients. While it is by no means a cure for cancer, yoga did promote better healing for cancer patients because of its ability to reduce stress. "The growth of tumors and other cancer indicators are exacerbated by stress, thus it is especially important for people with cancer to reduce and manage stress effectively," reports the National Library of Medicine.

It helps create a sharper brain.

Doing yoga can keep your brain sharp and young. According to a Harvard Health article, doing yoga can develop new brain connections, resulting in improved cognitive skills like learning and memory.

It can also help strengthen parts of the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are parts of the brain responsible for information processing, memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language. These areas tend to shrink with age, but studies using MRI scans showed that people who regularly did yoga had a thicker cerebral cortex and hippocampus compared to those who didn't do any yoga. "This suggests that yoga may counteract age-related declines in memory and other cognitive skills," states Harvard Health.

It can help you sleep.

Studies evaluating yoga's effect on sleep quality and insomnia showed promising results. Because yoga increases relaxation, the study showed that the people who regularly practiced it experienced a significant decrease in the time taken to fall asleep, an increase in the total number of hours slept, and felt more rested in the morning.

national survey also found that over 55% of people who did yoga reported improved sleep. Another 12-week study published in the Journal Alternative Therapies In Health and Medicine looked at the effectiveness of yoga in treating insomnia in adults older than 60. They found that the yoga group reported significant improvements in overall sleep quality, sleep duration, and sleep efficiency.

It decreases anxiety.

"The movements in yoga can reduce heart rate, which is beneficial for those suffering from anxiety," says Dr. Hafeez. She also explains that because yoga requires you to focus on your breathing and body, it's helpful to keep your mind in the present instead of any future uncertainties.

A 2007 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine also showed that an hour of yoga increased levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) by 27%, which can counteract anxiety and other psychiatric disorders, reports the American Psychological Association.

It promotes mindfulness.

Studies show that when practicing yoga, there's an emphasis on accepting one's moment-to-moment experiences creating mindfulness and not forcing the body past its comfortable limits. "It requires a person to focus on the now and not become preoccupied with the future or the past," says Dr. Hafeez. "The challenging poses force a person to concentrate on their body's movements and can improve focus." 

Consider yoga the ultimate act of self-care. So, let this be your sign to sign up for an upcoming yoga class near you or search for poses on YouTube. Whatever you choose, your mind and body will thank you.