Study: Yoga Eases Depression by Changing Brain Chemistry

A new study found that yoga therapy—including postures, meditation and breathing techniques—can actually help to alleviate anxiety or depression by boosting levels of feel-good hormones in the brain.

The study, conducted at the Boston University School of Medicine, found higher levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) in participants’ brains after they completed a one-hour yoga session. Low brain levels of GABA are associated with anxiety and depression.

The study examined eight long-time yogis and eleven non-practitioners, none of whom had a diagnosed mental illness. Brain scans were taken to get base levels, and then the yoga group was led through a 60-minute meditative practice. The non-yoga participants were asked to read quietly for an hour. The scans taken afterwards showed a 27 percent increase in the brain GABA levels of the participants doing yoga. The non-yoga group showed no change in GABA levels.

The results of the study are promising, but more research into yoga for depression and anxiety needs to be undertaken for it to be understood. For example, is GABA the only neurotransmitter it affects, or can it also change the brain’s levels of serotonin, the main NT associated with anxiety and depression?

Nevertheless, the findings are still a breakthrough. While yoga for anxiety and depression has long been a topic of interest for scientists and the public alike, this is the first study to have documented a measurable change in neurotransmitter levels that occurred with practicing yoga. These findings are helping to legitimize what yoga therapists and practitioners have long thought: that yoga therapy is a good supplement to other forms of mental health treatment and can help improve emotional well-being.