silhouetted woman on mountain in warrior 2 pose benefits of yoga for mental health

Beyond the Mat: 7 Ways Yoga can benefit your Mental Health

Over the past few weeks, we’ve explored the importance of mindfulness, meditation, and self-care. We’ve emphasised making time for yourself in your busy schedule, urging you to prioritise your well-being. This week, we’re diving into how yoga can benefit your mental health.

While many recognise yoga as a physical practice, it’s much more than that. Yoga is one of eight limbs of a holistic discipline that nurtures both body and mind. If you’ve attended a yoga class, you know it goes beyond mere exercise or stretching. Yoga has the potential to help manage a wide range of stress-related issues and illnesses by creating a deep connection between your body and mind.

Before we dive into the seven ways yoga can positively impact your mental health, let’s look at the benefits of yoga in general.

The Benefits of Yoga: More Than Just Exercise

Numerous studies* highlight yoga’s effectiveness in alleviating depression symptoms, reducing fatigue, and easing anxiety. It acts as a buffer against stress, boosting self-confidence and self-esteem. Yoga is particularly beneficial for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), helping manage both mental and physical symptoms, such as flashbacks and re-traumatisation. By targeting stress, anxiety, fear, and depression, yoga provides a comprehensive approach to mental well-being.

Many people think of yoga as a gentle form of exercise, but regular and consistent practice offers profound benefits with minimal strain on the joints, promoting relaxation and well-being.

Physical Benefits of Yoga

Regular practice enhances your body’s flexibility and can help alleviate chronic pain. It can reduce sleep disturbances, promoting restful nights. Practicing Yoga regularly builds muscle strength without the strain of high-impact exercises. It can aid in reducing obesity and can assist with weight management. Other fantastic benefits include improved heart health: Yoga promotes healthy heart rates and improves cardiovascular function. It also supports overall kidney health. For women over 40 there is much research now to show that practicing yoga can lessen symptoms associated with menopause. All of these benefits will boost confidence and self-esteem by fostering a positive self-image and increased sociability.  By incorporating yoga into your routine, you can experience these wide-ranging benefits, making it a powerful practice for both mental and physical health.

Yoga and Brain Health: Developing New Connections and Strengthening Key Areas

Yoga is not just beneficial for physical flexibility and stress reduction; it also has profound effects on brain and mental health. Research has shown that yoga can develop new connections in the brain and strengthen areas involved in memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language. Various parts of the brain have different roles and outputs. Let’s look at some of these different parts how yoga impacts them, resulting in improved mental health!

Key Areas Strengthened by Yoga

The Hippocampus is involved in memory formation and spatial navigation and studies suggest that regular yoga practice can increase the size of the hippocampus. This is particularly beneficial for improving memory and protecting against age-related cognitive decline.  Then there’s the Prefrontal Cortex, responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, attention, and self-control. Yoga practices, especially those involving meditation, have been shown to enhance the thickness of the prefrontal cortex. This can improve attention span, cognitive processing, and emotional regulation.  The Amygdala processes emotions such as fear and pleasure. Many women their 40s become more anxious and afraid and have less and less pleasure in their lives.  Regular yoga practice can reduce the size of the amygdala, leading to lower levels of stress and anxiety. This helps manage emotional responses more effectively.

Then we have the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). This plays a role in emotion regulation, impulse control, and decision-making. Fluctuating hormones can leave us with brain fog and memory lapses and increased anxiety.  Yoga has been associated with increased activity and structural changes in the ACC, which can enhance emotional stability and cognitive flexibility.  Finally, the Default Mode Network (DMN) is involved in self-referential thoughts and mind-wandering. When we are overwhelmed due to all that life throws at us yoga and meditation can reduce activity in the DMN.  This leads to fewer distractions and a greater ability to focus on the present moment.

Yoga’s Impact on Stress Hormones and Brain Chemicals

As oestrogen levels lower in perimenopause, cortisol levels rise and yoga is well-known for its ability to reduce stress and enhance overall well-being. One of the key mechanisms behind these benefits involves the regulation of stress hormones and the increase of beneficial brain chemicals.  Cortisol, is often referred to as the “stress hormone”. It is released in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration can be significantly reduced with regular yoga practice. Lower cortisol levels help mitigate the body’s stress response, leading to improved mood and reduced anxiety.  Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is another hormone released during the body’s fight-or-flight response.  By promoting relaxation and reducing overall stress levels, yoga helps lower adrenaline levels, contributing to a calmer state of mind.

Yoga increases beneficial brain chemicals such as endorphins. These neurotransmitters are known as “feel-good” chemicals because they act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. Yoga, stimulates the production of endorphins. This can lead to feelings of euphoria and general well-being, often referred to as the “yoga high.” Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that inhibits or slows down brain activity, producing a calming effect. It is crucial for regulating anxiety and maintaining mental balance. Studies have found that yoga increases GABA levels in the brain. Higher GABA levels are associated with reduced anxiety and improved mood.

How Yoga Develops New Connections

Yoga promotes neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. This process is crucial for learning and adapting to new experiences.

The mechanisms behind these changes are things like

  • Breath control (Pranayama): Controlled breathing techniques used in yoga increase oxygen supply to the brain and help balance the autonomic nervous system, which can improve brain function and emotional regulation. Controlled breathing exercises stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing the production of stress hormones.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices encourage a state of focused attention and awareness, stimulating the growth of new neurons and strengthening existing neural pathways.
  • Physical Movement and Postures (Asanas): The physical aspect of yoga, including different postures and sequences, enhances blood flow and oxygenation to the brain. This supports brain health and cognitive functions. This physiological improvement supports the production of beneficial brain chemicals and reduces stress hormones.

These components of yoga help shift the brain from a state of stress (sympathetic nervous system activation) to a state of rest and digestion (parasympathetic nervous system activation). This shift is associated with lower cortisol levels and increased production of calming neurotransmitters like GABA.

7 benefits of Yoga for Mental Health 

1.  Reduces Stress and Anxiety:  Regular yoga practice helps lower stress levels, allowing you to handle life’s challenges with more ease. Yoga incorporates deep breathing, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing cortisol levels (the stress hormone). By focusing on your breath and body, you can shift your attention away from stressors and create a sense of calm.

2. Enhances Self-Awareness: Turning inward during yoga helps you understand your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, fostering greater self-awareness. As you practice, you become more attuned to your body’s signals and your mind’s patterns. This self-awareness can help you recognize and manage your emotional triggers, leading to better mental health and personal growth.

3.  Improves Focus and Concentration: Yoga trains your mind to stay present, which enhances your ability to focus and concentrate in daily tasks. The practice of maintaining poses and synchronizing breath with movement requires mental discipline. This focus carries over into your daily life, helping you stay on task and be more productive.

4.  Supports Better Sleep: Gentle yoga sequences before bed can help you wind down, leading to improved sleep quality. Yoga promotes relaxation and reduces stress, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Poses that involve gentle stretching and deep breathing can soothe the nervous system and prepare your body for rest.

5.  Promotes Emotional Healing: Yoga provides a safe space to process and release pent-up emotions, promoting inner peace and emotional resilience. The combination of physical movement, breathwork, and meditation allows you to explore and release emotional blockages. This can lead to profound emotional healing, helping you to feel more balanced and connected to yourself.

6.  Boosts Mood and Emotional Resilience: Yoga stimulates the release of feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine, enhancing your mood and overall happiness. The physical activity combined with mindfulness practices in yoga helps to combat symptoms of depression and anxiety. Over time, this can lead to increased emotional resilience, allowing you to bounce back more quickly from negative experiences.

7.  Encourages Mindfulness: Practicing yoga encourages mindfulness, helping you stay grounded and present in the moment. Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of the present without judgment. Yoga integrates this by focusing on the breath, movement, and sensations in the body, which can reduce rumination and increase your sense of peace and clarity.


Integrating yoga into your routine can significantly boost your mental health by developing new brain connections and strengthening critical areas responsible for memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language. By promoting neuroplasticity and enhancing overall brain function, yoga serves as a powerful tool for maintaining and improving cognitive health.

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*Supporting Research:

  1. Gothe, N. P., Keswani, R. K., & McAuley, E. (2016). Yoga Practice Improves Executive Function by Attenuating Stress and Anxiety Levels in Older Adults. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 71(9), 1198-1204.

    • This study highlights how yoga enhances cognitive functions and reduces stress and anxiety, which in turn benefits brain health.

  1. Froeliger, B., Garland, E. L., & McClernon, F. J. (2012). Yoga Meditation Practitioners Exhibit Greater Gray Matter Volume and Fewer Cognitive Failures: Results of a Preliminary Voxel-Based Morphometric Analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

    • The research shows that regular yoga practitioners have greater gray matter volume in various brain regions involved in cognitive functions.

  1. Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.

    • This book discusses how practices like yoga can help rewire the brain and heal from trauma by developing new neural connections.

  1. Gothe, N. P., Pontifex, M. B., Hillman, C. H., & McAuley, E. (2013). The Acute Effects of Yoga on Executive Function. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 10(4), 488-495.

    • This article provides evidence on how a single session of yoga can immediately enhance brain function and cognitive performance.

Streeter, C. C., Whitfield, T. H., Owen, L., Rein, T., Karri, S. K., Yakhkind, A., Perlmutter, R., & Jensen, J. E. (2010). Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomized controlled MRS study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(11), 1145-1152.

This study found that yoga practice increased GABA levels more significantly than walking, highlighting yoga’s unique benefits for reducing anxiety and improving mood.

Saeed, S. A., Antonacci, D. J., & Bloch, R. M. (2010). Exercise, yoga, and meditation for depressive and anxiety disorders. American Family Physician, 81(8), 981-986.

This article reviews evidence showing that yoga can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression by modulating the production of stress hormones and enhancing beneficial neurotransmitters.

Ross, A., & Thomas, S. (2010). The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(1), 3-12.

The review discusses various studies indicating that yoga can lower cortisol levels and increase endorphin production, providing comprehensive mental health benefits.

Field, T. (2011). Yoga clinical research review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 17(1), 1-8.

This review highlights numerous clinical studies that demonstrate yoga’s ability to reduce cortisol levels and increase the production of neurotransmitters like GABA, contributing to better mental health.



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silhouetted woman on mountain in warrior 2 pose benefits of yoga for mental health

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About The Author
Jacqueline Toner

loves to help women over 40 regain vitality, energy and find their sense of self again using Yoga, Mindfulness and Breathing Techniques

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