Certainly yoga improves flexibility, strength, balance, and coordination. But what about mood? Can asana–the “mere” act of doing a pose–affect your mental state?
Iyengar yogis would say, “Of course.” In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar describes poses not only in terms of technique, but also in their effects on body and mind. Further, the realm of yoga therapy addresses not only physical but mental conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Anecdotally we’d probably all agree that we simply feel better after doing asana (even a single pose).
But is there proof of effects on mood? A quick Google search found a few articles, such as “Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels” in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and “Mood Changes Associated with Iyengar Yoga Practices” in The International Journal of Yoga Therapy. There are also books on topic, such as Mending the Body, Mending the Mind by Joan Borysenko and Yoga for Depression by Amy Weintraub. (Note: I’m not necessarily vouching for the credibility of these works, but they do show that scholars are investigating the yoga-mood connection.)
Actually, what inspired this post was an October 2012 TED Talk, “Your body language shapes who you are,” by Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School. She is a social psychologist who studies nonverbal behavior (also known as body language): its effects on social dynamics and on self image. (I stumbled upon this video, which turned out to be the 9th most-viewed TED Talk, with over 6.6 million views, to date. It’s worth your 20 minutes to watch to the end.)
Her faculty bio sums it up well:
[Cuddy's] latest research illuminates how “faking” body postures that convey competence and power (“power posing”)–even for as little as two minutes–changes our testosterone and cortisol levels, increases our appetite for risk, causes us to perform better in job interviews, and generally configures our brains to cope well in stressful situations. In short, as David Brooks summarized the findings, “If you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully.”
If two minutes of “strong” poses (such as arms raised overhead in “victory”) makes a difference, imagine what yoga can do. Arms up in the air? We do that all the time, from Urdhva Hastasana to Virabhadrasana I to, flipping the body upside-down, Adho Mukha Svanasana and Adho Mukha Vrksasana. And look at the “weak” body language: collapsed chest, rounded back, dropped head. In Iyengar yoga those are the no-no’s!
In other words, while explicit positive language might help, it’s not essential. In Cuddy’s example, an effective way to prep before a job interview is not self talk, but a confidence-building pose. Likewise, to boost mood or attitude, you could opt for years of talk therapy, or you could do yoga and inhabit your body–and mind–in a better way.
Image: Urdhva Hastasana, Christine Park