For those who partake of yoga, it is often seen as a way of life. It’s not just going to a class once or twice a week, but engaging in daily practice of yoga and mindfulness. There are many different styles and types of yoga, too, each with its own practices and guidelines.
Many practitioners and teachers of yoga claim it offers benefits for one’s mental health. It seems like an obvious conclusion, given that most yoga focuses on exploring one’s inner world of consciousness.
But what does the research show?
For her postdoctoral fellowship (2018), researcher Rita Domingues decided to explore modern postural yoga as a tool for helping to promote beneficial mental health practices. She begins by giving us a brief overview of yoga:
Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice originated in the Indian subcontinent more than 5000 years ago. Yoga can be defined as a science of the mind; instead of exploring the outer world as other sciences, yoga is concerned with exploring the inner world and unleashing the power and knowledge contained within. The main goal of the yoga practitioner is to achieve samadhi, a state of higher consciousness, through a multitude of practices.
In Western cultures, modern yoga is generally done as an asana-based practice — called postural yoga — that emphasizes physical postures, with varying degrees of meditation and breathing techniques thrown in. As Domingues notes, “Popular yoga styles such as ashtanga vinyasa, power, vinyasa flow, iyengar, bikram, jivamukti, hatha, among others, fall into this category of body-oriented [postural yoga] practices.”
Does Yoga Improve Your Mental Health?
The researcher conducted a literature search and discovered 89 studies that examined the impact of yoga on various mental health measures. These mental health measures included one’s emotional state, mindfulness, resilience, life satisfaction, overall mental well-being, among other characteristics examined. Whittling down the number of studies resulted in a total of only 14 that could be examined due to the researcher’s inclusion criteria.
Subject groups in each study ranged from 8 to 164 participants. The factor most examined in the 14 studies was mindfulness:
[M]indfulness is described as moment-to-moment awareness, and can be developed by purposefully paying attention to external and internal events (perceptions, sensations, emotions, etc.), with a non-judgmental attitude . This deliberate act of paying attention without judging is a basic mental skill  that can be developed through formal practices, such as yoga and meditation, and informal practices, by deliberately focusing the attention on routine tasks.
“Of the five studies that evaluated mindfulness as an outcome variable, four of them showed significant increases in self-reported levels of mindfulness as a result of yoga practice,” noted Domingues. She found mixed, contradictory results for emotional state, likely suggesting that yoga doesn’t help with a person’s emotional state.
Out of three yoga studies that looked at resilience — the ability to thrive in the face of adversity — only one showed beneficial effects of yoga.
Other characteristics studies had either weak or contradictory evidence, including life satisfaction and overall mental well-being.
The researcher noted a number of problems with research studies examining yoga, including a short period of measurement, frequency of yoga interventions that don’t match typical real-world scenarios, and lack of follow-up data and measurements. Yoga practices were often not adequately described in the studies, making cross-study comparisons and conclusions more difficult, too.
What Does this Mean for Yoga & Mental Health?
In short, it means that there’s not a lot of rigorous research out there that even attempts to measure the positive benefits of yoga for a person’s mental health. In the relatively few studies that do exist, the data are clearest for helping to promote and improve mindfulness.
Other mental health benefits of yoga are less clear and strong. While it may help benefit your emotional state — what you’re feeling in the moment — and resilience, it may also not do much for these factors.
Yoga carries very few negative side effects, other than the time commitment to practicing it on a regular basis. While it’s unlikely to have a significant impact on your mental health, it appears that it may help some people with some aspects of it. Looking for something new to try in the new year? Maybe yoga is worth exploring.
Domingues, R.B. (2018). Modern postural yoga as a mental health promoting tool: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 31, 248-255.