Last night when I walked out of a vinyasa flow yoga class, I felt that warm, glowing, calm energy that keeps me coming back to my mat day after day. I was thinking about this feeling, the “yoga glow”, and decided it is the exact opposite feeling of anxiety and depression. It’s more than feeling well-rested and rejuvenated, and it’s different than the endorphin kick of a great cardio workout. My heart feels settled, my body feels light, and my head feels clear and calm. What’s happening in my brain to make me feel so chilled out and happy?
There are, of course, multiple reasons why a yoga practice makes you feel great – body, mind and spirit. But in particular, the activity of one little neurotransmitter, GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid), really sparked my interest to learn more. You see, GABA is mostly an inhibitory neurotransmitter, similar to serotonin. This means when we are stressed, frantic, or excited, GABA sends signals to tell the brain the chill out and calm down. In yoga speak, we might say it quiets the fluctuations of the mind. Studies show that GABA activity is measurably higher after a yoga session.
Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, New York Medical College and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons hypothesized that low activity of GABA in the brain is linked with chronic pain, depression, anxiety and even PTSD. Studies show that a regular yoga practice can help keep your GABA levels up, helping to ward off the aforementioned issues. I say regular because you can’t try one class and expect your GABA high to carry you through the next week. Its just like sleep. Even though you slept well last night, you still need to head to bed tonight to feel good tomorrow!
If you really love to nerd out on studies, check this out: The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. This study compares the effects on brain chemistry of yoga compared to walking for exercise.
Or you could just take my word for it: Yoga is one of the best things you can do to keep calm and be happy.