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Yoga is an ancient practice that involves movement, meditation, and breathing techniques to promote mental and physical wellbeing. The overall philosophy of yoga is about connecting the mind, body, and spirit. Today, yoga is a popular form of exercise across the world. The various methods of yoga have many benefits in the recovery process, including relieving stress, decreasing anxiety, and even promoting changes in the brain.

What Is GABA?

GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain. Neurotransmitters function as chemical messengers, and GABA is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA blocks specific brain signals and decreases activity in the nervous system.

When GABA attaches to the protein GABA receptor, it produces a calming effect. This calming effect can help reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, fear, and may even help prevent seizures. As a result of this, GABA has become a popular supplement. However, there may be a natural way to promote GABA in the brain: yoga.

GABA and Yoga’s Influence on Stress

Evidence points to yoga reducing stress, which often involves changes in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. GABA receptors are known to be influenced by stress and stress hormones such as cortisol. Agents known to influence stress have been shown to act directly on GABA receptors, including medications such as benzodiazepines. However, yoga has been described as a non-pharmacological alternative to benzodiazepines to treat anxiety. When yoga works to increase GABA levels, the increased activity of GABA results in the relief of anxiety and stress.

Depression, Yoga, and GABA

A recent study published by the Boston University School of Medicine found that yoga can increase GABA in the short term. They concluded that one yoga class per week could even help maintain elevated GABA levels and, in turn, could help relieve depression symptoms.

In the study, a group of 30 individuals diagnosed with depression were randomly divided into two groups. Both groups engaged in two types of yoga — Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing — with the only difference being the number of sessions each group participated in. Over three months, one group was assigned three yoga sessions per week, while the other group was given only two sessions per week. The participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains before the first yoga session and after the last yoga session. They also completed a clinical depression scale to monitor their symptoms.

The study results found that both groups experienced an improvement in their depression symptoms after three months. MRI scans found that, after three months, GABA levels were elevated compared to the first MRI scan before starting the yoga sessions. However, GABA levels only remained at an increase for four days after the last session; after eight days, the increase was no longer observed. According to Chris Streeter, MD, associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine, “The study suggests that the associated increase in GABA levels after a yoga session are ‘time-limited’ similar to that of pharmacologic treatments such that completing one session of yoga per week may maintain elevated levels of GABA.”

Yoga Can Increase GABA in the Brain

Various other studies have shown an association between yoga and increased GABA levels. One study used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to measure GABA levels in the brain. Researchers compared the effects of a 60-minute yoga session by yoga practitioners with a 60-minute reading session by comparator subjects on GABA levels in the brain. The results found a 27% increase in GABA levels following 60 minutes of yoga than before a yoga session. They found no change in the comparator group.

In another study, participants who went through twelve weeks of yoga (60 minutes three times a week) demonstrated more significant improvement in mood and reduced anxiety than participants who engaged in twelve weeks of walking (60 minutes three times a week).

Other Benefits of Yoga in Recovery

Besides increasing GABA levels in the brain, yoga has various other benefits to the recovery process. Yoga can also:

  • Improve blood flow: Changing positions in yoga helps you naturally stretch the various muscles throughout the body. By doing so, the muscles become much more receptive to increased blood flow.
  • Promote restful sleep: Encouraging your body to relax through yoga has the potential to help you sleep better, especially if you struggle with insomnia.
  • Build self-confidence and self-esteem: Yoga is a type of exercise that offers challenges and rewards. Each successful accomplishment can instill a sense of gratification that leads to improved confidence and self-esteem.

Many treatment programs introduce clients to yoga due to its various benefits to the recovery process. Yoga can bring physical, mental, and spiritual benefits; it can even produce changes in the brain. Multiple studies have shown the relationship between yoga and GABA, a neurotransmitter that produces calming effects. The increase in GABA presented by yoga can help relieve depression symptoms, stress levels, and anxiety. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we have seen the benefits of yoga in recovery, which is why we choose to implement the practice into our treatment plans. Through various traditional and non-traditional therapeutic modalities, West Coast Recovery Centers will create an individualized treatment plan that will fit your needs. We believe that genuine individualized care fosters a more profound and more effective healing process. That’s why we’re passionate about building an intimate recovery community, so no one is ever lost in translation. For more information on yoga, GABA, and the programs offered at West Coast Recovery Centers, call (760) 492-6509.