Yoga as a Tool for Self-Regulation

Over the last decade, there has been a growing amount of research on the benefits of yoga. Studies on yoga’s impact on cancer, pregnancy, depression, and anxiety—to name just a few—have allowed yoga to move from the periphery of health care toward increased respect from scientists, mental-health clinicians, and medical practitioners. Yet, to date, the research has lacked a unifying theory that can help health and scientific professionals understand why yoga can be a potent agent of change. Until now.

Recently, I was among a group of interdisciplinary researchers who gathered at Kripalu to examine exactly why the practice of yoga might foster the benefits that are now being shown by science. Bringing our respective expertise in the fields of neuroscience, health science, and human physiology, we collectively explored the questions, What is the overall impact of yoga? Why does it work?

Our conclusion? Yoga—and, by yoga, we mean the full, eight-limbed path of yoga—is a comprehensive practice of self-regulation, one that facilitates change not only mentally but also behaviorally.

Yoga supports self-regulation.

Self-regulation refers to the ability to manage one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in such a way as to maintain adherence to one’s overall life goals and intentions. It’s the difference between yelling at your partner when you’re angry versus talking things out, between binging on doughnuts when you’re attempting to maintain a healthy diet versus practicing self-care. Self-regulation is something we each do with various degrees of success every day. Lack of self-regulation leads to depression, anxiety, obesity, even criminal behavior. It’s an essential life skill.

Self-regulation is what we saw as the primary benefit that the comprehensive practice of yoga offers—a variety of tools (as we will explore below) that support the regulation of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

The researchers, including Dave Vago and Jessica Noggle of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Crystal Park of the University of Connecticut, Tim Gard of Massachusetts General Hospital, and myself, explored how yoga supports self-regulation. And we looked at yoga not just as a form of physical practice, but also at its historical roots, from the perspective of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga, stemming from Raja Yoga. We hypothesized that it wasn’t only the postures that produced effects, but the other limbs as well—the breathing, the meditation, and the teachings on ethics (the yamas and niyamas)—all help to enhance self-regulation.

Our key finding? Yoga provides both “top-down” tools (that is, tools that impact the mind) as well as “bottom-up tools” (tools that impact the body), and it is this synergistic effect, unique to yoga, which creates the most impact.

Yoga tools impact both body and mind.

Top-down tools impact the mind directly and then have a trickle-down effect on the body and behavior. Meditation, for example, can help us stay present to different sensations and experiences, which can help mediate rumination, improve our ability to manage emotions, and increase self-compassion. Ethical practice reduces the amount of mental and physical strain as we come to learn which behaviors feel better—for example, it feels better to tell the truth than to act deceitfully. By impacting the mind, we enhance life-giving behaviors and buffer against physical stress.

Yoga also offers bottom-up tools, the ones more often found in your typical yoga class, such as postures and breathing practices. These tools impact the body directly, which sends a message to the mind—it’s okay to relax. When you breathe and move with awareness, something changes mentally, even when you’re not consciously trying to change thought or emotion.

These bottom-up tools impact your physiology directly. They improve the function of the vagus nerve, which helps us calm down and relax, and they can improve heart rate variability, which is a measure of stress resilience. The outcome? Just by getting on the mat, moving the body, and consciously breathing, we improve our ability to respond to life with less stress and more discernment. Change the body and you will change the mind.

Yoga helps us manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

While there is still much research to be done to demonstrate yoga’s efficacy as a self-regulation tool, current studies are promising. Several studies demonstrate, for example, that yoga improves cognition: A study sponsored by the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living suggests that yoga boosts brain function in older adults; another study showed that alternate-nostril breathing improved performance on a cognitive task. Others studies have shown that yoga helps stabilize emotions and increase self-compassion. A study exploring Kripalu Yoga’s impact on teens’ well-being found that a semester-long yoga program reduced negative emotions, such as anger, among yoga students, compared to control subjects who took only physical education classes. While research on the positive effects of yoga on behavior change is minimal, one study showed that women in a yoga treatment group had higher rates of smoking abstinence than the control group, and this change persisted into the six-month follow-up. The evidence, while preliminary, is positive. Yoga can change the way we manage ourselves in the world.

Theory papers such as this one help shape how the scientific and health-related fields understand the impact of yoga. As medical professionals come to better understand yoga’s impact, the more likely it is that additional research will be conducted, supporting yoga’s continued integration into all aspects of our culture and society.

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