Yoga for Mood & Well-Being

Photo by Patrick Hendry.

What is Yoga?

Yoga literally means "union" and refers to the union of mind and body. Yoga is a holistic practice that emphasizes mind-body connectedness and involves postures, breathing, and meditation. Yoga is a 5000-year-old practice that began in India. Western science and health professionals recognize yoga as a powerful tool for promoting mental and physical well-being. Essentially, yoga is a preventative and cost-effective approach to overall well-being. Yoga is not a religion. Although yoga sometimes interweaves elements from religions and philosophies such as Hinduism or Buddhism, it is not necessary to adhere to a particular religious practice or philosophy to practice yoga. It is also not necessary to change your own religious beliefs to practice yoga.


Yoga and Psychological Well-Being

By now, it’s no secret that the regular practice of yoga results in many physical benefits, such as improved flexibility, strength, and posture. However, the psychological, cognitive, and emotional benefits of yoga are often overlooked. These may include:

  • Cognitive benefits, such as improved concentration and mental clarity, better memory and retention, and improved focus
  • Decline in self-destructive patterns
  • Greater creativity
  • Heightened sense of awareness and control of one’s body and mind
  • Increased ability to be present in the moment
  • Increased emotional stability
  • Increased self-awareness and self-acceptance, including body acceptance
  • Improved sleep
  • More positive view of others
  • Reduced depression
  • Reduced stress and anxiety, increased calm

The benefits of yoga are intensely interwoven: According to Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine, “Change your posture and you change the way you breathe. Change your breathing and you change your nervous system. This is one of the great lessons of yoga: Everything is connected …”


Yoga Practice Basics: Their Effects on Mood and Well-Being

There are many forms of yoga. The most popular in Western culture is Hatha yoga, which involves “the three basics of yoga”: postures (called “asanas” in Sanskrit), breathing techniques, and meditation.

Postures (Asanas)

In yoga, the body is viewed as the outer manifestation of the mind, and the mind can be influenced by altering body posture. The way we carry ourselves influences the way we feel. If a person walks around with their chest collapsed, head down, and gaze lowered, they probably won’t feel very good about themselves. Your perspective on your body, your thoughts, and your whole sense of self can change when you adopt different postures. Yoga postures strengthen, purify, and balance the endocrine, nervous, and circulatory systems. For example, inverted postures are useful for altering blood flow. Increased blood flow to the brain results in increased availability of oxygen and glucose. This leads to increased production of certain neurotransmitters, which in turn enhances one’s mood and state of well-being. Yoga postures are a form of meditation in motion, calming the mind and cultivating a state of relaxed but alert concentration. The postures help to release built-up tension and emotional stress, which burrow into the muscles of the body. As the body relaxes, the breath naturally becomes balanced. When the breath comes into balance, the mind relaxes and becomes quiet.


Shallow breathing can create a state of arousal in the sympathetic nervous system, which can lead to anxiety, panic, and fear. Yogic breathing exercises decrease arousal, which in turn calms and focuses the mind, relaxes the body, oxygenates the blood, soothes anxiety and stress, and promotes clear thinking. The intense concentration and body control involved in breathing exercises help free the mind from mental distractions, worries, and fatigue.


Meditation is a type of inward concentration that allows us to focus on our senses, step back from our thoughts and feelings, and perceive each moment as a unique event. It helps us to develop greater calmness, clarity, and insight in facing and embracing life experiences. Two types of meditation techniques are concentrative meditation, which uses a word (mantra), object (e.g., candle flame), or sensation (e.g., breathing) to focus the mind, and mindfulness meditation, which involves allowing your thoughts, feelings, and images to float through your mind without reacting. In mindfulness, you are simply observing the thoughts and feelings with a detached and nonjudgmental perspective as "mental events" rather than getting caught up in them. Through practice, you become more skilled at stepping back and observing without reacting. Mindfulness meditation helps us to cultivate self-acceptance and recognize that we are not defined by our emotions.


Recommendations and Precautions

  • For people with moderate to severe mental health issues, yoga is not a substitute for psychotherapy or medication. Rather, yoga is recommended as an adjunct to talk therapy or medication to facilitate the process of psychological healing.
  • Consult your medical doctor or holistic health care professional (preferably one who is familiar with yoga) prior to performing yoga’s physical postures or beginning any new exercise program.
  • Whereas there are some great online and self-help yoga resources, beginners and those with injuries or other health conditions that may be aggravated by exercise should consider working with a certified yoga instructor to ensure that yoga is practiced safely and correctly.


Research on Yoga and Mental Health

  • Studies by Richard Davidson, Ph.D., at the University of Wisconsin have found that the prefrontal cortex shows heightened activity in meditators, a finding that has been correlated with greater levels of happiness and better immune function.
  • A 2001 study in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology showed that participants who practiced yoga consistently for 10 months were less anxious and depressed, both during and after their months of yoga practice.
  • By improving circulation in the endocrine glands, a consistent yoga practice enhances the functions of hormones that play a primary role in the physiology of depression. This results in a reduction in depression and improved overall mood.
  • Controlled studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of yoga on anxiety states. Regular yoga practice improves functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system, which activates the relaxation response.
  • Scandinavian researchers measured brain waves before and after a 2-hour yoga class and found that alpha waves (relaxation) and theta waves (unconscious memory, dreams, emotions) increased significantly. These results indicate that the brain is deeply relaxed after yoga and that participants have better awareness of their subconscious and emotions.


“When you practice yoga … your perspective on your body, your thoughts, and your whole sense of self can change …” —John Kabat-Zin, Ph.D.


Campus and Community Resources

Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) offers a variety of groups and workshops designed to reduce stress and teach relaxation techniques that may include mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. If you wish to find out more about CAPS’ services or schedule a first screening appointment so we can learn about your concerns and make recommendations, call 831-459-2628 during business hours.

There are often yoga classes and meditation groups offered on campus. Some of these are free for students, staff, and faculty. Check out classes and groups offered by OPERS and your college, and take a look at the CAPS website and Facebook page for additional resources.

The Santa Cruz area has a variety of yoga studios and meditation centers. A quick online search will help you find a class off campus that meets your needs. Some studios offer “community classes,” which are lower in cost or donation based (and sometimes even free) to allow those with a limited income to attend.


Other Resources


Black Yoga Teachers Alliance: A space for black teachers, students, practitioners, healers, and enthusiasts to discuss yoga and wellness, share information, build a network, and get to know one another.

Body Positive Yoga on YouTube: A YouTube channel offering low-pressure, judgment-free yoga videos for big bodies, creaky joints, and beginners taught by Amber Karnes, “a big yogi with a big heart.”

Decolonizing Yoga: Created as part of a protest related to labor union issues at a yoga conference, this site highlights the voices of queer people, people of color, disability activists, and more in relationship to yoga, spirituality, and social justice.

Do Yoga With Me: A site offering a wide variety of free and donation-based online yoga classes. Users can also subscribe to the site for a small monthly fee to access additional services and resources and support the free classes.

Yoga Journal: Offers a variety of articles and other resources on yoga and meditation.

The Yoga Room: A closed Facebook group where members who join can connect and access yoga videos and other resources.


  • Minding the Body, Mending the Mind by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.
  • Moving Toward Balance: 8 Weeks of Yoga with Rodney Yee by Rodney Yee and Nina Zolotow
  • Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson, Elizabeth Hopper, Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, and Stephen Cope
  • Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times by Judith Lasater, P.T., Ph.D.
  • Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga by Amy Weintraub
  • The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide by Richard Rosen
  • Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body by Melanie Klein
  • Yoga Rx by Larry Payne, PhD and Richard Usatine, M.D.


Adapted from a fact sheet created for Counseling & Psychological Services at the University of California, Santa Cruz, by Jill Fuselier, Psy.D.