Objectives: Yoga and exercise have beneficial effects on mood and anxiety. γ-Aminobutyric acid (GABA)-ergic activity is reduced in mood and anxiety disorders. The practice of yoga postures is associated with increased brain GABA levels. This study addresses the question of whether changes in mood, anxiety, and GABA levels are specific to yoga or related to physical activity.
Methods: Healthy subjects with no significant medical/psychiatric disorders were randomized to yoga or a metabolically matched walking intervention for 60 minutes 3 times a week for 12 weeks. Mood and anxiety scales were taken at weeks 0, 4, 8, 12, and before each magnetic resonance spectroscopy scan. Scan 1 was at baseline. Scan 2, obtained after the 12-week intervention, was followed by a 60-minute yoga or walking intervention, which was immediately followed by Scan 3.
Results: The yoga subjects (n = 19) reported greater improvement in mood and greater decreases in anxiety than the walking group (n = 15). There were positive correlations between improved mood and decreased anxiety and thalamic GABA levels. The yoga group had positive correlations between changes in mood scales and changes in GABA levels.
Conclusions: The 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a metabolically matched walking exercise. This is the first study to demonstrate that increased thalamic GABA levels are associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. It is also the first time that a behavioral intervention (i.e., yoga postures) has been associated with a positive correlation between acute increases in thalamic GABA levels and improvements in mood and anxiety scales. Given that pharmacologic agents that increase the activity of the GABA system are prescribed to improve mood and decrease anxiety, the reported correlations are in the expected direction. The possible role of GABA in mediating the beneficial effects of yoga on mood and anxiety warrants further study.