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. 2014 Sep 30;8:770.
doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00770. eCollection 2014.

Potential Self-Regulatory Mechanisms of Yoga for Psychological Health

Free PMC article

Potential Self-Regulatory Mechanisms of Yoga for Psychological Health

Tim Gard et al. Front Hum Neurosci. .
Free PMC article


Research suggesting the beneficial effects of yoga on myriad aspects of psychological health has proliferated in recent years, yet there is currently no overarching framework by which to understand yoga's potential beneficial effects. Here we provide a theoretical framework and systems-based network model of yoga that focuses on integration of top-down and bottom-up forms of self-regulation. We begin by contextualizing yoga in historical and contemporary settings, and then detail how specific components of yoga practice may affect cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and autonomic output under stress through an emphasis on interoception and bottom-up input, resulting in physical and psychological health. The model describes yoga practice as a comprehensive skillset of synergistic process tools that facilitate bidirectional feedback and integration between high- and low-level brain networks, and afferent and re-afferent input from interoceptive processes (somatosensory, viscerosensory, chemosensory). From a predictive coding perspective we propose a shift to perceptual inference for stress modulation and optimal self-regulation. We describe how the processes that sub-serve self-regulation become more automatized and efficient over time and practice, requiring less effort to initiate when necessary and terminate more rapidly when no longer needed. To support our proposed model, we present the available evidence for yoga affecting self-regulatory pathways, integrating existing constructs from behavior theory and cognitive neuroscience with emerging yoga and meditation research. This paper is intended to guide future basic and clinical research, specifically targeting areas of development in the treatment of stress-mediated psychological disorders.

Keywords: bottom-up; executive control; self-regulation; stress; top-down; viscerosomatic; yoga.


Systems network model of yoga for optimizing self-regulation. The major limbs of yoga are represented in blue boxes as a skillset of four process tools: ethics, meditation, breath regulation, and postures. Application of these skills (limbs of yoga) across cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and autonomic domains in the context of physical and emotional stress is proposed to generalize to similar challenges off the yoga mat and in everyday life. Together, these tools of yoga improve the efficiency, bidirectional feedback, and integration (+ black lines) between high- and low-level brain networks, and afferent and re-afferent input from interoceptive processes (e.g., multi-sensory, proprioceptive, vestibular, cardiovascular, pulmonary, musculoskeletal) in the context of stress. Through an emphasis on interoception and bottom-up input, integration facilitates inhibition (red lines) of maladaptive forms of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral output as well as autonomic output associated with stress. Efficiency improves the communication and flexibility between brain and bodily systems to inform behavioral output. Yoga’s four tools are described to involve particular regulatory processes associated with each set of brain networks (indicated in yellow boxes). With mastery of practice, regulatory processes become more automatized, requiring less effort to initiate when necessary and terminate more rapidly when no longer needed. A central executive network supports top-down mechanisms of attentional control and working memory allowing monitoring for proper goal-directed behavior followed by self-correction if needed. A FPCN supports executive monitoring, meta-awareness, reappraisal, and response inhibition mechanisms. A moral cognition network supports motivation and intention setting associated with self-care and prosocial behavior. The dorsal attention network helps to support attentional orienting, and engagement. Hypothlamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis communication with brainstem vagal efferents support parasympathetic control and homeostasis across systems. A striatopallidal–thalamocortical network is responsible for facilitating extinction learning and reconsolidation of maladaptive habits into behavior that is aligned with intentions and outcomes into adaptive habits. Dotted lines represent new, adaptive pathways for responding to stress. A focus toward bottom-up processes facilitates a shift toward perceptual inference rather than active inference, and improves prediction and error correction processes, thus supporting optimal self-regulation.

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