How does yoga reduce stress? Embodied cognition and emotion highlight the influence of the musculoskeletal system

Complement Ther Med. 2019 Apr;43:170-175. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2019.01.024. Epub 2019 Jan 31.


Yoga is an increasingly popular activity, perhaps because of its association with stress reduction and relaxation - an association that is generally supported by empirical evidence. Understanding of the mediating variables is, however, limited. Given that, the purpose of this paper is to present a theoretical perspective that encourages systematic research regarding the relationship between yoga, stress, and musculoskeletal activity. This embodied perspective parallels popular interest in the mind-body connection and emphasizes the influence of body position on thinking as well as emotion. Those influences take on added meaning in the context of the Cognitive Appraisal Theory and the Biopsychosocial Model of Challenge and Threat. Investigations of embodied cognition suggest that yoga may reduce stress by affecting the way individuals appraise stressors. The combination of body position and common components of yoga practice may also contribute to that effect, particularly when considering thoughts about the self and feelings of confidence. Findings regarding embodied emotion make a similar contribution to understanding the implications of previous research findings and common yoga practices. Considering yoga and stress from an embodied perspective also highlights the role of the musculoskeletal system in the stress process, leading to the question of whether yoga influences stress by directly influencing the musculoskeletal system, indirectly by influencing awareness of that system, or through a combination of the two. Those questions, in turn, highlight the importance of expanding investigations of psychological processes, body position, musculoskeletal activity during yoga, and the interactions between those variables.

Keywords: Embodiment; Mind-body connection; Musculoskeletal system; Stress; Yoga.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Humans
  • Meditation / psychology
  • Musculoskeletal System / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Yoga / psychology*