The Science Behind Yoga and Stress

By Dr M Storoni MD PhD on Tuesday July 14th, 2015

What Do Yoga Poses Do to Your Brain Chemistry and Nerve Connections?

There are two functional parts of the brain that play a key role in stress. These serve the functions of emotion and cognitive function. So I am calling them the ’emotional’ brain (amygdala and its connections and medial forebrain structures including the medial prefrontal cortex) and the ‘logical’ brain (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, other parts of the prefrontal cortex, parts of the cingulate cortex and parts of the hippocampus).

The emotional brain is able to initiate a ‘stress response’ via the sympathetic nervous system which culminates in adrenaline and cortisol racing through our circulation. The logical brain is always trying to ‘turn-off’ this stress response and it is also trying to restrain the emotional brain. The stronger our logical brain, the better it becomes at doing these two things. When the stress response is ‘turned off’, our parasympathetic nervous system signal is ‘turned on’. This signal ‘relaxes’ the body. So a strong logical brain goes hand in hand with relaxation.

The stress response and ‘relaxing’ signals travel through the body along a particular route and parts of this route have little ‘switches’ which we can physically manipulate to turn the signals on or off. The neck is an example of where such switches are located (by the carotid arteries).

Training the Stress Circuit

Yoga is training this entire stress circuit at two levels. First, every time we are ‘holding’ a posture, staying very still to concentrate or trying to balance, our logical brain is being activated. When we are bending forwards, our ‘relaxation’ signal is being turned on through the ‘switches’ in the neck. So bending forwards and concentrating at the same time is triggering both the logical brain and the relaxation signal at the same time.

Everytime we are holding a posture our logical brain is being activatedEvery time we are holding a posture our logical brain is being activated. Image: Carl Barcelo

Bending backwards triggers the stress response signal through the switches in our neck. Contracting a muscle also triggers the stress response signal. So, when we bend backwards and contract our muscles while still having to stay still and concentrate on balancing, our logical brain is given an extra challenge. It has to overcome the stress response signal being triggered in these two ways before we can be still and concentrate during a posture. This ‘extra’ resistance the logical brain is having to work against, ‘trains’ it like a muscle.

Rewiring the Nerve Connections

At the end of a series of yoga postures, the logical brain has had a ‘workout’. It is buzzing with activity. You feel mentally calm as it is keeping your emotional brain quiet. Training the logical brain in this way for a long time can result in a rewiring of the nerve connections within the logical brain. New circuitry that enables you to find it easier to control your thoughts is formed. You may find it easier to channel your thoughts in the direction you want and not ‘dwell’ on negative thoughts or experiences. This is partly why yoga seems to have a positive effect on depression and anxiety, where sufferers have a tendency to dwell on negative life events. Stronger connections within the logical brain keep the lid down on the emotional brain and the stress response. This is why yoga can be so effective at battling stress.

The key thing to do is to attempt yoga postures which are structured in a well-formulated sequence where each posture involves a long hold. Then your yoga and stress will begin to be balanced.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

Words By Dr M Storoni MD PhD

Originally posted on Brainboost Camp



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14 Responses to The Science Behind Yoga and Stress

  1. Thanks, I have alot of arthritis in my body, which in turn causes depression and anxiety. This article has inspired me to start doing yoga. Your article seems to be more help than my medications. THANK YOU!

    • Recently I passed through knee pain which I never experienced. I am 70. I’m a yoga follower. I got rid off pain by practicing paida, lagin of Hongchi xiao on you tube. It is also a simple yoga technic.

  2. This article is a useful but very simplified introduction to the physiology of the nervous system. It holds some interesting information that yoga teachers and yoga therapists should understand in order to better serve their students. Science has gone to great lengths to understand neural repatterning, its benefits and consequences. I disagree with another comment that suggested the author is telling people to stuff emotions. I don’t read that. What I read is a simplified description of how the asana ties into the nerves and therefore works to tone the nervous system. Like it or not she is citing valid information BUT not complete information. It is true that by acting consistently in a logical manner emotional reactions will be reduced. For an average individual who has not explored the purpose or the reason why one would even want to reduce emotional reactions this may mean the onset of psychological disturbance. However, when it comes to the individual who is consistently studying yoga, the reason they are not just stuffing their emotions has more to do with the psycho spiritual aspect of the experience that they are having in the posture or during any technique of Yoga for that fact. This is an oversimplified discussion at best across the board. We all need to keep in mind that there are multiple levels of practitioner from beginning to advanced. Additionally, there are multiple levels of development and awareness within each practitioner as well. The beginning practitioner is often in the early stages of discovering the depth of their tendencies toward emotional reactions and that those reactions can fall under their conscious control. Or, they are newly discovering that they want or need to change them. What they do with that knowledge can definitely play into the ego creating an imbalance, but it can also play to open the individual up to the presence of spirit, holistic, health, balance, etc. The dedicated practitioner, and by that I mean the practiced yogi, is more often not holding into the posture or it’s alignment solely for the sake of their ego, they are more likely to be holding into the posture for one or more of the following reasons: to understand, overcome and/or transcend personal suffering, to strengthen their own sense of resiliency, to tone the nervous and other systems i.e. better health, to have a meditative experience, all and any of which will manifest the ultimate cause, to bring the practitioner closer to God, Goddess, Divinity, Creator, Cosmic Consciousness… you name it. Yoga is not just about a physical practice, although many people get stuck there. That is not a negative thing to say. It is simply the reality that some people have physical obstacles that need to be overcome before they can begin to dive into the deeper spiritual questions. That’s the purpose of the asana. To bring greater health and stability to the body, and to tone the nervous system so that the individual can sit in meditation for longer periods of time, which will naturally open them up to those deeper questions. There are many practices and techniques that belong to Yoga. To properly define yoga one must look at the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjalis Yoga Sutras and the vast number of other scriptures that discuss its meaning and it’s purpose. Across the board yoga is considered to be a pathway to divine consciousness, unification, self-realization, and some sense of liberation. The reality of these practices is that the participant or student has to start somewhere. Having a knowledgeable teacher instruct them on the functioning of the nervous system is very important so that the student can begin to realize for them self the part that they play in their own suffering and the strength that they actually do have to change their reactions. It is a given that some people will stuff their emotions because that’s their tendency. But there are vast sea of practitioners who have been successful in reducing the amount of suffering and sorrow they experience in this life because they have made the conscious choice to look inward, to recognize honestly their own reactionary tendencies and to work to try to change them. There are so many things that could be said in response to this article and the responses it has elicited such as the role of ahimsa, satya, svadyaya, etc… All in all it is a harmless article and maybe even a purposeful and easy first read for the curious mind as long as it is followed by a lengthier and more inclusive discussion. I would rather offer a student this to read than the multitude of articles out there that deface yoga and reduce it to a purely egotistical practice. May we all leave the compassionate space and discussion necessary for young authors to exercise and adjust their understanding. No one responding here had all the answers at the get go, we all started somewhere. Hari Om.

  3. This article is misleading because it reduces yoga to an exercise of the ego. The author recommends the suppression of emotion instead of emotional resolution and transcendence. Accordingly, the author thinks that peace comes from suppressing feelings by applying rationality and logic. However this is a description of a common defence mechanism of the ego. In reality spiritual peace comes not from suppressing feelings but from feeling fully, beyond reactive emotions. Yoga can be used for this spiritual purpose, instead of being used for the ego purpose of suppressing emotional reactions. The author thinks that stress is the result of failing to “keep the lid down on emotion”. But in fact a great deal of stress is the result of keeping the lid on emotion. The effort to suppress emotion in order to deny reality is common, and is extremely stressful. Using yoga to maintain suppression of emotion is not helpful. It’s actually damaging, because it prevents emotional resolution. But this is what the author recommends. Evidently, the author has been educated in cognitive psychology, and is unaware of the discoveries of transpersonal psychotherapy. This article bears the hallmark of a theoretician who has read a few books but who knows nothing about personal and spiritual growth.

  4. Aside from how physical yoga asana positively impacts the re-wiring of the brain. The various other arms of yoga such as Pranayama breathing practices, meditation and Yoga Nidra deep relaxation are excellent to draw upon to help re-wire the brain and build stress resilience through mindfulness and awareness. This builds higher stress resistance and faster stress recovery. A greatly enjoyable article and video Dr Storoni.

  5. Reminds me of Disraeli-twain statistics.
    Fave at it, science writers, but eventually you’ll have to let go of the supposed “facts” to find the truth.