GABA and Yoga, or, Why Do Yoga More Often

Why do yoga?

Why do yoga when you could do so many other things in the world? You could read, write, draw, sketch, hack, paint, sing, strum, play, create. You could Facebook, FaceTime, Tweet, IM, email.

You could cook, shop, eat, drink, hook up, catch up with friends, do all your duties as a mom, dad, girlfriend, boyfriend, daughter, son, wife, husband, employee, manager, entrepreneur, this-will-be-my-year-get-up-and-goer.

Why do yoga when you can go for elite fitness level with Crossfit, or do Zumba, Hula Hoops, Cha cha cha, and dance your heart out? Why do yoga when you can kickbox, lift weight, run, climb, surf, bike, walk, hike, fly, swim, dive, golf, dribble, pitch, drive?

That was a trick question. You can, in fact, do yoga while you’re doing all those things I mentioned and more.

A more specific question is, why do yoga asana, pranayama, and meditation? Why lay out the mat and get on it? Every day?

One answer is a neurotransmitter called GABA.

GABA, or if you prefer more syllables, gamma-aminobutyric acid, is mostly classified as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. (I say mostly because according to my Googling and Wikipedia’ing, scientists are still working out if it’s an excitatory neurotransmitter in early brain development.)

Sidebar: Excitatory neurotransmitters stimulate the brain, like dopamine. Wee! Inhibitory neurotransmitters tell the brain to chill out and hold the horses back when the excitatory neurotransmitters have had too much coffee. Famous Inhibitory Neurotransmitters include serotonin.

Ok, back to GABA. Why do you care? Maybe you don’t, but give me a few more minutes and I will tell you how learning about the existence of GABA has given me all the motivation I need to do yoga everyday.

Since it’s that time of the year where we make promises to ourselves, this might help give an extra kick if one of your promises is to try yoga, or do it more often.

But first: Cerebrospinal fluid. (I can’t even say it one time fast).

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), Liquor cerebrospinalis, is a clear, colorless, bodily fluid, that occupies the subarachnoid space and the ventricular system around and inside the brain and spinal cord.

In essence, the brain “floats” in it.

It acts as a “cushion” or buffer for the cortex, providing a basic mechanical and immunological protection to the brain inside the skull.

If we were depressed or have anxiety, and if certain scientific findings are reliable, it’s likely they would find pretty low amount of GABA in our cerebrospinal fluid.

To jump to conclusion (with good reasons) for GABA: good to have in adequate amount to keep the funk away.

“How does one get into this GABA business?” you say. Two studies done in 2010 have shown that you get it through doing yoga. (Shocker, I know.)

A pilot study by Harvard Medical School and Boston University School of Medicine showed that people doing yoga postures and breathing for an hour increased their GABA levels by 27% over the control group, who read quietly, also for an hour.

After that pilot, they did another study. They asked 19 yoga practitioners and 15 walkers, all healthy people, to do yoga or walked for an hour three times a week for 12 weeks and measured their GABA levels.

Here’s what they concluded, in their wonderful academic research publication language:

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.

What’s really important to note here is they measured three times: once before the study, once before the activity, and once after the activity. They found that the GABA level went up only *after* the yoga practitioners did yoga. In other words, yoga is like a pill or shot that you take. It’s not a one-time deal.

If you fancy it, you can read the published study in all of its glory in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. [PDF link].

I came to learn about these studies through a talk that Dr. Kelly McGonigal gave at the International Association of Yoga Therapists’ (IAYT’s) Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR). That’s a lot of words and acronyms. I assume you don’t care too much for more associations and conferences and acronyms.

You probably care more about knowing your options in case you get the blues. If so, it may be assuring to know that there’s a viable option to improve your mood, reduce stress, and relieve anxiety with no adverse side effect. There is a catch, though, the effect wears off, so you have to do it daily.

I cannot recommend enough this YouTube clip of Kelly McGonigal talking about Yoga and Mental Health. It was clearly filmed with a hand-held camera, so there’s that Blair Witch, Cloverfield shaky thing going on.

But what’s more scary than witches in the woods or monsters overtaking Manhattan is that nearly one-quarter of the adult population in the U.S. will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. That’s one in four of us. That could very well be me. I live in Seattle, the gloom and doom capitol, after all.

Kelly also mentioned that the implication of the studies mentioned above also applies to things like addiction and eating disorders. Learning all this has given me a stronger-than-ever conviction to continue my practice and to get on the mat every day.

Earlier, I asked, “Why do yoga?” Why do yoga when there are so many other fun, exciting, attractive, titillating things to spend time, money, and energy on? As I mentioned, there’s a bit more to yoga than doing Sun Salutations, but for our purposes here, I’m talking about do-no-harm asana, pranayama, and pratyahara (more on pratyahara in the upcoming post about savasana).

For me, it’s not so much that I do yoga *instead* of all these things, because like all things in life, having an addiction and dysfunctional relationship with yoga is totally possible and probable.

I’ve resolved to do yoga *so that* I can do all kinds of things and go through life with more zeal and with less manufactured fear, stress, and anxiety, which seems to be aplenty right now.

More awesome GABA + yoga reading:

I came across this excellent blog post by Emily Deans, M.D., a psychiatrist in Massachusetts. She talked about two things I found note worthy. (Thank you Emily, if you’re reading this.)

1) Drinking (a lot) can also help a person deal with stress, and so’s popping a pill. So no need for yoga, right? It turns out “when these substances are constantly in the brain and then rapidly withdrawn, you suddenly have overexcited GABA receptors and you can get unfortunate side effects such as insomnia, anxiety, and seizures.”

2) The study about walking vs. yoga got me curious. Both involve physical exercise and breathing, so why the difference in GABA levels? Emily wrote:

Yoga isn’t Paleolithic. I don’t see our distant ancestors practicing downward facing dog. But yoga combines physical activity with forced acute attention on the present. Lose your focus in tree stand, and you lose your balance.

In my mind, yoga and other mindful meditation practices emulate, to some respect, the focus and attention we had to have while hunting and gathering. We couldn’t be thinking about the mortgage or Uncle Phil getting drunk at last year’s Christmas party. We had to be focused on the trail and the prey.

Here’s to a year of great traveling, whatever trail you’re on. To bastardize The King’s lyrics: A little less drama a little more GABA baby.