You don't have to be a seasoned yogi, either. These benefits were seen after a once-a-week, six-week-long program; none of the participants had any previous yoga experience.
The researchers attributed this mood-boosting effect to the meditation component of yoga. "Mindfulness makes yoga fundamentally different from non-yoga exercise, even when similar physical movements are practiced," the researchers report. "A yoga class teaches a physical process (i.e., feeling the sensation of the breath or standing completely still), which is intended to teach a cognitive process (i.e., controlling the thoughts and actions, and maintaining awareness in the present moment)." The researchers found that this mindset led to greater self-control, which they believe may be at the root of the improved well-being. (Recently, in another study, scientists were actually surprised by meditation's impact on the brain.)
While most of yoga is focused on the "asanas," or the postures, the pratyahara, or the practice of turning your attention inward, is also an important component of yoga.
"Unregulated, the senses of touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell, and the desires they produce, can control one's actions, thoughts, and behaviors," explains Kevin Courtney, contributor to Wanderlust: A Modern Yogi's Guide to Discovering Your Best Self. "It is imperative to retrain one's mind to gain control over these aspects, if one wishes to lead a steady and conscientious life. The ability to witness stimuli, and the feelings they produce, without feeling the need to act or respond to them, tones the yogi's mind."
The beautiful thing about pratyahara is that you don't need to be able to bend yourself into a pretzel to practice it. Even simple movements can reinforce your inward focus. Try these 4 chair yoga moves from the Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, PhD, and creator of the online series Chair Yoga and Totally Chair Yoga.
While holding the back of your chair, balance on your left foot. Your right foot will come to either your ankle, calf, or upper thigh (though not on the knee joint), depending on your ability, with the knee turned outward. Lift one or both arms above your head and hold for 5 to 10 deep breaths, keeping your gaze focused on one point. Repeat on the other side.
Chest Opener and Gentle Twist
Seated, place your right hand on your left knee and gently twist at the waist to place the left hand behind you on the left thigh, left hip, or the back of the chair, depending on your flexibility. Hold for 5 to 10 deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Holding onto the back of your chair, stand on your left foot and grab old of your right foot, if your flexibility allows. If it's comfortable, release the chair back and balance on one foot, keeping your gaze focused on one point. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
If sitting cross-legged on the floor isn't available to you, meditate in your chair. Find a comfortable seat and either bring your hands to prayer position to help you center your awareness or allow them to rest comfortably on your thighs. Maintain a sense of calm, both in your mind and body, while focusing on your breath for 1 to 2 minutes.