Wellesley’s Liz Owen Proves Yoga is Effective in Improving Moods and Decreasing Anxiety
After years of studying and teaching yoga, Liz Owen set out to prove scientifically something she already knew to be true— that yoga can ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
"I started noticing how my students would tell me how much better they felt emotionally from yoga and I could feel that myself after each yoga practice; it was like clockwork," said Owen, a yoga instructor in the Physical Education, Recreation & Athletics Department at Wellesley College. "It became clear to me that consistent yoga practice could have a huge, positive effect on the mind and I was interested in finding evidence of this."
With support from a National Institutes of Health grant, Owen, with colleagues including Chris Streeter of Boston University School of Medicine, co-authored the study "Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study," published in the November 2010 issue of "The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine."
During the 12-week study, Owen and her colleagues studied a random sampling of 34 physically and psychologically healthy young adults. One group practiced Iyengar yoga three times a week for an hour at a time, and the remaining participants walked for the same duration. The brain chemical gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), an indication of mood and anxiety levels, was monitored in the subjects. The yoga group reported a greater improvement in mood than the walking group, as well as decreased anxiety. Their GABA levels, measured by researchers with a technique known as magnetic resonance spectroscopy, correlated with those improvements. Participants were given MRIs to measure GABA levels.
Owen said she was surprised at the short time her subjects practiced yoga before producing elevated levels of GABA.
"We started getting positive results even in the first few weeks, and by the middle of the course, when the students would have their second MRI, an increase in GABA levels was already evident," she said. "I knew it worked, but I didn't realize how fast it worked."
With the positive findings from a base study with healthy subjects, Owen, Streeter and others will embark on the next phase of research: studying yoga's effect on those with clinical depression.
Owen hopes the study will encourage people to consider holistic alternatives to drugs when treating anxiety and depression. It is an option that may have stronger results in the long run.
"Yoga in particular, but also any form of physical exercise that is mindfully practiced, can help symptoms of depression and anxiety," she said. "I am so excited that this study shows our Western medical community some of the power of yoga – the power that we practitioners experience all the time viscerally and mentally – all from our practice of physical yoga postures."
Owen's specialties include working with limiting physical conditions such as scoliosis, breast cancer and lung conditions, yoga therapeutics, teaching methodology, technique, anatomy and physiology and the study of yoga philosophy and ethics. As a member of the MassYoga Network, she teaches workshops throughout the greater Boston area.
She earned her Iyengar Yoga instructor certification, introductory level II, from the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States in 1995. In 1998, she studied directly with Yogacharya Sri BKS Iyengar in Pune, India, and has continued her training in the discipline with on-going study.
Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 75 countries. For more information, go to www.wellesley.edu.