Written by Marlysa Sullivan

Physical Domain of Health

The practices of Yoga impact the multiple systems of the body to promote physical health. This includes the cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, endocrine and musculoskeletal systems. The various practices of exercise, breathing and meditation can be utilized to impact each of these physical systems in specific and unique ways.  Through Yoga’s impact on the stress response system, the practice may also impact these systems of the body in a more integrated fashion. The stress response triggers a cascade of events that, when dysregulated, contributes to a variety of disorders including diabetes, autoimmune, depression and cardiovascular disease(11).  The effect of Yoga in cultivating nervous system balance and stress resilience is a potential mechanism for the multi-system and integrated effect on physical health.

Research shows that Yoga effects nervous system regulation. Yoga impacts both the downregulation of the sympathetic nervous system and HPA axis while stimulating the Vagus nerve. It is through this nervous system effect that there is a potential impact on disease states such as diabetes, autoimmune, cardiovascular diseases, and decreasing inflammation(1,2,3,4,8,11,13,14). In a theory proposed by Streeter et al, it is through the potential for Yoga to teach us how to regulate stress, to balance our autonomic nervous system and regulate brain pathways and structures that we learn to change our reactivity to stress and threat. This regulation and balance of our nervous system effects conditions such as depressionepilepsychronic pain and PTSD that have dysregulation of the stress response as an underlying and similar characteristic(13).

In a 2013 research study, Yoga was found to be an acceptable intervention to help with musculoskeletal conditions ranging from low back painarthritis and fibromyalgia(15). In comparison to non-meditative exercise, Yoga plays a unique role in impacting musculoskeletal pain conditions. Through the practice of postures to balance muscle activation and movement patterns as well as breathing, an introspective approach to movement and meditation to regulate the nervous system and promote a healthy relationship to sensation, Yoga helps to promote balance throughout the neuromotor and movement system.

The research on the benefit of Yoga to each system of the body continues to grow.

The potential for Yoga to cultivate nervous system regulation, balance and resilience may be the mechanism through which it effects the multiple systems of the body to include cardiovascular, endocrine, immune and musculoskeletal in an integrated fashion.

Psychological and Cognitive Domain of Health

Yoga shows a significant impact on emotional regulation, mood, and cognition.  Studies have demonstrated improvements in anxietydepressionPTSDmemory and cognition(9, 10, 14). A 2015 study showed that Yoga resulted in a greater improvement in mood and anxiety compared with walking(14).

The psychological and cognitive domains of health are impacted by the state of the nervous system and the pathways of response to stressors. In Porges’ polyvagal theory, three branches of the autonomic nervous system are described. The first and oldest branch is the unmyelinated vagus which depresses metabolic activity in a shut down or death feigning type of response. Next, the sympathetic nervous system mobilizes the system in a fight, flight or freeze response to stimulus. Lastly, the social engagement system promotes a calm state for growth and restoration of the system.

Yoga has a potential effect to promote this social engagement system and to regulate the nervous system response to inner and outer sensation through meditation, breathing exercises and mindful movement.

Yoga also effects this domain through the cultivation of attention, awareness, compassion, non-judgement, cognitive reappraisal through ethical and philosophical teachings, meditation and meditative movement(5,13).

The practice of Yoga benefits the psychological and cognitive domains of health in many ways including: promoting nervous system resilience and regulation, cultivating specific mind states to promote well-being and facilitating attention and concentration.

Social Domain of Health

Yoga impacts the social domain of health in a three potential ways: by countering the effects of social isolation, promoting vagal tone and flexibility and improving the capacity for healthy relationships.

First, research shows that perceived social isolation is linked to a number of negative consequences such as negative cardiovascular outcomes, impaired immune response and increased inflammation(11).

Perceived social isolation may be related to specific gene activation that moves the individual towards a suppression in some aspects of the immune response as well as activation of the inflammatory response that is often seen in cardiovascular diseases and some cancers(3,4).

Yoga is one meditative modality that has been found to counter this effect of perceived social isolation on the immune and inflammatory systems(1-4).

Secondly, the optimal functioning of the Vagus nerve impacts our social acuity. When vagal tone and flexibility are dominant the capacity to read social and emotional cues are more accurate as well as the perception of social isolation less present(7).  Yoga has been found to improve the ability to read facial emotional cues in patients of schizophrenia(6). Yoga has been found to also improve vagal tone(8).  The mechanism of effect on the Vagus nerve may be one way in which yoga helps to improve the capacity for social engagement including the perception of facial cues and in decreasing perceived social isolation.

Lastly, in a qualitative study, Yoga was reported to help improve relationships(12). Participants reported that Yoga helped create positive social interaction through being part of a class, a community of practitioners and in the relationship with a teacher. Participants also reported that Yoga helped in cultivating patience, compassion and the ability to traverse difficult times in their relationships with others.

Yoga impacts the social domain by the cultivation of vagal tone and flexibility, enhancing the reading and comfort of social situations and cues, decreasing the perception of isolation, creating greater compassion in relationships and countering the negative effects on the immune and inflammatory systems of perceived social isolation which are present in conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancers.

Spiritual Domain of Health

In the qualitative study by Ross et al, Yoga was reported to lead to personal transformation, better coping mechanisms to weather relationship difficulties and losses, spiritual transcendence and connection(12).  Yoga led to the experience of traits including kindness, calmness, peacefulness, compassion, greater self-awareness, a transcendence of self and sense of connection to something bigger(12).  In the tradition and texts of Yoga, both the connection to something greater than the individual and the capacity to realize that same connection within all beings is cultivated.  The teachings connect the individual to personal meaning and purpose in life and the interconnection of that personal meaning in service to something greater than the individual self.

From a spiritual perspective, Yoga impacts an individual’s quality of life, ability to cultivate purpose and connection with self and others.


The effect of Yoga traverses the multiple domains of health and well-being creating a comprehensive framework and model through which to work with pain and suffering.  In a theory proposed in a 2014 paper by Gard et al, the practices of Yoga offer a process of self-regulation in response to both physical and emotional stressors through both top-down and bottom-up mechanisms. Top-down mechanisms include: ethical principles, philosophy and meditation which regulate the relationship to thoughts, emotions, sensations and stimulus in response to physical or mental stress and pain.  Bottom- up mechanisms include: introspective exercise, breathing, meditation, embodied ethics and philosophy which regulate the relationship to thoughts, emotions, sensations and stimulus in response to physical or mental stress and pain. Yoga offers a way to build resilience, self-regulate and further understand the relationship of cognitive, emotional and somatic processes that lead to pain, suffering and disease states(5).



  1. Black, David S., Steve W. Cole, Michael R. Irwin, Elizabeth Breen, Natalie M. St Cyr, Nora Nazarian, Dharma S. Khalsa, and Helen Lavretsky. “Yogic meditation reverses NF-?B and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trial.”Psychoneuroendocrinology 38, no. 3 (2013): 348-355.
  2. Bower, Julienne E., Gail Greendale, Alexandra D. Crosswell, Deborah Garet, Beth Sternlieb, Patricia A. Ganz, Michael R. Irwin, Richard Olmstead, Jesusa Arevalo, and Steve W. Cole. “Yoga reduces inflammatory signaling in fatigued breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial.”Psychoneuroendocrinology 43 (2014): 20-29.
  3. Cole, Steve W. “Social regulation of human gene expression.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 18, no. 3 (2009): 132-137.
  4. Cole, Steven W. “Social regulation of human gene expression: mechanisms and implications for public health.” American journal of public health 103, no. S1 (2013): S84-S92.
  5. Gard, T., Noggle, J. J., Park, C. L., Vago, D. R., & Wilson, A. (2014). Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health. Frontiers in human neuroscience8.
  6. Jayaram, N., S. Varambally, R. V. Behere, G. Venkatasubramanian, R. Arasappa, R. Christopher, and B. N. Gangadhar. “Effect of yoga therapy on plasma oxytocin and facial emotion recognition deficits in patients of schizophrenia.” Indian journal of psychiatry 55, no. Suppl 3 (2013): S409.
  7. Muhtadie, Luma, Katrina Koslov, Modupe Akinola, and Wendy Berry Mendes. “Vagal Flexibility: A Physiological Predictor of Social Sensitivity.” (2014).
  8. Khattab, K., Khattab, A. A., Ortak, J., Richardt, G., & Bonnemeier, H. (2007). Iyengar yoga increases cardiac parasympathetic nervous modulation among healthy yoga practitioners. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine4(4), 511-517.
  9. Payne, P., & Crane-Godreau, M. A. (2013). Meditative movement for depression and anxiety. Frontiers in psychiatry4.
  10. Rocha, K. K. F., Ribeiro, A. M., Rocha, K. C. F., Sousa, M. B. C., Albuquerque, F. S., Ribeiro, S., & Silva, R. H. (2012). Improvement in physiological and psychological parameters after 6months of yoga practice.Consciousness and cognition21(2), 843-850
  11. Ross, A., & Thomas, S. (2010). The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine16(1), 3-12.
  12. Ross, A., Bevans, M., Friedmann, E., Williams, L., & Thomas, S. (2013). “I Am a Nice Person When I Do Yoga!!!” A Qualitative Analysis of How Yoga Affects Relationships. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 0898010113508466.
  13. Streeter, C. C., Gerbarg, P. L., Saper, R. B., Ciraulo, D. A., & Brown, R. P. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical hypotheses78(5), 571-579.
  14. Streeter, C. C., Whitfield, T. H., Owen, L., Rein, T., Karri, S. K., Yakhkind, A., … & Jensen, J. E. (2010). Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomized controlled MRS study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine16(11), 1145-1152.
  15. Ward, L., Stebbings, S., Cherkin, D., & Baxter, G. D. (2013). Yoga for Functional Ability, Pain and Psychosocial Outcomes in Musculoskeletal Conditions: A Systematic Review and Meta?Analysis. Musculoskeletal Care,11(4), 203-217.