What factors affect yoga’s likelihood to increase equanimity of practitioners?
Research Study At A Glance
The Research Question Asked
Do yoga practice frequency, years of practice, and reasons for practice, affect emotional and physiological responses to a positive or negative stimulus (physical and emotional reactivity)?
Type of Study
Clinical study – quasi-experimental design
Study Participants (Sample)
Sample size: 36
- Age 21-56
- 11 male; 25 female
- All participants were healthy
- Had practiced yoga for at least 6 months and up to 11 years
Yoga practitioners recruited from yoga studios for this study completed an emotional regulation assessment and were monitored for heart rate, skin conductance, and respiration rate when exposed to positive, negative, and neutral images. Emotional and physiological responses were analyzed with respect to years of yoga practice, frequency of yoga practice, and reasons for yoga practice.
- Greater years of practice was associated with decreased abdominal respiratory rate when viewing negative images.
- Greater frequency of practice in the last month before the study was associated with rating the experience as less emotional when viewing either positive or negative images.
- Greater frequency of practice was also associated with decreased abdominal respiratory amplitude (deeper breathing) when exposed to positive images.
- When practitioners were motivated to do yoga to a greater extent for mental reasons, they also experienced an increased heart rate when viewing positive images.
Maintaining a yoga practice over many years as well as increased frequency of practice may contribute to equanimity.
Practitioners of yoga often report that they maintain a yoga practice because they want to be calmer, or less reactive. The yogic texts, such as the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, do in fact suggest that this is one of the benefits of a yoga practice — that yoga practice can increase equanimity. But, how do you practice in order to increase equanimity? This is the idea that the research team who conducted the experiment that we describe here was interested in exploring. They were particularly interested in whether frequency of practice each week, number of years of regular practice, or even a practitioner’s reasons for doing practice, would affect how much reactivity they would experience when responding to a positive or negative stimulus.
Do yoga practice frequency, years of practice, and reasons for practice, affect emotional and physiological responses to a positive or negative stimulus (equanimity)?
Study participants were recruited from local yoga studios to take part in the experiment. Thirty-six total yoga practitioners participated in the study. They ranged in age from 21 to 56 and included 11 men and 25 women. Study participants had all been practicing yoga for at least six months and ranged in yoga experience from six months to 11 years. Multiple styles of yoga practice were represented among study participants, including: hatha, vinyasa, and Ashtanga. All participants were healthy and completed a health-related questionnaire to confirm that before participating in the study.
During the course of the experiment, participants were shown 20 negative, 20 positive, and 15 neutral images selected from the Geneva Affective Picture Database. To assess emotional response to the pictures, participants were asked to slide a marker along a scale showing “very negative” to “very positive” to indicate their emotional response to each image. To assess physiological response to the images, the research team measured heart rate (using electrocardiography), skin conductance (specifically electrodermal activity), and both abdominal and thoracic respiration of each study participant as they were viewing all images.
After collecting relevant emotional and physiological data, the researchers then analyzed the data and related it to the number of years of practice, frequency, and reasons for practice of each participant.
- The greater the frequency of yoga practice reported by participants in the last month, the less emotionally intense they reported both the positive and the negative images to be.
- The greater participants’ intent to practice yoga for mental reasons was, the higher their heart rate was when viewing the positive images.
- As years of practice increased among practitioners, their rate of abdominal respiration decreased when viewing the negative images.
- As recent (during the last month) frequency of yoga practice increased, amplitude of abdominal respiration increased (this means their breathing was deeper) when participants viewed positive images.
Why is this relevant to yoga practitioners?
Our reasons for practicing yoga can be quite varied. They can range from physical reasons like wanting to get stronger or more flexible, to mental and emotional reasons, like wanting to increase our concentration or sense of calmness. It’s fairly straightforward to assess whether our quadriceps are stronger or our hamstrings are more flexible, but assessing mental and emotional shifts can be subtler. If we are seeking greater equanimity, and we want to use yoga as a tool for that work, then it’s very helpful to know how to practice to increase the likelihood of having that experience. That’s especially true for the mental and emotional benefits of yoga, as it can be harder to assess from moment to moment whether we’re going in the right direction.
This research study supports the yogic texts that suggest that we can use yoga practice as a tool to increase equanimity AND that consistent practice over a long time is important if we want to head in that direction. What this research also suggests is that intention matters. If we want greater equanimity, we increase our likelihood of having that experience if we actively seek that in our yoga practice. Remember that the Yoga Sutras already tell us that our yoga practice should be “long, uninterrupted, [and] alert” (YS: 1.14, B.K.S. Iyengar translation), if it is going to be most effective. This research suggests that there might, in fact, be something to that.
Mocanu, E., C. Mohr, N. Pouyan, S. Thuillard, and E.S. Dan-Glauser. 2018. Reasons, years and frequency of yoga practice: Effect on emotion response reactivity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 12:264 p.1-12.
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