Yoga for Mental Health
Yoga is one of the oldest forms of exercising and while there are many types and styles of yoga, most of them focus on breathwork, involve stretching and include relaxation techniques or meditation at the end.
While yoga involves the physical practice of performing asanas, it is much more than just another physical form of exercise and has a great impact on our overall well-being. Some of the more obvious and universally known benefits of yoga include improving flexibility, increasing strength, bettering our posture and improving body balance. But today we are going to focus on how the practice of yoga can have a positive impact on our mental well-being.
One of the most significant changes that yoga can bring in our life is improving our mood. Practising any form of exercise, including yoga, releases the happy chemical serotonin which is responsible for stabilising our mood, sleeping patterns and our digestion. But with yoga, there is also another added advantage. Regular practice of yoga can elevate the levels of GABA or Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid. GABA is a neurotransmitter in our brain which is responsible for our good moods and also reduces anxiety. People who have low levels of GABA are more prone to experiencing depression, anxiety and fear. Consistent yoga practice results in elevated GABA levels which helps in ensuring that we don’t feel overly anxious and fearful and keeps our mood stable.
Yoga also has the potential to improve our memory and boost concentration. If you have practised yoga, you know that to stand in a position or asana, you have to clear your head and focus on a singular point so you can maintain your balance. This simple task of focusing on a point helps you clear all thoughts, focus inwards and therefore helps improve our brain’s capacity to concentrate and make space for more memory.
While you may not want to splurge on yoga equipment right at the beginning of your journey, remember that being prepared for your yoga sessions will make you feel confident and help you go a long way in your practice. You might want to consider investing in a basic yoga mat that can provide you with good grip and support, some yoga blocks to start with basic asanas and a cushion. The good news is that you can find some great quality yoga equipment without burning a hole in your pocket and they take up minimal storage space at home.
Yoga also activates our parasympathetic nervous system. It helps us transition from the fight or flight response (the sympathetic nervous system) to the rest and digest phase (the parasympathetic nervous system). So when we start breathing more deeply, we can relax our nervous system and have less anxiety. This is especially important in today’s time because with the numerous technological gadgets and stresses of modern life, we are perpetually or atleast for prolonged periods of time in the fight or flight response. As an example, think of everytime our phone rings or a notification vibrates on our screen. This may not be an actual danger that we are facing, but every notification triggers our sympathetic nervous system and there is some form of physiological reaction from our bodies. Practising yoga can help calm our nervous system and move us away from the fight or flight response state.
Yoga places utmost importance on breathing techniques or breathwork. Breathing exercises have paramount health benefits such as improving cardiovascular health, controlling anxiety, improving posture, increasing energy levels and improving immunity. Breathing and meditation after your yoga session will help you feel refreshed and grounded. In our fast paced lives, we don’t really pay attention to our breathing. So during and after your yoga session is the perfect time for some breathwork. The more consistent you are with breathing exercises, the easier it will be to apply those principles during your day to day activities, which means you will be able to get the maximum benefit out of them.
Regular practice of yoga can also help us get sound sleep. It can help us sleep longer hours, fall asleep faster and feel more rested. Certain yoga poses can increase the production of the hormone melatonin which helps in regulating our sleep cycles.
The practice of yoga has also been found beneficial for patients suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Yoga and meditation reduces activity in the limbic system which is the part of our brain responsible for emotions. So yoga and breathing techniques can help reduce intrusive memories and emotional arousals and result in a calmer state of being. It also regulates our emotional responses to stressful situations. A study conducted by a women’s hospital at Harvard Medical School also showed that participants who were part of a yoga program showed much better changes in measures of sleep, perceived stress and resilience than those who didn’t practice any forms of yoga.
Yoga can also make us more intuitive and inwardly tuned. When practising yoga, we have to communicate with our entire body, focus on our balance and posture and integrate our mind with our body. Overtime, this increases our ability to listen to our minds and bodies and slowly makes us more intuitive.
The mental benefits of yoga, as discussed, are numerous. While most yoga movements may be slow and controlled, they still elevate our heart rate and release happy brain chemicals which improves our quality of life. Yoga also reduces the stress hormone in our body and acts as an antidepressant and is great for people suffering from anxiety, depression and PTSD as we read above. It may not work on it’s own but as an addition to other therapies and medicines, yoga can definitely have a positive effect on a person’s mental well-being.
The practice of yoga is a low-risk and high-reward approach to improving our overall health. One can start practising yoga at any point in time and they will still be rewarded with the benefits. If you are looking to start your yoga journey, check out some of our tips here. It is good to remember that yoga is not just a workout for your body but also for your emotions and mind. At the end of your practice, you are sure to feel relaxed and rejuvenated at all levels. To end with the words of B.K.S. Iyengar “Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.”
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