How Yoga Can Help Promote Mental Health
We rock up to our yoga classes knowing that 99% of the time we will leave the studio feeling exceptionally better in ourselves than when we walked in. Physically, we all know that yoga is great for us – it increases flexibility and muscle strength, it boosts our metabolism, reduces the risk of injury, lowers blood pressure, encourages cardio and circulatory health and reduces chronic pain, amongst many more. However, yoga is so much more than this. I think we can all agree that when we’re resting in our Savasana at the end of our class, it’s not only the physical benefits we’re reaping, we’re feeling the mental benefits too. After practicing our mind’s, we often feel grounded, centred, calmer and with a clarity we didn’t have before the class. I also find it helps to quieten the “monkey-mind”, or in other words that incessant chatter that is constantly going on in the brain, mostly telling us we’re not good enough at x, y and z. So why is yoga so great for us mentally?
1) Emphasis on the breath – the connection to our breath is one of the core components of yoga, whether that be through breath to movement work, pranayama or meditation. Focusing on deep breathing can help to move us from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system, or in other words out of our “fight or flight” state (the stress response) and into our rest-and-digest state (the relaxation response). This reduces stress and anxiety and helps to calm the nervous system, leading us to feel calmer and more grounded. It also helps us to stay in the present moment, letting go of regrets about the past or worries about the future.
2) It helps us to sit with difficult emotions – Yoga encourages us to bring ourselves into the present moment, mindfully, non-judgmentally and observing what is happening right now, exactly as it is. It helps us to acknowledge the difficulties that may be present for us, and instead of trying to force things to be different or push away the difficulties, we can begin to accept them with a sense of compassion. By quieting the mind and turning inwards, we may also start to notice our negative self-talk and how much we criticise ourselves – it is only when we have this awareness that we can start to consciously challenge and change this dialogue.
3) Different types of postures have different psychological benefits – for example, it has been suggested that working with hip openers can release and let go of stored negative energy from past experiences (which may help to explain those strong emotions we feel in Pigeon or Malasana!) and help to restore the natural balance of emotions within the body. Backbends help with the job of opening up our hearts, increasing joy, compassion and positive emotions, as well as encouraging us to be more open to the rest of the world and all its beautiful mess. Finally, having our head below our heart in inversion postures can help to stabilise our mood, relieve headaches, improve sleep and reduce anxiety, stress and depression by increasing blood flow to the brain, providing it with more oxygen and nutrients.
4) It improves our relationship with ourselves – increased self-awareness is a natural by-product of consistent yoga practice and can help you to foster a deep sense of self-compassion. A good teacher always encourages us to accept and be grateful for exactly where we are in that particular posture in that particular moment, and not try and force what isn’t supposed to be ours. The more we turn up and tune in, the more we connect to our inner selves on a much deeper level, helping us to see our goals, values and desires with much more clarity. You might find that in turn this improves your relationships and connections with your other relationships, as your compassion and awareness expands off the mat and into the world.
As Pattabhi Jois famously said, “Practice and all is coming”. No matter what stage of your journey you are at, yoga can act as a powerful tool to rebalance the mind, body and soul and leave you with a sense of inner peace you might not have even known existed.