Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and chronic stress are prevalent in the United States, and are considered serious health conditions alongside heart disease, cancer and asthma. Integrative and holistic mind-body practices such as yoga and mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular and beneficial as well when it comes to psychological and physical health issues. In fact, yoga and meditation are considered stress reduction techniques that can influence how we relate to mental and physical health issues, ultimately leading to less suffering and attachment to life outcomes.
So What Are the Benefits of Yoga and Meditation?
Given the “on the go” lifestyle and multitasking mentality of Westerners, we can find ourselves in a chronic state of hyperarousal in which the fight-flight-freeze response system (i.e., sympathetic nervous system (SNS)) becomes overactivated. In this way, our busy and chaotic lives can lead to gastrointestinal issues, weakened immune systems, tension, as well as increased anxiety and depression. Moreover, living in a chronic state of reactivity (or stress) keeps the SNS alive and on guard, which over time dampens levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, our “feel good” neurotransmitters. Low levels of these neurotransmitters are often associated with the loss of pleasure and enjoyment in life, a common occurrence in depressed individuals.
Yoga is a holistic and mindful practice that includes physical movements (asana), breathing (pranayama), meditation (dhyana) and relaxation (savasana). The practice cultivates mind-body awareness, promotes physical movement, and creates intimacy with one’s internal landscape (e.g., emotions, thoughts, physical sensations). Yoga can also be self-soothing, affecting the stress response system by quieting down the nervous system. Through its impact on the stress response system, yoga can help to decrease physiological arousal, for example lowering blood pressure and heart rate, a benefit for those who tend to feel wound up, on edge, and restless.
What Are The Differences Between Yoga and Meditation?
While there are some differences between yoga and mindfulness meditation from the Buddhist tradition, these two practices are undeniably synergistic and seemingly interchangeable. Mindfulness is the ability to maintain attention on a specific meditative object (e.g., breath, mantra), with emphasis on returning to beneficial (versus negative) thoughts. Mindfulness can be practiced in a more traditional way by sitting in a quiet space with eyes closed for a certain amount of time, as well as during a yoga class with focus on breath and movement while holding and transitioning from one pose to the next. Yoga mindfulness meditation facilitates increased awareness of present-moment experiences, rather than resisting or trying to clear the mind of uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, or sensations. In this way, mindfulness meditation can help the student learn how to disengage from evaluative or critical thinking by cultivating an attitude of curiosity and attention to ongoing reactions to emotions, thoughts, and feelings and ultimately minimizing suffering with increased clarity of reality.
One notable difference between yoga and meditation is the physical aspect (asana) of yoga, which essentially is a form of mindfulness that supports connection with present moment experience while moving from one pose to the next or during long held poses. In addition, the physical element of a yoga practice can aid the student in working through pain, stiffness, and muscle tension. Further, there are some individuals who may not be able to do a sitting meditation practice due to intense psychological or physical issues; for these individuals, their pathway to less suffering is found through a physical asana practice that perhaps integrates mindfulness techniques.
Yoga exercises are often practiced to ready both mind and body for meditation and concentration. Yoga meditation poses can range from activating poses such as sun salutations and arm balances, to relaxing and calming poses. Activating poses are often practiced in the beginning of a class and stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the fight-flight-freeze response. When followed by relaxing poses, such as supported back or forward bends, the parasympathetic or relaxation response is activated, enabling one to drop into a more calm and peaceful place. Ultimately, the physical practice with an emphasis on pranayama, mindfulness, and movement is a pathway to moving through emotional and physical tension, preparing the body for a sitting meditation.
Mindful yoga (or the integration of yoga and mindfulness meditation techniques) provides a healthy and safe environment for individuals to practice “being with” uncomfortable emotional and physical experiences, and to eventually reunite with and fully inhabit their bodies on the mat. These skills can then be transferred off the mat and applied to everyday situations.