If you practice yoga, then you most likely have experienced the “high” that yoga offers—that feeling like you are grounded in your body, calm, connected, clear, and centered. In this space, it might feel like a dark cloud that was following you around prior to class has suddenly disappeared. Or, that negative thought, emotion, or physical sensation eating away at you has miraculously subsided. You float away from your practice, and no unwanted experience can detract from your calm and peace. This is why yoga is often touted for its calming and relaxing effects on both mind and body.
Above and beyond the calm and relaxation, you also may have experienced a deeper connection between your mind and body, as well as more intimacy with your internal experiences, e.g., thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. And, perhaps you have noticed that with this deeper connection and intimacy comes less judgment and evaluation of those internal experiences. This process translates into that state of bliss we experience after our practice, and arguably leads to less suffering in our lives (aka emotional health and well-being). Hence, yoga for mental health has received increasing attention from both yogis and scientists alike, with the benefits of yoga for mental health traversing several areas ranging from mood and anxiety disorders to stress reduction.
Depression and Anxiety
Yoga, with its emphasis on purposeful movements and the use of breath to guide us through asanas, can help with depression and anxiety. Yoga increases awareness of present-moment experience and attentional focus, and as a result, can help individuals become aware of negative moods and the dwelling (i.e., rumination) in negativity that is characteristic of depression. Through these pathways, individuals can begin to disengage from evaluative thinking and “mental chatter.” The hyperarousal or discomfort of physical sensations such as sweaty palms, tightness in chest that are associated with anxiety can also be worked with during a yoga practice. The more aware of and engaged one is with breath and the process of paying close attention to the breath while in and during the transition from one pose to the next, one can allow for physical sensations and the thoughts about those sensations to exist, without the associated arousal or tension that occurs when emphasis is placed on these experiences. Over time, acceptance of an uncomfortable sensation or thought may occur and the individual can simultaneously live his/her life in a meaningful way with less distraction from the “anxiety.”
The effects of yoga on mental health can also promote self-efficacy (one’s ability to accomplish tasks and move through life challenges, despite stressors), counteracts lethargy and agitation associated with depression and anxiety, and can nurture and support participation in social, work, and intimate relationships.
Traumatic experiences by their true nature are heart-wrenching, dark, and scary, and can often lead to a fear response that consistently pervades the mind and body. Over time, a deep-rooted sense of fear and resistance to experiencing, or “being with,” thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations develops and results in a complete shutdown of the mind and body. Yoga as a mind-body practice provides a gateway to accessing the more primitive, reptilian part of the brain (responsible for survival and maintenance), which helps individuals with trauma to relearn how to approach sitting with unpleasant internal experiences in a healthy and safe environment.
Stress is a major epidemic in our society that can create a “hypervigilance” in our mind and body, and impairs our ability to come from a less reactive place during times of increased stress. Yoga functions like a self-soothing technique in that it alters the stress response system, helping to “tame” and quiet down the nervous system. In this way, the mental benefits of yoga are witnessed with the reduction of stress by way of decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels in our body. An overarching theme that weaves its way through all yoga poses is the “letting go” of deep holding patterns in the body and finding a state of balance to support healing. Longer-held poses characteristic of Restorative yoga, for example, function to dial down the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response, the place we react from when feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with the many demands of our lives. Then, a space is created to move from fight-flight to relaxation, and the parasympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for activating the relaxation response) can thrive and work efficiently.
The impact of yoga on mental health is diverse and expanding. Yoga is a unique mind-body practice with its emphasis on moving through asanas in a mindful and purposeful way. Further, the use of breath as a focal point to guide you and to keep you grounded in your body, especially when the mind wants to distract you with seductive thoughts or emotions, provides a dynamic platform for working with emotional health issues. So, whether you are interested in a rigorous power vinyasa class or a calming and gentle restorative class, you will likely enter that state of bliss, and experience emotional health benefits along the way.