Yoga And Mental Health: Expert Advice You Need To Know

yoga and mental health

There are so many mental health benefits of yoga.

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss the link between mental health and yoga with numerous experts, among them psychologists, yoga teachers, therapists, and researchers.

I learnt so much about how yoga improves mental health, and how to practice yoga for mental health. And I wanted to share it all with you. So, let get started.

What Are The Benefits of Yoga For Mental Health?

“Yoga can be beneficial for a wide-range of mental health conditions and concerns,” says Julianne Schroeder [therapist & yoga teacher]. “It can help you unwind after a long day at the office, quiet the voice of your inner critic, enhance your mood, increase motivation and establish balance in your daily routine.

“Yoga can also be combined with therapeutic modalities and neuroscience to help individuals work through a wide range of challenges such as addiction, body image issues, anxiety, grief and PTSD.”

Yoga can also have a significant impact on stress and anxiety.

Jaime Bronstein [licensed therapist] says, “When you practice yoga, your brain produces more GABA (a neurotransmitter) [1], which can mimic the effects of an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication.

“People with low levels of GABA might suffer from depression, anxiety and a host of negative emotions. Yoga can help to increase your GABA levels so you can let go of the negative emotions and replace them with positive emotions.”.

Yoga helps with depression, too.

“Yoga has been my antidepressant for over thirty years,” says Amy Weintraub [author of three books on yoga]. “Here are just a few of the reasons why.

“Firstly, the breathing practices and movements we do on the yoga mat create a window through moods… even if just for a moment. Regular practice opens that window wider.

“Research shows that yoga stimulates the vagal nerve, balancing the autonomic nervous system, so we are less likely to get stuck in the “fight or-flight” response on the one hand or lethargy on the other.

Another good thing about yoga for mental health is that it improve oxygenation.

“We deepen the breath, bringing oxygenated blood throughout the body, and that refreshes the brain,” says Weintraub. “All those feel-good hormones like prolactin and oxytocin are elevated. Evidence shows that GABA levels in the brain, which diminish when we experience anxiety, depression and trauma, are elevated through yoga, and that telomeres lengthen, a sign of optimal brain function, is improved.

Yoga also makes us more mindful

“The mind is a time traveller, worrying about the past and the future,” says Weintraub. “The body is always present. When we notice the breath and the sensations in our bodies, we find mindfulness. After practice, we feel alert, calm and focused—a great way to start the day!”

Audrey Hope, D.D. [certified therapist] agrees: “It is important to get the body moving to relieve stress and anxiety and to create a state of inner peace. Yoga is a way to remove the outer world and all of its problems and to take a vacation into the vibration of hope and serenity.”

Most forms of yoga help with mental health.

“There are many forms of yoga,” says Hope, “but they all are for the same goal- to remind your body and soul that life does not have to be chaotic and painful, but that it can be full of serenity and calm.

“You must find a practice that is right for you and your daily routine. One must explore and investigate the many different ways of yoga and find the right fit.”

Hope recommends Sahaja Yoga.

“I have been a counselor for two decades,” says Hope. “I practice Sahaja Yoga- a way to ignite the kundalini energy within the spine and to let this energy rise up and pass through the different chakras. This enlightenment practice is what we are all born with and is our natural birthright. Once the energy is ignited, there is a sense of it traveling up the spine, and beyond the mind into a state of thoughtless awareness.

“When the mind is at rest and the ‘monkey mind’ is halted, that is when you can experience the divine energy on the central nervous system.

Yoga is a way to empty the stress of life and to practice living in a new reality of hope and peace. Find the right class, group or person to teach you a new way of living”

Yoga and Anxiety

Millions of people have been using yoga for anxiety relief. One, Sonya Matejko, even went on to become a certified yoga instructor.

Sonya says, “I practiced yoga for nearly seven years before taking the leap of becoming a yoga teacher. Yoga was my self-therapy and a way for me to self-soothe my anxiety. I turned to it after breakups, career upsets, and just your regular stressful and uneasy days. Yoga helped me release stress, and it has been a go-to relief tool ever since.

Sonya became an instructor specifically because of the link between yoga and mental health.

“Part of the reason I became a yoga teacher was that I wanted to help other people feel that same relief I found in yoga, says Sonya. “While there are plenty of reasons why yoga is good for your mental health, there is one in particular that has always stood out the most to me.

“Yoga helps you step into the present and focus on the moment in front of you. Much of anxiety, for me, is about thinking of the past and worrying about the future. Yoga invites you to slow down and exist in the now. By focusing on the breath and how your body feels moving through space, it’s possible to not only become calmer and more aware during the practice, but it also helps you become calmer and more aware in daily situations.

You learn not only how to practice presence in the yoga practice but in life as well. This life skill can help you pause before letting anxiety completely take over. That pause has magical effects and has been the most helpful thing for me in coping with my anxiety. Sometimes the pause is a 60-minute vinyasa class, and sometimes it’s just three yogic breaths. ”

Explaining the Mental Health Benefits of Yoga

Clearly, there are many benefits of yoga for mental health. But why?

Patricia Celan, M.D, says, “The benefits of yoga for mental health come from both the physical exercise and the breathing techniques inherent in yoga practice.

Research has found repeatedly that physical activity helps support physical and mental health;. Indeed, in some cases, exercise alone is sufficient to reverse certain milder health conditions without medication.

“Aside from the physical benefits though, if one is practicing yoga with proper breathing techniques, yoga becomes a form of mindfulness. Research on mindfulness and mindfulness based cognitive therapy tells us that this can be beneficial for depression and anxiety, creating new connections and pathways in the brain that support better mental health.”

How To Practice Yoga For Mental Health

Focus

“Don’t focus on complexity, focus on sequence,” says Schroeder. “In order to get the most for your mind out of your yoga practice, it’s important to let go of your ideal “aesthetic” and tune into the functions and order of your movements. The powerful effects of yoga on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are substantiated by a multitude of evidence-based research.”

Find What Works For You

Dr. Carla Marie Manly says, “The best way to practice yoga begins with finding a practice that feels right to you. Some people enjoy yin yoga, others enjoy a powerful vinyasa class, and some find “hot yoga” ideal. Not all yoga classes are the same, so it’s important to find a style of yoga that’s right for you.

Just as it’s important to find a yoga style that suits your needs, it’s also important to find an instructor (or an online yoga class) that feels safe, inviting, and positive. It’s important to experiment until you find the right match (or matches) for your personal needs.”

Work with a teacher

Sarah Jane Shangaw [certified yoga and mindfulness teacher] says, “If you are using yoga to support your mental health, it is important to work directly with a teacher, and to not only watch videos of choreographed routines that may or may not address your state and needs.

“Think about how someone experiencing depression can have spells of low energy, lack of interest and motivation, and sleep more than usual. On the other hand, someone with an anxiety disorder might suffer from restlessness that prevents focus and productivity due to the frequent triggering or chronic state of over-alertness from which their nervous system cannot come down.

Put simply, yoga should be tailored to your physical, emotional, and mental state. A knowledgeable teacher will be able to craft a yoga practice that is responsive to your conditions and circumstances, encouraging balance, wholeness, and health for you.”

 

Be Mindful

Schroeder says, “increased mindfulness in one’s yoga practice can reduce the effects of anxiety, depression, trauma and other mental health concerns by increasing awareness of their emotional state. Tuning into your feelings in the present moment allows you to find ways to manage those emotions and move through them — both figuratively and literally.

“When practicing yoga for mental health, we might do well to go beyond the overly emphasized physical aspects of yoga practice, and spend more time with the inner methods–working with energy, breath, and mind–in order to promote self-awareness and a sense of wholeness.

“Even if a sense of wholeness is elusive when we are in our most disrupted states, we can expand self-awareness, giving us a better sense of just what is happening. For example, we can notice how our energy is stagnant or our breath is uneven, and then learn a pranayama (breathwork) exercise to restore evenness and flow to the inner system.

“Or, we can notice a tendency toward overly critical thinking and bring the theme of our inner critic to a trained mental health professional, mentor, or teacher, who can support us in understanding and processing disruptive core beliefs.”

Shangraw agrees, “A critical benefit of the inner method of mindfulness is that it helps us tolerate any discomfort in our bodies or minds. It helps us relax away from the impulse to immediately escape from an uncomfortable experience, so that we can proceed with more awareness, slowly and deliberately. After all, responding to anything with skill first requires we avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Mindfulness meditation is a great way to train this up.”

Combine asanas with pranayamas:

Schroeder says, “Wise sequencing of specific yoga poses (asanas), and breath work (pranayamas) helps to activate the sympathetic nervous system to alleviate anxiety and stress, or conversely, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to increase energy and decrease symptoms of lethargy and depression.

“With this in mind, it’s important to focus on how poses feel instead of how you look doing them. For example, making note of the strength of your quads when holding a variation of Warrior Pose instead of feeding into judgmental thoughts like “my thighs are too big.”

All-day self-care

Amber Trueblood [clinical psychologist] recommends an all-day routine, as so:

All-Day Self-Care:

Morning – Doing a quick guided yoga practice every morning can be a fantastic way to start your day. Make a ritual out of it, grab your tea or coffee, light a candle, and you may find you have more patience and compassion throughout your day.

Midday – Take an afternoon break from your computer, managing the household, or running errands to stretch, breathe deeply, and move your body with an energizing yoga practice.

Evening – Before bedtime, do a calming yoga practice to help you release physical tension and emotional frustrations from the day so you can sleep more easily and deeply.

There are so many mental health benefits of yoga!

Isn’t it amazing how beneficial yoga is? There is a reason why yoga is one of the best hobbies for mental health.

I’d like to thank all our experts for their help with this article.

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By Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.

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