By Emily McLaughlin
According to a Harvard Medical Mental Health Letter in 2009, studies suggest that yoga practice modulates the stress response–helping those dealing with anxiety and depression. In this respect, yoga functions like other self-soothing techniques by providing the health benefits of physical exercise, promoting relaxation and emotional control and providing structured social opportunities.
The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ literally means ‘yoke,’ or ‘to join together, attach or unite.’ Yoga practice brings the body and mind together in one harmonious experience by combining structures of exercise, breathing and meditation.
Psychologists have long understood that exercise is beneficial for those dealing with mental illness. In yoga, as with any physical workout, heart rate is increased and feel-good endorphins are released. Yoga also helps the student concentrate the mind on the physical sensations of poses and perfecting postures. This element of concentration is especially calming for the anxious and obsessive–it can be a great distraction from worry since it forces the mind to attend to the body and the breathing, not the on-goings of the outside world.
In addition to these mental elements, the exercises of yoga are designed to put pressure on the glandular systems–which has a direct effect on your health and quality of life. Glandular systems of the body are responsible for all the emotions that you experience ranging from love to hate and excitement to fear. This system also regulates your metabolic rate , blood sugar levels and hormone levels. Yoga aims to improve the function of different glands through a series of poses.
The added element of breathing in yoga practice sets it apart from other forms of exercise. This structure is based on the concept that breath is the source of life in the body. During the execution of yoga poses, the student focuses on a certain pattern of breath–linking the exercise with the inhale and the exhale. This is especially beneficial to those suffering mental health illnesses because it promotes relaxation and emotional control.
Once a student masters the ability to link their breath with the exercise element of yoga, they are able to reach a state of flow–becoming completely engrossed in the practice. The well-balanced flow helps the student calm the mind, stimulating a silence that heals from everyday stress.
A 2011 Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine study, “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Meditation for Work Stress, Anxiety and Depressed Mood in Full-Time Workers,” provides preliminary evidence to support the use of a mental silence form of meditation called Sahaja Yoga to reduce work stress and depressed mood. The study suggests that yoga might be a cheaper and healthier form of professional interventions and medication alternative to mental illness treatment.
The meditative element of yoga practice produces a soothing state of mind. It is the practice by which there is constant observation of the mind–requiring the student to be still and focus on the ‘self’ and the body. Through meditation, yoga practitioners often achieve a greater sense of purpose and strength of will. This is especially important for those suffering from mental illness or low self-worth.
Oftentimes, people associate the meditation aspect of yoga with spirituality. While there is a big spiritual influence in meditation, students commonly enjoy it for the relaxation aspect. In many yoga classes, the meditative element emerges at the end of practice when the body becomes still in shavasana. Shavasana allows the body a chance to regroup, reset itself and bring the focus inwards. In this state of stillness and sensory withdrawal, it becomes easier to be aware of the breath and mind itself.
In addition to the three parts of practice, yoga can inspire good mental health by providing structured social opportunities. As a student becomes a committed practitioner, they will recognize faces and form friendships important to emotional well-being. All of these aspects are especially beneficial to those troubled by mental health illness.
The benefits of yoga have been studied more closely in the past decades as it has become increasingly popular, however classical techniques of yoga predate written history. In ancient times, human desire for greater personal freedom, good health and heightened self-understanding inspired this system of physical and mental exercise. Regular practice of all three parts of yoga—exercise, breathing and mediation—produces a calm, healthy mind and strong, capable body.
Do yoga to be healthy. Do yoga to be happy.