If you have ever taken a yoga class, you may remember how you felt afterward: invigorated, peaceful, relaxed. You may have noticed that your everyday thoughts briefly left your mind. While many people practice yoga and enjoy the physical benefits—flexibility and strength—it can be a valuable practice for those experiencing stress, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
The meaning of the word “yoga” is “union,” and practicing yoga leads to a union of the individual consciousness or soul with the universal consciousness or spirit. Yoga engages the body and the mind. On a daily basis, most people look to the external world for happiness, meaning, and fulfillment. They are caught up in the doing of life rather than the being, in action rather than awareness. Yoga is a spiritual practice that takes one’s focus from the external world and the five senses and transfers it to the breath, internal flow of energy, and connection to all things. The breathing, postures, and meditation help refocus the mind and body from the external to the internal.
There are many forms of yoga, including hatha, vinyasa, kundalini, and bikram. While the postures and flow of movement may be different for each, the underlying premise is the same: to still the turbulence of your thoughts and the restlessness of your body and listen to and be aware of yourself. When you focus on your breath and movements, you are most likely not thinking about the errands you need to run later, the mistake you felt you made when talking to your friend, or the anxiety you feel about an upcoming work presentation. And while these thoughts may intrude upon your mind during your practice, you are able to gently push them aside and put your focus back on your breath.
The practice of yoga can have a positive effect on many mental health issues, and these aspects of yoga are most beneficial:
The Breath: A central component of any yoga practice is the breath. Instructors will remind you to bring your focus back to the breath. The idea here is that the body follows the mind, and the mind follows the breath. Short, choppy breaths can cause the mind to feel tense and anxious. A tense mind can cause the muscles to tighten and your heart rate and blood pressure to increase. These physical reactions can lead to the release of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol in the body over long periods can cause serious physical damage. Long, deep breaths lead to a steady mind and a calm body.
Kindness and Acceptance: The practice of yoga involves treating oneself with kindness and accepting oneself. You are instructed to take a posture as far as the body will comfortably allow at that moment. Yoga, which is a nonjudgmental, noncompetitive, and kind practice, teaches you to let go of your ego and believe that no one is better than anyone else.
The Present Moment: Many people spend most of their day in the past or the future. Thinking of the past can lead to sadness, regret, and guilt, while worrying about the future can lead to anxiety and fear. Life is what is happening in the present moment. When in the present moment, you can delight in sights, sounds, smells, and feelings you might have otherwise missed. Keeping your focus on the breath helps keep you focused on the present moment. You will find that this will increase your awareness and knowledge of who you are, mentally and physically.
Spirituality: Yoga is very much a spiritual practice. How spiritual your practice is will depend on the instructor, the type of class, and your intentions for spiritual exploration. The idea that we are more than just our physical bodies and minds can be tremendously empowering and can give your life more meaning or a connection to something outside of you, which can considerably reduce sadness and anxiety.
Yoga can help reduce day-to-day stresses. It can help relieve sadness, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep. For those with more severe mental health issues, yoga can be a strong partner alongside your other treatments, such as talk therapy and/or medication.
The greatest impact of the practice of yoga is the increased sense of love and acceptance you may develop for yourself. When you embrace the spiritual component of this age-old practice and realize we are all connected, your feelings of compassion and connection to all things can change your outlook to one of positive, loving energy. And when you celebrate your strengths and are more understanding and accepting of your faults and weaknesses, you will be more accepting of others.
Yoga is not just a workout for the body but a workout for the mind and spirit.