Yoga… Could It Be Your Answer to Mental Health?

Yoga has come a long way since the ’70s. Today, a yoga studio is as common a town feature as a local Starbucks. Deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and body treatments like Reiki are now part of mainstream culture and are here to stay. So, don’t think just because they get lumped into a health and therapy category called alternative health practices that they are less important to your well being.

𝗬𝗼𝗴𝗮 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗠𝗲𝗻𝘁𝗮𝗹 𝗛𝗲𝗮𝗹𝘁𝗵

There is a growing body of research to back up yoga’s mental health benefits. Yoga increases body awareness, relieves stress, reduces muscle tension, strain, and inflammation, sharpens attention and concentration, and calms and centers the nervous system.

Yoga’s positive benefits on mental health have made it an important practice tool of psychotherapy (American Psychological Association). It has been shown to enhance social well being through a sense of belonging to others, and improve the symptoms of depression, attention deficit and hyperactivity, and sleep disorders. Also, yoga can improve symptoms of schizophrenia when it is done alongside drug therapy (Yoga and Mental Health, Huffington Post 2013).

Also, yoga has been shown to increase the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a chemical in the brain that helps to regulate nerve activity. This is especially relevant to people who have anxiety disorders in which GABA activity is low.

Yoga also improves the mood, behavior, and mindfulness of high school students taking yoga classes in addition to PE than students taking PE alone. It has been shown to improve workplace well-being and resilience too.

But, let’s not stop here. Yoga’s benefits extend to adult caregivers who experience lower life satisfaction, depression, and stress and high levels of biological markers for inflammation. One study found that practicing a 12-minute daily eight-week program of yoga exercise resulted in reducing markers of inflammation in adults taking care of loved ones stricken with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Clearly, mind and body practices, like yoga, meditation, deep breathing and prayer help to reduce stress and improves stress-related nervous system imbalances. But, how do they do this? Is there one main mechanism at play here?

Researchers say it is the relaxation response that accompanies these mind and body practices that lead to the many improvements to physical and mental health. A new study from investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center finds that the deep, physiological state of rest induced by such practices produces immediate positive change in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.

What is a deep state of physiological relaxation? It is a change in calm and relaxation that takes place on a neurobiological level. Even having a good time out with friends or family is not enough to relax your biology on a cellular level. It takes a certain amount of brain and body stimulation to laugh, animatedly move our faces and bodies, and to listen and respond effectively to social cues. We need enough adrenaline pumping to our brain, heart, and muscles to do this. So, you see, even socializing, playing an enjoyable game of tennis or golf, or shopping with a friend is actually a state of biochemical tension. For the body to relax at the nerve and cellular level, we need to alter body processes that shift us biochemically from a state of excitement and tension to a state of calm, deep rest and relaxation. Only deep breathing that accompanies mind-body practices like yoga can do this.

𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗣𝗵𝘆𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗹𝗼𝗴𝘆 𝗼𝗳 𝗬𝗼𝗴𝗮

How could the holding of a physical pose, like dolphin pose, neurobiologically relax you and also strengthen the mind and body?

Yoga practice changes the firing patterns of the nerves and chemical makeup of the body’s fluids and blood gases that activates a relaxation response. By concentrating on carrying out the specific body posture and alignment of a pose and then holding it as you breathe deeply, the body starts to shift from a state of biochemical arousal and tension to calm and relaxation. Relaxing yourself deeply into a yoga pose through deep breathing lowers the brain’s response to threat. The body starts to turn off arousing nerve chemicals, like adrenaline and stops dumping fatty acids and sugar into the bloodstream for brain, muscle, and motor energy. Also, sodium leaves the inside of the body’s cells. This slows down the rate of nerve firing and further relaxes your brain, heart, and muscles. This state of biochemical relaxation oxygenates the blood, restores blood acidity and alkalinity balance, and reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and motor activity.

Yoga postures work on all systems of the body. Besides strengthening and elongating muscles, yoga postures tone up glands, internal organs, and spine nerves. Additionally, increased blood flow helps the digestive system to better extract nutrients from the foods you eat and the lymphatic system to eliminate toxins from the body.

𝗬𝗼𝗴𝗮: 𝗧𝗼 𝗝𝗼𝗶𝗻 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗨𝗻𝗶𝘁𝗲

Undoubtedly, yoga practice improves quality of life. We learn to note differences between tense and calm body processes so that we can implement a change through yoga postures and deep breathing. But, the practice of yoga over time also has psychological and spiritual benefits.

In Sanskrit, yoga means to unite. As you grow in your ability to sense the relationship between your mind and body, you become more aware of dualities that exist in experience. The practice of yoga brings you to the awareness that there is a relationship between two ends of one phenomenon. You are body and mind. There is never a point in which you are just one or the other. Too, you are ego and spirit, tension and relaxation, pain and ease, balance and unsteadiness, love and hate, and separated and united.

What does this awareness do for you? When you realize that opposites are only different expressions of the same phenomenon, your treatment of them changes. At the simplest level, you see that when you treat the body you are also treating the mind. At a deeper level, you start to live in an integrated way. You are not just a social identity, a personality—you are a public, relational, psychological and spiritual self. You begin to make choices that nurture and support your whole being. Is this food, relationship, lover or job good for me wholly? Do my choices positively affect and grow my whole being? These are the questions you begin to ask when you start growing in this overall awareness.

What is more, when you start taking responsibility for the whole of you, you stop locating problems as starting outside of yourself. You give meanings to experience that opens up choice, lets you problem solve, and allows you to keep growing.

Source: May 23, 2013

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