How Yoga Improves Your Mental Health in 4 Surprising Ways
Yoga is a body-mind practice, meaning that it offers an integrated, holistic approach to your physical and mental health. Yoga’s primary physical benefits, including improved strength, flexibility, and balance, get a lot of press, but its mental benefits are just as powerful. A few examples of how yoga can positively affect mental health are:
• Yoga asana and pranayama (breath control) reduce stress through hormonal regulation.
• Treating yoga as a moving meditation gives your brain a break.
• Community activities like group yoga classes are proven to elevate your mood and even promote longevity.
• Sticking with something difficult and improving over time fosters a growth mindset, which encourages our brains to be more open to learning, changing, and growing.
These mental benefits in combination with physical stretching and strengthening mean that a long-term yoga practise is a powerful way to improve your quality of life.
We’ve Got Chemistry
Exercise helps your body process stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol while also stimulating the production of feel-good endorphins. That means that after exercise, your body’s chemical makeup is more inclined toward contentment and calmness than it was before. You may have experienced this feeling yourself after a run or a vigorous yoga class.
Yoga’s focus on breathing gives you more tools that help regulate the body’s response to stress. One of the symptoms of stress is fast breathing, which is part of the fight-or-flight response that heightens the body’s instincts to confront danger or run away. Most of the stressors we encounter in modern life don’t actually require a physical response so it’s useful to be able to send the body signals that it’s ok to relax. Yoga teaches us to be aware of changes in our breath and to control the breath for specific purposes. Deliberately slowing the breath lets the body know that it’s safe.
It’s Come to Our Attention
Yoga also helps manage stress by giving your brain a break from its constant activity. Most of our anxiety is generated by worrying about what could go wrong in the future or fixating on what has gone wrong in the past. Yoga anchors you in the present moment by encouraging you to focus your attention on your current physical sensations and your breath. This effectively turns asana into a moving meditation.
Attending yoga classes helps facilitate these brain breaks. At first, just processing the verbal instructions from the teacher and translating them into physical movements in your body can occupy all your attention for the duration of a yoga class, leaving no room for outside thoughts. As you continue to practice and your body gets more accustomed to taking the basic shapes of the poses, you learn to focus on fine-tuning your alignment (a project that never ends!).
There are always new sensations to be noticed and ways to continue to challenge yourself, so yoga doesn’t become boring. It continues to require all your attention. Even years into your practice, the habit of focusing on your breath and body during yoga remains a reliable way to take time off from your monkey mind.
An often-overlooked mental benefit of yoga is that it offers individuals the opportunity to come together in community. Being part of a community affirms our place in the world, acting as a safety net in tough times and magnifying our joy in good ones.
Communities can be hard to find in adulthood but doing yoga together fills this gap. Being a yoga class regular allows you to build lasting relationships with your teachers and fellow students. Yoga is particularly suited to bonding because everyone is there to do something challenging, which makes them feel a little vulnerable. Receiving support from the person on the next mat, even if it’s just in the form of breathing together, makes us feel connected and valued. Participation in communal activities has been shown to engender a sense of well-being and even to contribute to longevity.
Grow Your Mindset
Yoga is also really effective in promoting what educators call a growth mindset. A fixed mindset in which your fear of failure causes stagnation limits your ability to change, grow, and improve. Yoga teaches you to experience failure as part of the growth process rather than as a referendum on your worthiness as a human. Failure on the yoga mat happens early and often as your body tries to assimilate new skills. This low-stakes arena for failure is a valuable learning tool, proving that if we put in time and effort, we can all do hard things.
It’s All in Your Head
While it’s possible to experience the mental health benefits of exercise, meditation, community, and a growth mindset in many different ways, yoga is unique in bringing them all together, and that’s before we’ve even counted in its physical benefits! Yoga really is a whole-body practice and the whole body includes the brain.