Yoga is a practice that can lead to an overall improvement in one’s physical and psychological well-being.1 Regular practice can result in decreased symptoms of anxiety and PTSD, as well as improved mental focus, sleep quality, and mood. Yoga routines can be easily adapted and modified to a person’s individual needs, helping to make these benefits easily accessible.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga is a practice that is used to unite one’s mind, body, and spirit. Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word, which translates as “to yoke” or “union.” To yoke means to unite the mind, the body, the breath, and spirit. Yoga texts can be traced back as early as 800 BC in a series of texts known as the Upanishads.2 In the west, many people are familiar with the asana of yoga, which are the physical postures used in practice. However, there are many more elements involved in yoga, such as meditation and guidelines to live by.
Benefits of Yoga for Mental Health
Practicing yoga can be beneficial for one’s mental and physical health, as it affects the physiology of their body, hormones, and brain chemistry. In yoga, as the body starts to become more flexible and fit, so does the mind.
Below are the benefits of yoga for mental health:
1. Improved Mood
Practicing yoga elevates certain hormones in the body and chemicals in the brain, one of which is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Along with physical benefits, increased levels of GABA can result in improved and uplifted moods.3
2. Sharper Brain
Yoga, particularly Iyengar yoga, is a systematic practice that teaches students body awareness as they move through certain poses. Over time, staying present by focusing on one’s body and movements increases mental clarity.
Research suggests that yoga positively affects certain neurological functions in the brain that are linked to focus and concentration.4 This may be due to the development of a thicker cerebral cortex–responsible for information processing–and hippocampus–involved in learning and memory–that comes with regular practice.5 Additionally, some studies indicate that yoga may even decrease brain shrinkage in areas of the brain that affect cognition and memory.6
3. Decreased Anxiety
Yoga is a great complementary method when treating anxiety disorders, as it has been proven to help decrease stress levels.5, 7 Yoga helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing a person’s body to relax after experiencing perceived dangers or threats. This, along with increased levels of GABA in the body, can help lower symptoms of anxiety.8
For example, during stressful times, the diaphragm–the major muscle involved in respiration–becomes taught and rigid. The practice of yoga works to bring elasticity to the diaphragm through diaphragmatic breathwork, thus allowing for more movement and deeper breaths. In turn, a person is able to ease tension, anxiety, and regain a sense of calm.
4. Reduced PTSD Symptoms
Yoga is believed to affect the pathology of PTSD by improving somatic regulation and body awareness, which are imperative to maintaining emotion regulation.9, 10 Students learn how to support their bodies when holding difficult postures and poses, which allows a person to feel grounded and calm. Furthermore, students are taught to reflect, not react, when remaining in poses. This practice can help one feel at ease, even under pressure or in triggering situations.
5. Decreased Anger
Yoga is beneficial for emotional regulation, particularly when it comes to handling frustration and anger. A yoga class will ideally provide a safe space to explore one’s feelings and emotions which may come up while in difficult poses. One may experience any number of thoughts or emotions while practicing, but is taught to remain calm and accept these feelings as they pass.11
6. Improved Sleep
Yoga can be effective in treating insomnia and improving sleep quality.12, 13 Many of the breath exercises taught, known as pranayamas, have been noted as being particularly helpful for those suffering with insomnia. Practicing before bed while lying down shows the body that it’s time to relax, slow down, and prepare for sleep.
7. Decreased Symptoms of Depression
Research indicates that practicing yoga regularly increases neurotransmitters in the brain associated with elevated moods.7 One study conducted with seniors showed that engaging in a 12-week yoga therapy program resulted in decreased symptoms of depression in participants.14
8. Reduced Stress
We can become easily overwhelmed when we have multiple things going on at once. Yoga is a great stress management tool, as regular practice can help increase serotonin levels.15 In turn, a person can enter a more relaxed state and experience relief from distress.
What Research Says About the Benefits of Yoga for Mental Health
Many studies indicate that yoga, as well as other complementary medicines, can provide numerous mental health benefits. Additionally, it is considered a preferable choice of treatment by some, as practicing yoga does not bring with it some of the adverse side effects of medications.16
Additional Benefits of Yoga
Not only does yoga improve a person’s overall mental health, but also their physical well-being. Yoga increases one’s flexibility, strength, and balance, as well as their awareness of their body. The more connected a person is with their body, the more connected they are with themselves.
Additional benefits of yoga may include:
- Improved discipline: Practicing yoga teaches discipline as it requires consistent practice. You may not feel like practicing yoga sometimes, but once you get going, you will be happy you did.
- Healthy weight maintenance: Practicing yoga helps you become attuned with your body, allowing you to better recognize hunger cues and sense of fullness.
- Relief from back pain: Yoga helps provide relief from back pain by creating space in between the muscles and joints.
- Increased energy: The role of one’s breath in yoga helps to energize the practitioner. With continued study, you can learn to regulate your breath no matter what challenges are going on in your life.
- Better self-care: Yoga focuses on being present in the moment, which can help a person pay better attention to their needs off of the mat and in their life.16
- Connection to a community: If you practice with a yoga group, you have stepped into a community of people with whom you can find a sense of commonality.
How to Start a Yoga Routine
If you are new to yoga, starting a routine may feel daunting. However, finding a beginner class or introduction series is a great way to start. You will want to arrive at the studio a few minutes early, and let the teacher know if you have any injuries or conditions that may require particular modifications.
If you are unable to find a studio, or would prefer practicing at home, there are also numerous online courses available. That being said, if you are looking to become involved in a community, an in-person yoga class can offer you this.
Here are some tips for starting yoga on your own:
Wear the Right Clothes
Prior to starting a yoga routine, you will want to have a few comfortable outfits to practice in. You may already have what you need–leggings, shorts, or a comfortable shirt. You can purchase a simple or thicker yoga mat at many stores.
Decide if You Want a Class or Private Lesson
Starting with a few private lessons can allow you to modify basic movements to fit your individual needs. It is important to remember that private lessons are more expensive, but can be well worth it.
A beginning or intro class will put you in contact with a group of like-minded people. Group classes are larger, so you won’t get the same attention as you would in a private lesson. However, if you do not have any physical conditions or limitations, these types of classes are more affordable and accessible.
Find a Teacher Who Inspires You
Finding a teacher who inspires you may be the most important aspect of sticking with your yoga program. No two yoga teachers are the same, so you may want to try a few classes before deciding on which one to commit to. Pay attention to the overall pace of a class and determine if it is suitable for your level of expertise. Try to have fun and an open mind as you explore different options.
Find a Class That Is Convenient for You
Finding a class that is convenient and affordable is vital if you want to make your yoga class part of your life. You may have a busy life, so choosing a location that is easily accessible means you’ll be more likely to stay consistent.
Have Fun With the Process
Starting a yoga practice is like learning a new language, but for your mind and body. Approach your class with an openness and curiosity. Try to suspend your judgements and evaluations of yourself, as yoga is all about remaining present with and accepting of yourself in your environment.
Consider an Online Class
If you know that getting to a class will be problematic, opting for an online class is a great option. Many studios offer beginner courses online, so if you prefer to practice in the comfort of your home, then online is the way to go. To practice yoga at home, be sure to have a few blankets, two blocks, a yoga strap, and a mat ready.
Risks of Practicing Yoga for Mental Health
There are risks to any physical practice, so it is critical to find a well-trained yoga teacher when first starting out. If you have a health condition or injury, check with your doctor before starting a routine.
To reduce your chance of getting hurt, you should only practice with a teacher who is familiar with your particular conditions. If you are pregnant, elderly, or injured, communicate this with your teacher beforehand. Also, remember that practicing hot yoga can lead to dehydration and overheating so take care. Consider starting with a beginner class series to determine if yoga is a good fit for you.
Alternatives to Yoga
If the physical aspects of yoga aren’t possible for you, there are other aspects of the practice that one can learn. A person can start a restorative or pranayama class as a gentle way to begin. These make use of many props, such as bolsters and blankets, so you can stay comfortable while posing and focusing on your breath.
One can also benefit from starting a mindfulness practice, such as meditation. Meditation encourages someone to focus on their breath while noticing and accepting any thoughts or emotions that come up.
How to Tell If Yoga Is Working for You
The benefits you experience from yoga depend on how frequently you practice it. Yoga isn’t a quick-fix, but the positive changes often occur subtly and gradually, sometimes profoundly.
If you are practicing yoga and aren’t sure if you are benefiting from it, talk to your teacher about what you can improve on. Your teacher can guide you to target symptoms of what is causing you distress. Such as in the Iyengar system, there are poses designed for particular mental challenges, as well as physical ailments.
Know that practicing yoga alone may not provide you with enough support for your mental and physical health issues. If you are suffering from a mental health disorder, consider seeking out a psychotherapist for additional guidance and treatment. Many therapists appreciate the mind-body connection when addressing mental health, such as in the case of Gestalt therapy.
In My Experience
In my experience, yoga has proved beneficial for my mental and physical health since I first began practicing. It has also supported me through many challenges and transitions in my life. With the guidance of a teacher, you can tweak and tailor your practice to support you throughout your own life. The beauty of yoga is that you can always practice some aspect of it, no matter what is going on around you. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, yoga is a great way to start supporting your mental health.