Much is known about the fact that Yoga gives you flexibility, tone and strength in your body. But did you know that there are considerable benefits to mental health and wellbeing through Yoga as well.
Yoga is more than the exercises and Instagram postures you might be familiar with. Yoga is a holistic system for living that balances body, mind, emotions and spirit. Its true goal is not anything to do with the body, its purpose at its deepest level is the development of the soul to Enlightenment. That doesn’t mean that the body is not important, but if all you know of Yoga is the postures, then you are missing a lot of opportunity for growth and happiness.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the original text setting out what Yoga is, gives us guidance on on the 8 Limbs of Yoga. These 8 limbs set out a path to enlightenment through Yoga.
Like all the best journeys, you can gain a lot along the way. Yoga is great for physical health, but it is also an amazing vehicle for positive mental health.
Here are 6 ways that Yoga promotes good mental health.
Yoga is well known for promoting relaxation. Yoga practice that focuses on the breath, as opposed to those that focus on merely developing fitness and promoting weight loss, offer great potential for deep and lasting relaxation. Yoga increases the level of GABA in the brain. This is a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation and calm feelings in us. Alcohol mimics this neurotransmitter, which is why it is believed that alcohol helps us to relax, but it isn’t real relaxation.
Yoga balances the nervous system, taking it out of the ‘flight or fight’ response, and into the ‘rest and digest’ response. Yoga can help to improve sleep by allowing you to be more relaxed at bedtime, and giving you tools to help to release the tension that insomnia can cause.
Yoga postures, combined with the breath, can release and reduce tension we store unknowingly in the body, which is both created by mental stress, and contributes to it. Letting go of this tension impacts on physical health as well as reducing mental stress.
True relaxation is to be found in the harmonising of mind and body. Yoga teaches us to do this, to use the mind to relax the body, and the body to relax the mind.
We live in an endlessly busy, ever moving, over stimulating world. We are encouraged to seek answers to our problems, to seek happiness, approval and love outside ourselves, finding it in other people, the acquisition of things, through sensory gratification, status, fame, money and more. Yoga teaches us what many wealthy, famous, high ranking, well connected people will tell you when they get honest – none of these things brings happiness.
My personal hero and spiritual guide George Harrison was one of the most famous men on the planet, and while it made him wealthy, connected and gave him the ability to buy anything he wanted, these things didn’t make him happy. Only his spiritual seeking and moments of stillness, spiritual discovery and quiet normalcy seems to have done that.
What brings happiness can only be found inside yourself, it is self love, self reliance, self understanding and being present in the moment.
Yoga teaches us to find all these things. The purpose of Yoga is self realisation, connection to the part of us that we cannot find in the noise of every day life. This is the part of us that knows on a profound level who we really are, what our purpose in life is, and what we really need in life. When we get still, through meditative practices, focus on the breath, breath guided asanas (postures), we become connected to this inner Self, and there we can find happiness.
Compassion for ourselves is vital for happiness and mental wellbeing. The word compassion means “to love together with” which is such a beautiful meaning, don’t you think? Self compassion, therefore, is self love.
We are not, in general, encouraged by society to love ourselves. If we describe someone as loving themselves, it tends to be meant in a derogatory sense, meaning that they think they are better than others think they are.But why should loving yourself be seen as a negative thing? Imagine what a different world we would live in if people genuinely loved themselves, genuinely felt acceptance, compassion and deep love for themselves. Would we need to prove our worth by trying to outdo others? How many acts of violence, both to others and to ourselves, are committed on a daily basis because of a deep lack of self love?
I drank almost every day for 20 years because I hated myself and preferred to be inebriated in my own company than sober. Had I felt in any way good about myself, I would have treated myself with far greater kindness.
Yoga allows us to sit with who we are, to learn to accept where and who we are in this moment, to forgive past mistakes, to let go of resentment and pain, to live a less judgemental, self critical life, and to move forward into a new way of being with love and compassion. Once we can feel this love and compassion for ourselves, we can extend it joyfully and genuinely to others.
Mindfulness is a big buzzword these days, and many people are practising mindfulness as a way to manage stress and anxiety. There is mindfulness based addiction recovery, office mindfulness, mindfulness for children and more. This is amazing, and I love that more people are recognising the importance of this state of mindfulness.
Yoga, if viewed as more than asana practice, is mindfulness in action. Yoga is a way of life that actively promotes a more mindful approach to life. It encourages you to become conscious of your thoughts, your actions, your words. It encourages awareness of the body, paying attention to your breath, your posture, the food you put into the body, the way you move, relax and enjoy your body. Through the Yamas and Niyamas of Yoga, you can become more mindful of how you are interacting with those close to you, your community, the world at large, and yourself. You will learn how to look at your life with compassion, gratitude and love. Pranayama teaches us to become present in the moment, using the breath to unite mind and body in the now. Yoga can be seen as nothing more than an exercise routine, but if you integrate it more deeply into your life, it will develop deep mindfulness while also bringing health and wellbeing to the body and soul
Soothing Nervous System
The frazzled nervous system is one of the 21st century’s biggest health problems. We are bombarded on a daily basis with sensory information designed to trigger and stimulate the nervous system, and it is killing us slowly. Stress is linked to the 6 biggest killer diseases we face today, including heart disease, cancer, cirrhosis of the liver and more.
The news is designed to tell us only the scary stuff, never the good, to keep us permanently scared. We are learning that the social media channels we have come to depend on were designed to mess with the reward system in the brain, to create addictions. Marketing messages constantly tell us that we are not xxx enough, and that happiness will be found in this thing or that thing, only for us to then find that we “need” another thing to make us happy. Wages are getting squeezed as costs rise, job insecurity is rife, it is no wonder we are all stressed and depression is predicted to be the second biggest killer in the West by 2020.
Yoga can offer a sanctuary from the noise, and can give us space and tools to help us navigate this overly stressful world we live in. By soothing and balancing the nervous system, from helping us move out of the flight or fight response too many of us spend most of our days in, we can live a more peaceful, happy, content life, let go of the fear mongering, comparisonitis, exhortations to buy more things, and the fear that we are somehow lacking as people if we aren’t as beautiful/thin/rich etc as the people who are held up as role models.
One of the most powerful weapons we have in the fight against stress is resilience. Resilience is the ‘ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy’ (dictionary.com) It is this ability that allows us to deal with the ups and downs of life. To be able to look at a situation that is causing you distress in some way, and know that you are able to get through it. Resilience is something we are all born with, but life’s experiences can diminish it.
A person with low resilience can, however, strengthen that resilience, and yoga offers a range of tools to help this.
Through becoming present, through balancing the nervous system, through effective relaxation, self compassion and a mindful approach to life, resilience can grow.
Resilience is not the absence of problems, but it is knowing that you can get through them, being able to see what needs to be done and doing it, and emerging stronger at the end of it. Resilience comes from knowing that you will learn valuable lessons from the hardship you face, and that the lessons you have learned in the past will help you face it.
Resilience is saying to life ‘you can challenge me all you want, but you will not break me, I am strong’.
It was the development of resilience that meant I, as an alcoholic, was finally able to walk away from the wine I had depended on for so many years, as I had a vast range of other coping strategies to help me deal with life’s stress.
Yoga goes so far beyond the postures. There are so many gifts you will be given if you choose to make yoga a part of how you show up in the world, and in your own life.