Yoga for Mental Health: The Science behind it

Yoga for Mental Health: The Science behind it.

Whenever we think of Yoga, the first image that we may get are people performing some really flexible and difficult poses. Almost, making us tell ourselves, ‘Hey this is not meant for me’. However, it’s important to understand that Yoga is not a technique or some exercise.

Yoga in a broad sense is a way of life. It comes from a Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’ that means to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply. Yoga is a lifestyle in itself. It provides certain practical guidelines that are inclusive of physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being.

Yoga has been widely practiced in the east and is gradually being adopted in the west. People have started to experience the importance of spiritual balance that eventually helps in maintaining both physical and mental well-being. This seems to aid in maintaining an overall quality of life and reduced stress. In this fast paced world of globalization, Yoga and its techniques seems to be a path towards a union between our limited self (Jive) and the cosmic self (Atman).

It is well established that mind and body are connected. What we think and feel influence our body and what we do and eat influences our mind. For instance, an individual taking a walk or engaging in exercise is caring for their body. These tend to release Endorphins which are also known as ‘Happy Hormones’ making the person feel good and productive.

Similarly, someone who feels good may want to engage in positive activities like eating healthy and taking care of hygiene. On the other side, we see a lot of physical problems which are either caused or increased by stress. Various skin problems such as psoriasis, hives and acne or some gastro-intestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome are seen to increase due to stress.

Also Read: Is Digital Recluse the Best Practice for Mindfulness? Yoga provides both preventive and therapeutic benefits. It has been shown to offer both physical and mental benefits to the body and the mind. Some physical benefits are:

  1. Improves flexibility and muscle joint mobility
  2. Strengthens, tones and builds muscles
  3. Corrects posture and strengthens the spine
  4. Increases stamina, creates balance and grace
  5. Boosts immune response
  6. Helps in decreasing cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Some of the mental benefits of Yoga are:

  1. Increases body awareness
  2. Relieves chronic stress patterns in the body
  3. Centres attention and improves cognitive processes
  4. Can be used in adjunct with other medical practices for various disorders.
Yoga when used in a therapeutic format is called Yoga Therapy. It is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga. It uses yoga postures, breathing exercises, meditation and guided imagery to improve mental and physical health.

The goals of Yoga therapy are:

  1. Eliminating, reducing or managing symptoms that cause suffering.
  2. Improving the functions in all areas of life.
  3. Helping to prevent the occurrence or reoccurrence of underlying causes of illness.
  4. Moving toward improved health and well-being.
Some Psychological Disorders that can be treated with the help of Yoga therapy are:

  1. Depression: Stressors can be a major contributing factor in depression. Yoga helps in uplifting one’s mood and relieve stress. In yoga therapy for depression, one learns to stabilize and manage the mood. Asanas such as Uttanasana, Bhujangasana, Dhanurasana are recommended. Slow breathing, pranayama, Yogi Nidra and relaxation can help in reducing the symptoms of Depression.
  2. Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of Mania (heightened activity and happiness) and Depression. Yoga Therapy can control one’s mood shift by bringing more awareness to the fluctuating moods. One learns that the moods or any sensation of the body and mind are temporary. One develops self-awareness that helps controls some of the manic tendencies. Some recommended asanas and routine include balasana, bhujangasana, Kapal Randhra Dhauti, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, eating right, monitoring the moods, keeping stress to a minimum and surrounding oneself with supportive people.
  3. Autism: With autism, the mind and body needs to be integrated. Yoga therapy focuses on overall individual development of the child’s strength, flexibility and breathing. A practice of asana and pranayama integrates the body and mind, enhancing connections. The practice helps the child feel calmer and become comfortable with the body, soothing the nervous system and manage emotions more effectively.
  4. Psychosomatic Disorders: These are some physiological issues due to psychological reasons such as stress, anxiety. These include tension headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, skin disorders and so on. Yoga therapy emphasized on self-regulation and stresses the importance of somatopsychic functioning of the individual.
The benefits of Yoga Therapy include:

  1. Calming Effect: The asanas and breathing techniques help become more calm, relaxed and reduces agitation in a lot of mental health conditions.
  2. Increasing Awareness: Yoga practices increases awareness of oneself and of one’s surroundings. As a patient begins to be aware of the most basic physical sensations as heartbeat, pulse and so on it becomes easier to increase awareness to the surroundings and other people.
  3. Increasing Attention Span: Certain practices in Yoga such as Tratak and meditation help increase one’s attention span. This is especially helpful for a lot of mental health conditions.
  4. Acceptance and Adaptabiltity: One of the challenges for rehabilitation of persons with mental illness is that even if they are adequately rehabilitated in their homes, the environment there is often so unhealthy that they can get a relapse. Ideas of acceptance and adaptability are a part of yoga counselling that ease the transition.
Research also supports the same, a study done in 2016 by Amarnath,, Nagendra and Deshpande suggest that by practicing Yoga there is a significant improvement in positive mood and decrease in negative mood.

Yoga is significant to mental health and the world is gradually accepting the same. Quite a few research studies are being undertaken in this area.

Image source-Mpower

Nikita Sulay
Psychologist and Outreach Associate: Mpower – The Foundation
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