There are four proven ways that yoga benefits our mental health. The secrets go beyond the mat. Read on to learn how and why yoga practice can change your outlook.
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“Yoga philosophy teaches us that we have everything we need inside of us to tend to all of life’s moments, from the happiest to the most challenging.”
The Humble Beginnings that Led to Breakthrough
Anxiety and depression are something I’ve battled with most of my life.
When I first started practicing yoga in 2017, I was a mess.
In outward appearance, I looked physically and emotionally strong, but on the inside, I was struggling. The toll of a high-pressured job mixed with lots of travel had rendered me unrecognizable to myself. From the moment I got out of bed to the moment I rested my head on a new pillow in a new hotel, I was a tight and anxious.
At the time I turned to yoga after a few injuries had left me unable to practice daily strength training. As someone who always used strength training as an outlet for stress and anxiety, not having that in my life left me feeling out of sorts.
My physical therapist recommended I add yoga to my daily practice and rehabilitation from a herniated disk in my neck. Not knowing where to turn to learn the practice, I did what most likely do these days and did a little research on YouTube. What I found was a plethora of useful instruction and endless resources for learning.
As a morning person, I decided to make a commitment to adding 30 minutes of yoga to my morning routine to see if it might help.
For the first two weeks I felt like I was just going through the motions.
While I had noticed some benefit, mainly after my morning practice, it wasn’t until a breakthrough morning with some breath work that I found myself realizing what all the accolades of yoga were about.
From that morning on I was hooked!
The Student Becomes the Teacher
Since then I’ve become a student of the practice and recently have begun working to further my progress through teaching.
Yoga is a powerful tool for healing the mind, body, and spirit. My belief is that we owe it to ourselves and each other to share the daily practices that lead to happiness from within. Therefore, it’s my duty to progress from student to teacher while at the same time committing to forever holding on to the notion of continuous development and progress.
A good teacher is always learning and thus is always a student themselves of the practice.
Recently as part of this practice and process, I was asked to write an essay as part of my teacher training on one of the healing benefits of yoga.
What better place to start then than to research exactly what and how yoga benefits those that, like me, suffer from anxiety and depression?
The Research Behind Yoga’s Benefits for Controlling Anxiety and Depression
Through my research, I found that there are a number of ways that yoga helps with anxiety and depression.
When we practice yoga, we tap into the inner workings of our body and mind. In turn, we become students of our own body. It is through this deep understanding of ourselves that we develop better self-confidence, rewire our brains, reduce cortisol, and improve strength. These are the four elements that directly benefit a reduction in anxiety and depression. While none of this is immediate and likely shouldn’t be viewed as a cure, it certainly has been shown to be a powerful tool in treatment. When practiced regularly, yoga can keep even the most anxious and depressed person feeling in control of their own destiny.
The Four Elements
So, let’s take a deeper look into the four elements: self-confidence, the brain re-wired, reduced cortisol, and improved strength.
Want to know how to gain self-confidence and feel better about yourself?
Practice yoga and study its philosophies. (Or just read on…)
A recent publication in the yoga journal entitled This One Simple Practice Will Change How You Feel About Yourself highlights this very thing. “Yoga philosophy teaches us that we have everything we need inside of us to tend to all of life’s moments, from the happiest to the most challenging.”
This is because yoga teaches us to be deliberate in our movements, breath, and thought. Its practices force us to slow down in a society that has plagued us with overstimulation. “When we slow down, get quiet, and pay attention to our personal wisdom, we gain personal wisdom to improve a situation, make a decision, or solve a problem.”
By its very nature, yoga teaches us to find confidence within ourselves. Much of anxiety and depression is characterized by a feeling of lack of control. When we practice yoga we are teaching ourselves to find that confidence within ourselves to know and understand that while we may not be able to control all outcomes, we can control our reaction and emotions to them.
The Brain Re-Wired
Since the roots of yoga predate the scientific study and neurological function of the brain by thousands of years, it is unlikely the early yogis fully understood the changes occurring in the brain. However, while it may not have been scientifically proven at the time, it was certainly understood that yoga could bring about psychological change in a person.
The traditional yogic perspective of depression was that it was caused by either a rajasic state, characterized by anxiety, or a tamasic state more synonymous with a feeling of hopelessness. In his book Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques, by Mark Stephens, the author describes the transformation that happens in the brain as “clarity”. This clarity brings about change and understanding in a person through the practice of asana(poses), pranayama(breathwork), and meditation.
Today we now know a little bit more what exactly is going on. Our brains have what is called neuroplasticity. According to www.medicinenet.com, neuroplasticity is defined as “the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.” When we suffer from depression and anxiety, changes occur in the white matter of the brain. Through the practice of meditation, mindfulness, pranayama, and asanas, we can create new neural pathways.
According to Dr. Matthew Dalva, a professor of neuroscience at the Vickie and Jack Farber Institute of Neuroscience, “our brains never stop changing.” In fact when viewed under high powered medical equipment we can “see tiny clumps of proteins move around, change, and even grow when we are learning something new.”
Understanding this principle then, that our brains have an ability to change and develop new neurological connections, it’s easy to see how yoga could benefit its practitioners suffering from emotional distress.
Cortisol is our stress hormone. When levels of cortisol are high, we are stressed.
Consequently, then when we effectively regulate or reduce cortisol levels our stress response goes down.
Yoga has been scientifically proven to reduce cortisol levels and stress.
A recent study published in the NCBI found that patients suffering from depressive disorders practicing yoga had a greater reduction in cortisol levels than patients of the same cohort that tried drug therapy alone.*1 The study found, with statistical significance, that yoga acts on the level of the hypothalamus to reduce cortisol and bring about relief to depression.
By reducing your cortisol levels and re-wiring your brain synapses, we can effectively reduce the effects of depression and anxiety.
Improved strength and flexibility will improve posture, reduces aches and pains, and relieve joint pain. Simply put, when you feel better in your skin, you feel better in your mind.
According to a recent publication by the American Osteopathic Association, the regular practice of yoga not only improves physical health, but it greatly improves mental health as well. As Dr. Natalie Nevins sites in the article, “yoga builds strength, awareness, and harmony in both the body and mind.” She goes on to say, “as an osteopathic physician, much of my practice is on preventive medicine and the body’s ability to heal itself. Yoga is a great tool because it’s based on similar principles.”
When we become more aware of our body and its abilities, we tune in to changes and make adjustments before they become problematic. Learning proper alignment of the spine, neck, and joints improves strength and alleviates stress both physically and mentally.
Strength leads to confidence and confidence leads to reduced stress.
Closing Thoughts and Call to Action
“When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.” – Wayne Dyer
Change rarely comes about without consciously taking action to improve on a situation. Rarely do we put the same amount of energy into analyzing the inner alignment of our mind, body, and spirit as we do the external changes occurring around us. Furthermore, often we can’t change the external factors that lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. By starting from within, we empower ourselves to bring about the change that is in our control.
So, if you're new to yoga, or if you’ve ever found yourself interested in understanding why this thousand-year-old practice continues to gain popularity, treat yourself and learn the principles. You will soon find that the work you put in on your mat translates to change well beyond the confines of your practice.
“Benefits of Yoga.” American Osteopathic Association, osteopathic.org/what-is-osteopathic-medicine/benefits-of-yoga/.
Butera, Jennifer Kreatsoulas and Robert. “This One Simple Practice Will Change How You Feel About Yourself.” Yoga Journal, 1 Nov. 2018, www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/yoga-for-confidence-a-practice-to-boost-self-esteem.
Denise Mann, MS. “15 Strange Things That Can Literally Rewire Your Brain.” The Healthy, The Healthy, 24 May 2018, www.thehealthy.com/aging/mind-memory/strange-things-that-can-literally-rewire-your-brain/.
“Health and Medical Information Produced by Doctors.” MedicineNet, MedicineNet, 2020, www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp.
Publishing, Harvard Health. “Yoga for Anxiety and Depression.” Harvard Health, 2010, www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression.
Stephens, Mark. Teaching Yoga Essential Foundations and Techniques. North Atlantic Books, 2010.
Thirthalli, J, et al. “Cortisol and Antidepressant Effects of Yoga.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, July 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768222/.