How yoga can help strengthen your mental health

Don’t underestimate the efficacy of yoga in coping with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression

woman doing child pose | yoga for mental health

It is normal to feel low if things do not go the way we expected them to. If you are feeling down because of the socially distanced lifestyle, you are not alone. Indeed, it is only natural to feel that way and you do not have to force yourself to be happy all the time. Life is a series of ups and downs, so rest assured that when the circumstances change or when something wonderful happens, your mood will improve on its own.

However, if you have been feeling down for an extended period of time, with a persistent feeling of sadness and a loss of interest in daily living, you might be suffering from depression. Depression need to not be linked to an event and may include suicidal tendencies. A study suggested that if we eliminate depression, suicide rates would go down by as much as 80 per cent.

If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, my first advice is to talk to someone who is kind, compassionate and empathetic and is willing to listen without judging you. If possible, see a trained counsellor. Talking to a friend or a well-wisher often puts things in the appropriate perspective.

Next, I would suggest you kickstart your yoga practice right away. Don’t underestimate the efficacy of yoga in managing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Indeed, my own journey is a testimony to its powerful benefits on one’s mental health, for had it not been for yoga [and my friends], I too may have been part of the terrible statistics.

Yoga and mental health

Various researches including the one by Journal of Affective Disorders have concluded that yoga-based interventions are “an attractive option for treatment of depression”. According to Harvard Medical School, a new research on yoga has yielded promising evidence that yoga could complement traditional treatment for depression. It was seen that a regular practice of yoga helped modulate stress response which, in turn, was beneficial for those with depression and anxiety.

My own journey into wellbeing started when I was on medication for depression and anxiety. Interestingly, one of the side-effects of the medication was suicidal feelings. [Yes, your anti-depressant could make you suicidal.]

For me, a few rounds of Surya Namaskar (sun-salutations), headstand and kapalbhati played a big role in dissolving the suicidal thoughts. While Ayurveda believes this has to do with yoga’s ability to balance and energise chakras in a therapeutic manner, we are yet to understand the intricacies from a modern research perspective. This is not due to lack of evidence but rather because we do not have methodologies to study the shift in suicidal tendencies.

4 ways yoga benefits your mental health

1. Regulates good and bad hormones

At the most basic level, any physical activity helps improve muscle tone and circulation and causes a surge in endorphins—the feel-good hormones. Yoga goes a few steps further. A well-designed yoga session not just works at a physical level but also helps increase the energy field by removing mental and emotional blocks and not just muscle knots. Ideally, after finishing a traditional yoga session, you would feel like you received an Abhyangam. Yoga helps reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol while increasing happy hormones like GABA, serotonin and dopamine, all critical neurotransmitters related to mood.

2. Encourages slow, deep breathing

Gymnasts perform many postures that look similar to yoga asanas, but they do not get all the benefits of an asana. This is because yoga practice involves slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing which, in turn, helps the body and mind to relax. The yogic style of breathing is known to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagal tone, both extremely important to help us move away from stress and towards relaxation.

3. Promotes mindfulness

Depression often leads us to replay our past whereas anxiety is related to the thoughts of the future. In yoga, you are encouraged to keep your attention on the breath and not let your mind wander. An authentic yoga teacher reminds her students to keep bringing their attention back to the now. With regular practice, being centered and mindful comes easily.

4. Builds resilience

Yoga helps us face failure and build resilience by bringing us face to face with our vulnerabilities and strengths. On the mat we learn that we can’t always do a pose that looks easy for another person. We learn also that after months of practice, we are nowhere closer to touching our toes. But the principles of Abhyasa and Vairagya—practice incessantly, practice without expectation of results—keep us grounded and committed. We show up and try again, until we begin to surprise ourselves. When we are in a difficult pose on the mat, the teacher encourages us to observe, to breathe, embrace our limits and to know within that “this too shall pass”—an excellent learning for a difficult phase off the mat. This is how yoga builds our adversity quotient while teaching us to be kind to ourselves.

Further reading:

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Nuthan Manohar
Nuthan Manohar is an international trainer, primary researcher and TEDx speaker on wellbeing, She left a career in international brand consulting to pursue wellness interventions based on yoga and behaviour. At present, she is Behavioural and Wellness Expert at SARVA Yoga Studios.

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