Over the last decade or so, we've seen a massive increase in mental health awareness. More and more people are speaking up about mental health issues and how "it's ok not to be ok". Mental health in the workplace is also gaining in importance, with many employers addressing the issue and implementing measures to make sure employees are happy at work. The COVID-19 pandemic also pushed forward the topic. Many countries were forced to step up their mental health services and support after the WHO WHO a 25% increase in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression.
So, for this Mental Health Awareness Month (May in the USA), we wanted to talk about how yoga can significantly improve your mental health and quality of life.
Yogis have known this for (thousands of) years, but the rest of the world is catching on: yoga can seriously improve your mental health. Here's how.
According to the International Journal of Yoga, slowing down the breath and focusing on the present shifts the balance from the sympathetic nervous system and the flight-or-fight response to the parasympathetic system and the relaxation response. This calms and restores the body and the mind, and lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and increases blood flow to the vital organs. Yoga also generates balanced energy- vital for the immune system. Daily practices inhibit feelings of fear, aggression and rage and stimulate the areas of the brain responsible for pleasure and bliss. The result is lowered anxiety and improved depression. Not only that, but yoga helps build muscle mass and increase flexibility, improving general wellbeing and contributing to higher self-esteem and confidence.
But in what ways does yoga specifically aid and improve mental health?
Did you know that stress relief is the second main reason (after flexibility) why people do yoga? Aside from the Asanas, or yoga poses, meditation, breathwork and auditory rituals, like chanting and sound baths, have also been shown to reduce tension and stress. to significantly reduce tension and stress.
A 2017 study showed that yoga can be an effective treatment for major depressive disorder (MDD), considered one of the world's most common mental health disorders.
Numerous studies suggest that yoga asana can be considered an effective alternative treatment for anxiety disorders. In particular, Yoga Nidra, consisting of still, guided meditations, and self-body scans, has been shown to instantly reduce anxiety symptoms.
Quality of life is defined by the WHO as "an individual's perception of their position in life in the context of their culture and value systems, and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns." Therefore, by practicing yoga, being present and taking care of the body, we are actively working towards a better quality of life.
We all know how important sleep is for our mental health. Yoga has been proven to improve ability and quality of sleep due to its mental calming and stress-relieving effects.
The physical effects of the daily yoga practice— increased flexibility, muscle strength and resistance, better posture, etc.— naturally improve our perceived body image. Apart from this, yoga teaches us to love our bodies and every cell in its system, for they are constantly working to heal and make us feel better. As we're taught in yoga, just showing up on the mat is already a massive gesture of love towards ourselves.
A review of 34 research studies found that practicing yoga activates the areas of the brain responsible for motivation, attention, and neuroplasticity (your brain's ability to respond to change, sensory stimulation, damage, and dysfunction).
Having said that, we'd like to share with you some of our favorite yoga poses for mental health. We've listed them starting from the simplest to the most demanding:
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
This is an excellent meditative pose, typically done at the end of the yoga practice. Lay down on your mat with your hands either by your side or if you prefer, on your body. Though it may be the simplest pose physically speaking, it does require you to concentrate on your breath and be with your thoughts.
Sukhasana (Easy Pose)
Sitting down, crossed-legged, or in lotus position (or however way you're most comfortable), place your hands on your lap or legs and… breathe. Pay attention to your breath and perhaps try some Pranayama (or breathing exercises).
Baddha Konasana (Butterfly Pose)
This is a relatively simple, grounding posture that opens the hips. You might have heard your yoga teacher say the hips, where the sacral chakra is located, store a lot of energy and stress. Sitting with your legs in a diamond or butterfly shape can relieve tension stored in the hips. Lengthen your spine and focus on your breath to feel calmer and relieve symptoms of anxiety.
Balasana (Child's Pose)
A comforting, restorative pose that encourages you to go inward. It can provide emotional comfort in times of anxiety and distress. It also releases tension in the spine, helping you to calm your nerves. Kneel on your mat with your knees slightly open, and bend forward, stretching your arms and chest. Rest your head on the mat and either stretch your arms in front of you or place them at your sides.
Uttanasana (Standing forward fold)
Forward folds are excellent for relieving tension in the shoulders, neck, and back, and they direct blood flow to your brain, giving it a boost of oxygen. Stand up straight with your hands by your side and place your hands on your hips. Inhale and exhale, bending forward at the hips and lengthening the front of the torso. You can try to touch your toes, grab opposite elbows, or rest your hands on a block. If you feel more comfortable, bend your knees, to relieve tension in the lumbar area. Avoid locking at the knees.
These are some of our favorite yoga poses for mental health. Still, there are many others, each with its specific benefits. For best results, remember to breathe! It always sounds obvious, but it's incredible how much tension and stress we can alleviate by simply coming back to our breath.
Did you know about all the benefits of yoga for mental health? Which of these yoga poses is your favorite, and which help you the most when you're feeling low? We'd love to hear about it. Let us know in the comments below!