This time of year, we welcome many new students into our yoga studio who are looking to start a yoga practice to lose weight and build strength and endurance. I find that these are usually the reasons our clients first start coming to their mats: improvement in physical condition and appearance. However, I believe that it is truly the mental health benefits of yoga that keep them coming back for more. Here are some of the many mental benefits of yoga:
REDUCTION OF DEPRESSION, STRESS, AND ANXIETY
Yoga has been proven to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety in practitioners for a number of reasons. Firstly the basis of any yoga practice is breath, and deep breathing in itself helps to calm the body and mind. In addition, especially in styles of yoga such as power vinyasa, the practitioner moves breath to movement or “flows”. This form of moving meditation can help stressed and worried students to get relief from the anxiety they are experiencing as they are tuned into the movement and are compelled to stay present in the moment as they transition from one posture to the next.
Several published studies reveal that yoga improves mood. For example, in a study published in 2005, 24 women who described themselves as “emotionally distressed” participated in two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months. Women in a control group maintained their normal activities. At the end of three months, women who participated in the yoga classes reported improvement in depression by 50%, anxiety by 30%, and overall well-being scores by 65%.
LOVE FOR YOUR BODY
I have found that a consistent yoga practice can also help students to find love for their bodies again. When we fall out of the routine of exercising daily and experience a mostly sedentary lifestyle of working at an office, drivingin a car, and sitting on a couch, we forget how good our bodies can feel when we take care of them with breath, movement, and proper nutrition. Yoga helps to re-instill that love for our bodies and when you love your body, you are more likely to take care of it. I have seen a consistent yoga practice compel individuals to go to the doctor, get more sleep, and even reduce alcohol use.
I witness first-hand on a daily basis that when a student’s practice strengthens, his or her confidence in his or her own abilities grows stronger as well. This is why it can be especially beneficial for teenager girls to practice yoga who may struggle with confidence and body image. “The practice of yoga… is a creative and potentially successful way for girls to develop a positive body image,” says Elissa Gittes, M.D., an adolescent-medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Yoga serves teenage girls because it helps them discover for the first time or re-discover the strength of their bodies. When girls start to realize that they can strengthen their bodies, they recognize the “awesome power” of it, explains Mary Kaye Chryssicas, RYT and author of Breathe: Yoga for Teens. “ ‘That tends to decrease the self-consciousness that teens feel about their bodies.’” While team sports can also instill confidence in teen girls, yoga provides a slightly different feeling, Chryssicas advocates. “…with yoga, it’s not the crowd cheering that makes you feel good about yourself. You, alone, are responsible for feeling good about yourself.”
Yoga can also bring confidence to veterans. Yoga therapy has become an effective tool for providing relief to post-traumatic stress disorder patients. Today yoga programs like Yoga Fit for Warriors prepare yoga teachers to work especially with those suffering from PTSD. Liz Eustace, editor-in-chief of mindfulyogahealth.com writes, “Yoga allows veterans to regain confidence lost during trauma, both in their physical and mental capabilities. Yoga programs for vets also provide safe spaces for veterans to relax after all they have been through.”
I found it interesting that I was speaking with a professional MMA fighter in the past year who told me that he practices Bikram yoga regularly to work on his mental toughness. How can yoga help a guy who is already so strong grow even tougher? “It’s the heat,” he told me. “Just staying in the hot room helps me to simulate what it is like to just keep going in the ring.” It is true that some styles and classes of yoga are not only physically demanding but require mental tenacity to persevere. If you can endure practicing in an over 100-degree room, you learn you are able to endure almost anything!
We’d love to hear from you! What mental health benefits of yoga have you experienced?