Just google “benefits of yoga” and in the first few citations you will see, “The Nine Benefits of Yoga,” “The Twenty-Two Benefits of Yoga,” “38 Ways Yoga Can Save Your Life”, etc. Really?
THREE WAYS YOGA IMPROVES MENTAL HEALTH:
- All exercise is good for your body and mind. Dr. Google will confirm that exercise is near the top on any list for non-pharmaceutical treatments for depression and anxiety. Exercise releases endorphins, thought to be responsible for the euphoric feeling many people experience after exercise. Yoga can be a particularly good choice of exercise for people with depression or anxiety, because it can be started slowly, even just with breathing (see the next point!), is self-paced, and there are many levels of physical challenge, depending on the style of yoga involved.
- Yoga puts a focus on breathing more than many other forms of exercise. Yogic tradition incorporates many specific types of breathing exercises, but all involve either chest breathing or belly breathing. Chest breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “fight or flight” response, or sometimes useful just for the “I have to get out of bed” response. This can get the body ready for action/physical activity/ energizing. In contrast, belly breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and relax” response, allowing the body to
downshift, sending a message to the brain to de-stress. Purposefully belly breathing can help break the stress cycle where stress hormones are constantly being released, leading to inflammation throughout the body. When therapists talk about deep breathing as a calming technique, they are typically recommending belly breathing.
- Meditation and mindfulness are often high on any list of strategies to combat depression and anxiety. Yoga is often described as a moving meditation, or moving mindfulness. In most group yoga classes, the instructor works to set a mood that keeps the participants focused in the room, on their body, and on their breathing throughout the class. This breaks the cycle of rumination, worry, and catastrophizing which can be so common in depression and anxiety. Yay! If you do yoga, you will get exercise and meditation together! What are you waiting for? Yoga is for everybody. Whether through your local yoga studio, gym, DVD or YouTube, there are many ways to get started. Put it on your calendar, commit to a time with a buddy and take that first step.
Author Bio: Emily Rapp is a certified yoga instructor with the Original Hot Yoga Association. She teaches classes based in the 26+2 bikram-style tradition, both at the Pure Hot Yoga studio in Richmond Heights, MO (yogastlouis.com) and via Zoom for her Loosen Up Athletes Zoom studio (loosenupathletes.com). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and will help you get started!