Yoga studios have steadily gained popularity in recent times and for good reason. Research has shown that practicing yoga improves physical health and yoga improves mental health. Yoga is a moving meditation that connects the mind and body, creating a sense of integrity, peace and strength.
Meditation has been scientifically proven to decrease emotional reactivity (i.e. impulsivity and explosiveness), lengthen attention span, and cultivate a sense of consideration for self and others. Meditation while sitting still can be very challenging for those who suffer from depression and/or anxiety given the presence of negative thinking loops and rumination that so often occur. Yoga provides an opportunity to reap the benefits of meditation while the movement and background music that is often played in classes serve to ease and support the process.
How Yoga Improves Mental Health
The mental health advantages to practicing yoga are abundant. Through the rhythmic breathing, the flow of poses, and the attention to physical and emotional sensations (with curiosity-not judgment-this is a very important distinction), the following benefits ensue.
-Increased ability to focus.
-Increased ability to be in the moment.
-Greater patience/higher frustration tolerance level.
-The relaxing of your nervous system.
-Better quality sleep.
-Lower stress levels.
-A greater capacity to cope with stress.
Self-Care in Your Life Off the Mat
The concepts learned and practiced on the mat can be applied to life off the mat. If you notice pain in your wrist or that your muscles are stiff one day at yoga, your teacher will encourage you to take care of yourself and acknowledge your current condition with compassion and without judgment.
You can translate this to any situation that requires your attention to self-care in your life off the mat. When noticing tension in a relationship or discomfort in any other personal challenge you’re facing, you can explore and understand your options in through your clear awareness in order to make healthy decisions.
On the mat you may notice that you’re clenching your jaw even though the pose you’re in is really only tough on your legs, for instance. Once you note your reaction and release the gripping in your jaw, you can isolate the sensation and employ your breathing as a source of support, to bring more strength to the pose and decrease your overall tension level.
This is a great reminder of how off the mat, we sometimes, inadvertently bring more suffering than necessary into our lives when faced with discomfort. How many times has your whole day been ruined by one unpleasant interaction or circumstance? And finally, even something as simple as purposefully clasping your hands the “funny way” on the mat can interrupt long-standing patterns and encourage neuroplasticity. This helps us rewire our brains and break negative patterns by changing the way we do things.
The Rewards of Yoga for Mental Health
The rewards from doing yoga can be felt immediately. And an ongoing practice will only multiply the benefits. The totality of the pros that comes from practicing yoga can increase self-esteem, promote peace of mind and make you a happier person. It is a fantastic source of self-care for practitioners of all levels.
Judy Zexter, LSCW is a Santa Monica based psychotherapist with over 20 years of direct clinical experience working with individuals, couples, families and groups. With a focus on intentional living, she helps her clients face their challenges through a collaborative and empowering process that identifies and supports their true desires and values. Judy is also a yoga enthusiast.