Yoga has become globally recognised for its many physical benefits. Whether you’re looking to improve fitness, alleviate chronic pain, recover from an injury, or even prepare for childbirth, there’s a yoga class out there for you.
However, it is much more than a trendy exercise. Sports writer Anna Kessel traced the origins of yoga to ascetics in India who practised it to centre the mind and become enlightened. That’s because yoga is first and foremost a tool for finding inner peace: Heal the mind and everything else will follow. In fact, even a daily 15-minute practice can prove to be beneficial to one’s mental health. Here’s how:
Channeling the breath
In a typical class, an instructor will provide cues on when to inhale and exhale, as awareness of the breath is one of the main aspects of yoga. Becoming more mindful of your breathing — an action we do unconsciously — is hugely advantageous to our mental health.
Holistic therapist Rebecca Dennis explains that deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for bringing the mind to stillness. It activates the mental state opposite to the fight-or-flight response, and in contrast, reduces heart rate, relaxes muscles, and restores calmness to the mind. Given that yoga naturally focuses on breath control, yogis should have no problem finding their ‘happy place’ even during the most stressful of situations.
Though teachers have different scripts and styles, one element that doesn’t change is how they end each class with ‘Namaste’, a word that means ‘the divine in me bows to the divine in you’. Health writer Jane Adamson points out how this is a practice in gratitude, as compassion is a major theme in yoga. This simple exercise should be applied on and off the mat, and you can start by directing it inward.
Show compassion to yourself by aiming for progress, not perfection. Even if you’re just starting out and can’t do all the difficult poses just yet, there is value in showing up, being open to learn new things, and moving your body to the instructions. Our 10 Tips to Improve Your Mental Health notes that learning and staying active are essential to self-care. If it makes you feel good in your own skin, there’s no shame in owning your yoga practice.
There is no one root cause of mental illness, and experts are starting to look at different ways to combat it. In one study, researchers from the University of Chile looked into a regular yoga practice as a way to reduce stress. They found a significant reduction in cortisol levels after three months of regular practice, while participants also showed lower levels of perceived stress.
But why is it important to regulate cortisol? As the body’s main stress hormone, cortisol is responsible for boosting your energy and keeping your mind alert. Overproduction of this hormone, however, has some major negative effects, including sleep deprivation, mood changes, and high blood pressure. Scientists have also found that elevated levels of cortisol increase the risk for mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
Although yoga is not a cure-all, it can be an effective practice that can complement psychological treatments by reducing stress and cultivating mindfulness. And best of all, it is also widely accessible. There’s no shortage of yoga studios in the UK, along with many other resources like online tutorials and books. Even on busy days, you can opt for a short breathing practice when you wake up or even at your work desk.
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Written by Jara Bean
Jara is an aspiring yoga instructor who loves travelling to Asia in search of the best beaches and the most delectable cuisines. She loved writing poetry and lyrics as a teen, which ultimately helped her become a thriving digital nomad