How Does Yoga Support Mental Health?

As yoga practitioners, many of us have felt yoga’s benefits firsthand when it comes to our mental wellbeing, even if only to soothe our mood on a stressful day or feel a little brighter on an uphill day.  Yoga is ultimately about developing our capacity to change the way our minds work, where our typically easily-distracted mind is neither in a state of agitation (kșipta) or a state of depression (mūdah), so it is little wonder that yoga practitioners can experience glimpses of yoga’s potential for mental wellbeing. 

You may need no convincing when it comes to yoga’s therapeutic capacity, but you may be curious about how it actually works.

Mental wellbeing  – where yoga meets science

While the modern western paradigm may define mental health as a simple absence of mental illness, the yogic view of mental health is more expansive, including the mind at its optimal functioning, clear, calm, focussed and self-aware.  

In yoga, mental health is not simply the absence of a condition. Nor is it the absence of a particular emotion such as sadness, as feelings like sadness can be an appropriate response to some circumstances.  We can therefore, stay away from labels such as ‘positive emotion’; and ‘negative emotion’. The emotion itself is not the problem; problems arise when we don’t know what to do with a certain emotion.  That is, it is how well we deal with the circumstances and our emotions that describes our mental wellbeing. 

Resilience then, does not mean we wont be visited by tough emotions in life, rather it refers to our ability to get back to a state of balance and steadiness (equanimity).

It is satisfying to see an ever-bourgeoning pool of scientific studies in reputed peer-reviewed scientific journals, providing mounting evidence for yoga’s evidence-based efficacy to assist treatment of multiple type of mental health issues, including serious and chronic issues. 

How does yoga help mental wellbeing?

We often hear about certain poses for depression or breathwork for anxiety and such, but the reality is there is no magic pose or breath practice that suits any one condition. 

An integrated yoga practice is a holistic system, capable of engaging with thoughts, feelings and actions at once, that does not see to treat the ‘illness’, it simply serves the person as a whole.     

“As a yoga therapist, focus on increasing people’s quality of life, not on curing diseases” – T.K.V Desikachar

The connected nature of an integrated yogic practice  

It may be tempting to try and separate yoga’s ingredient components to their effects and benefits – “asana provides this”, “meditation provides that”, and so on – and while we can do this to an extent, it’s useful to remember that the 8 limbs of yoga are not a disparate collection of steps, done one after the other in isolation, but elements that will overlap and bleed into one another.  Separating the concepts reduces their power. 

For example, if we liken the physical postures of yoga (asana) to simple exercise, we could well say that this portion of the practice provides for release of tension in muscles, a release of feelgood endorphin hormones, and even improved satisfaction with body image.  All true.

But when we practice asana, we can be drawing from the banquet of yogic elements: we link our movements with conscious breath, we use mindfulness and concentration to notice sensations in our body. We may be incorporating chanting and mantra. We practise moderation each time we make a conscious choice not to over-extend, and non-judgement and kindness for ourselves when we notice a self-critical thought arise and let it subside…..and so on.  

Similarly, when we meditate, our chosen pose is a form of asana, and we may combine our meditation with  conscious breathing or mudras. And once again we are using awareness to practice noticing the lapses in our concentration.

In a yogic lifestyle, the eight limbs of yoga are all working together to regulate the turbulence of the mind.  It’s too simplistic and inaccurate to separate them out into distinct components, this limb of yoga to remedy this, another limb to remedy that. Each limb works together and often overlaps.

Yoga, therefore, can provide that nice instantaneous sense of wellbeing we all enjoy immediately after a class, but when we allow the component ingredients of yoga to work together over a regular practice, a powerful and more lasting effect is emerging.   

We are not just benefitting from a short-term ‘relief’ from distress, but are actually changing our brain and way of being.

The science of our yoga practice

It was once believed in western thought that the brain was not capable of change after childhood, that it became fixed.  Today we know the opposite is true.  Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change its structure, chemistry and function. The ancient yogis knew this.

A quick biology lesson on neuroplasticity

Cells are the biological building blocks of life.  There are hundreds of different types of cells in the human body.   Our brain and spinal cord comprise that marvellous control centre known as the nervous system, and the chief nerve types in the nervous system are neurons and glia. Neurons are information messengers, all of our actions, thoughts and emotions are signalled by neurons.  

Every time you think, feel or do something, neural pathways in your brain light up as cells communicate with one another along network tracks, like train tracks or a road. You may hear the term ‘synaptic response’: The synapse is tiny space between cells where chemical or electrical messages flow from one cell to the next.

If our way of thinking, feeling or doing is well-established, we call it a habit or a pattern (or in yoga, we refer to ‘samskaras’). The brain loves to rely on habits and patterns, because they consume less glucose (energy) than making conscious choices, thereby conserving glucose in case you need to fight or flee from a threat!  

The neural pathway is carved deeper and deeper each time it is travelled, making it easier and easier for our brain to travel that road… regardless of whether that habit serves us well or not.

But when we choose a different emotion, learn something new (including observing our yoga practice with a curious beginner’s mind) or think about something from a different perspective, the communications signals between cells starts to travel in a new road.  

The more we practice this new way of thinking, feeling or doing, this new road is carved deeper and becomes more second nature and therefore easier and easier to maintain.  The old roadway weakens with reduced use.  Habits are therefore, not necessairly a bad thing, we can make them work for us.

What else is going on with sustained yoga practice?

The integrated yoga practice is capable of:

  • Naturally producing chemicals similar to what pharmaceutical companies aim to reproduce in a laboratory

    This includes:
    • serotonin – stabilising mood and helping digestive processes and sleep (acting as a precursor to the sleep hormone melatonin).
    • dopamine – also playing a role in the above-described functions, as well as memory, learning and motor function.
    • GABA (Gamma aminobutryic acid) – reduces activity in the nervous system, producing a calming effect.

  • Making our brain waves (your brain’s electrical activity) more coherent

    The typical neuron looks like a little hairy tadpole, its furry-looking tentacles (dendrites) receiving information from other cells, and its tail (axon) transmitting signals outwardly.  They transmit at the same strength and speed, but what can vary is the frequency of these electrical pulses. Neurons tend to like to sychronise their electrical firing in rhythmic bursts, like waves. 

    Brain waves are measured in Hertz, the cycles per second.  You may have heard of beta, alpha or delta waves.  Delta waves (1-4Hz) are common in dreamless sleep.  A dominance of delta waves in an awake state can make concentration difficult.  Beta (12-38Hz) is our normal waking state when our attention is directed towards an activity or task, but we don’t want our brains still processing information at a high level when we’re trying to sleep.   Alpha waves (8-12Hz) is like our reflective state, awake but at rest.  Theta waves (4-8Hz) are associated with daydreaming and sleep.

    Meditation in particular, enables us to move to lower frequency, giving rise to the opportunity to respond rather than react.  Some seasoned meditators display gamma waves, even when not meditating. 

  • Increasing grey matter in the Hippocampus and frontal sections of our brain

    Grey matter is associated with learning, memory and thought processes, while our frontal lobe is responsible for decision-making and self-control.  

  • Reducing grey matter reduction in the amygdala (fear centre)

    The amygdala is what drives our fight or flight response.  When in operation, the healing and rejuvenation of the rest and digest response cannot function.  Yoga placates the amygdala’s activity.

In this way, we observe how yoga practice can result in improved concentration and self-awareness, better impulse control and mood regulation, the ability to respond to circumstances rather than reacting, increasing patience and tolerance (reducing the power of external stressors), and the release of long-held held-emotions and patterns.   

Yoga is increasingly coupled with allied health and found in mainstream medical environments as evidence of its effect on mental wellbeing becomes irrefutable.

The scale of global mental health problems 

There are many different types of mental health issues, such as depression, dementia, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), eating or substance abuse disorders, and anxiety (which includes things like phobias, social and panic disorders and generalised anxiety disorders). 

Across the spectrum of problems, it is estimated that over a billion people globally are impacted by a mental health issue.  In Australia, it is estimated that half of Australian adults will be impacted by a mental health issue at some point.  

Advocates for government investment into mental health point to the estimated US$2.5 trillion lost to the global economy each year by poor mental health.  Despite the magnitude of the statistics and the strong economic case for investment in mental health, a report collated by the World health Organization in 2017 concluded that member nations were spending less than 2% of their annual budgets on mental health.

Globally, many people with mental health issues are unable to access mainstream treatments for mental health issues, or are unsuited to use them because of possible adverse side effects. 

Yoga is held to be a safe and relatively accessible treatment, with efforts towards expanding yoga’s accessibility (such as The Yoga Foundation) helping to stretch the reach even further.

The pandemic’s effects on global mental health

The full effects of the pandemic’s impact on our mental wellbeing is likely yet to be fully-felt, let alone fully-measured.  Yet logic tells us that the distress caused by loneliness, isolation, loss of income, fear of job-loss, lack of human touch, fear of infection, and bereavement will all take a heavy toll on human health. Already psychologists and therapists are reporting a rise in the occurrence of anxiety and depression.  

The pandemic will likely elevate mental health on the list of global health priorities if we are to avoid a knock-on crisis.

Written by Nicole Small, The Yoga Institute 

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