Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice, originating in India, that is often linked to mindfulness and meditation. It uses a combination of held poses, flows and deep, concentrated breathing to connect the mind, body, and soul. There are many well-known health benefits to practicing yoga, including joint and muscle pain relief as well as increased fitness and strength. However, there are also many reasons why yoga is incredibly beneficial for people suffering from mental illness and emotional distress.
Below, Basia Najarro Skudrzyk, a healthcare professional and well-being advocate, describes the mental benefits of Yoga for individuals who are currently unwell or in recovery as well as its ability to serve as a preventative measure for people at risk of developing poor mental health or relapsing.
Yoga is an excellent complementary treatment for those suffering from anxiety, PTSD or intense emotional distress. When you experience anxiety attacks, flashbacks or severe emotional pain, your sympathetic nervous system gets activated. This system is commonly known as the fight, flight or freeze response. When activated, you might experience physical symptoms such as a racing heart, hyperventilation, sweating, nausea, uncontrollable shaking and an increased need to use the bathroom. These symptoms are experienced most intensely at the peak of distress, but it can take a full 48 hours for your body to transition from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest state).
For people with anxiety, PTSD or intense emotional distress, the sympathetic nervous system might get frequently triggered, sometimes several times a week or even a day. The body does not get a chance to rest, leading to exhaustion, burnout and a further decline in mental illness. Yoga can aid the transition from sympathetic to parasympathetic. Practicing yoga directly after an episode will lower your heart rate and blood pressure faster, and help your breathing return to a standard rate. Daily yoga practice can also ease the symptoms of an activated nervous system so that you do not suffer so much during an episode.
Practicing yoga has been shown to increase serotonin levels, which can help to ease symptoms of depression. Serotonin is a chemical produced in the enteric and central nervous systems and is responsible for feelings of happiness and wellbeing. A lack of serotonin is thought to be one of the leading causes of depression. Antidepressants work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain, but yoga is a natural way to boost serotonin levels. Some people find natural methods like yoga helpful as a sole treatment for depression, while others might use yoga as a complementary treatment alongside antidepressants. Many people with depression struggle to motivate themselves to go out and engage in activities, so attending a yoga class might seem impossible. However, there are many online sites, including free yoga tutorials on YouTube and subscription sites with live courses such as Gaia and the Yoga Collective. That makes it easy and accessible for people to start practicing yoga in their own homes.
Yoga is useful in the treatment of trauma. Traumatic experiences often feel as though they are stored solely in the person’s mind, as memories. However, they also get stored in the body, specifically in the psoas muscles located in the mid to lower back, pelvis, hips, and upper thighs. Trauma is often experienced physically as well as mentally, as pain in the back or shoulders. The cellular manifestation of it exists in conjunction with memory and is active during PTSD or other trauma-related episodes. There are trauma yoga coaches, who specialize in teaching people how to relieve tension from the psoas muscles to aid recovery. Any stretches that open the hips or stretch the back muscles and spine can help to relax the psoas. Your body will not release trauma in one session, but over time, daily practice with a focus on stretching out the psoas can help people recover from symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety attacks.
Yoga is a natural way to release stress. It lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. It also reduces the amount of cortisol produced in your body. Cortisol is the hormone linked to high levels of stress. Mindfulness and Yoga are interlinked, and practicing yoga increases your ability to be mindful. It also decreases stress levels, as mindfulness trains the brain to focus on the present moment rather than past worries or future stressors. By reducing stress levels, yoga can be a preventative measure for people who are not unwell but are at risk of developing poor mental health. Even some highs schools are piloting Yoga as a physical education topic to help teenagers protect their mental health.
Due to its holistic benefits, Yoga is becoming a common aspect of self-care and recovery. The effect it can have on mental ill health is phenomenal, and people can practice it as a complementary treatment alongside medical intervention. Most yoga classes are accessible for beginners as many advanced postures can be adapted. Even 15 minutes of daily practice can have a significant effect on your health.