According to a survey by Yoga Journal, over 15 million people practice yoga in the U.S. Confession—I’m one of them. For the best 12 months I’ve been twisting my spine, back, and muscles into positions I sure as hell wouldn’t have been without the help of my yoga instructor. Like millions of other Americans, I took up the practice for the spiritual and mental benefits that are proclaimed by gurus across the globe, but I’ve never really looked into the science behind their claims. Thanks to a few hours spent researching how yoga can improve mental health, my ignorance has vanished. Here’s what I discovered…
1). Yoga Combats Depression and Insomnia
According to Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, neuroscientist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, several studies point to yoga’s ability to target unmanaged stress and reduce the stress response in the body. He points to studies published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology which show that yoga can be useful in combating chronic disorders such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia. By activating the sympathetic nervous system and lowering the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, yoga plays a critical role in helping people heal from the inside out.
2). Strengthens Mind-Body Awareness
I can attest, yoga makes you more resilient. After all, you can’t do a head stand if you’re weak! You also can’t complete the trying poses of yoga if you aren’t aware of where every inch of your body is at a given moment. Yoga strengthens the connection between the mind and body and promotes behavioral changes based on what the body is experiencing. Making split-second decisions and being aware of micro-movements in your body is a regular part of practicing yoga. By strengthening this connection, you begin to develop a greater self-awareness, both physically and mentally, that gives you confidence to make decisions.
3). Increases the Level of GABA in the Brain
Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is increased by regular yoga practice. This dynamic chemical is responsible for regulating nerve activity in the brain. For people with anxiety disorders, GABA is vital nutrient and can vastly reduce the symptoms and reactions of the flight-or-fight response. Although scientists aren’t quite sure how yoga stimulates the production of GABA, it is a noteworthy side-effect that can have a positive effect on anxiety sufferers.
4). Uncovers Duality in the Mind and Body
Yoga is a constant exchange of holding postures and relaxing them. This ongoing dance helps reveal the duality of life. One moment it’s intense and the next it is serene. By developing an intimate relationship with the nature of reality, life doesn’t seem as overwhelming. I personally have benefited greatly from this realization. I have discovered that when life is down and I’m in the middle of chaos, all I have to do is wait a little while and things will change. Life is impermanent, and there is no point holding onto the negative or the good. Yoga is a tool for improving your physical and mental health. Give it a go and let me know what you think in the comments below. Is it hogwash or do you find the data above to be true in your own practice?