What I’ve learned in recovery is that yoga is much more than just a way to stay in shape, lubricate your joints, and help you sweat. Yoga has emerged as its own recovery modality and a way to heal several different mental health issues. Whether it’s anxiety, PTSD, depression, or addiction, yoga has a place as a tool in treatment and healing. Yoga heals and it positively influences mental health in several ways. It’s a way to connect mind, body, and spirit. Here are a few of the ways yoga impacts mental health in a positive way.
1. Yoga is a psychology
Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati defines yoga psychology as the science of the embodied relationship between consciousness and mind. This psychology sees body and mind as one and gives emphasis to the role of creating self-awareness as a foundation on which health and well-being can be built. It’s also called the science of the subtle body, or the part of ourselves that links the physical body and the spiritual body. Yoga psychology studies how the health body and mind operate and how imbalances can occur, leading to disease and suffering. Through transforming adversity and suffering via a yoga practice, you create a conscious relationship with yourself and the spiritual forces around you. This allows you to live a more balanced life.
2. Create a nonjudgmental relationship with self
I never realized how positive yoga could be for my sense of self until I started attending classes in sobriety. Cultivating a regular yoga practice is an act of self-care, similar to sobriety, where you put yourself first and make health choices for you. Connecting with yourself on the mat you build self-trust, a connection with your body, and your build your self-worth. As time goes on yoga can help you become more confident and get rooted in these new beliefs.
3. Yoga changes the brain
A landmark study by Chris Streeter and his team in 2007 revealed that just one hour of asana yoga practice per day correlated with statistically significant increases in the GABA chemical, a brain chemical which is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. Additionally, in a separate 2010 study, Streeter compared yoga with walking and found that a session of yoga significantly increased levels of GABA in the brain compared to walking. GABA prevents the brain from becoming too busy, inhibiting fear circuits and other unpleasant thoughts associated with anxiety and depression. People with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and chronic pain generally have low levels of GABA. Yoga can be an effective tool to boost these levels, change the brain, and heal.
4. Natural anxiety relief
It’s widely known now that yoga is helpful for both depression and anxiety. But why is this? It’s because yoga can reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses. Physically this translates into lessened stress responses like lowering the heart rate, decreasing blood pressure, and easing breathing. This is similar to other self-soothing, anxiety-combating techniques like meditation, relaxation, exercise, or hanging out with friends. A small study done by the University of Utah looked into the effect of yoga on the stress response. The researchers noted that people who have a below average regulated response to stress are also more sensitive to pain. Yoga practitioners that participated in the study had the highest pain tolerance and the lowest pain-related brain activity. The researchers concluded that the value of techniques like yoga can help a person regulate their stress and therefore their pain responses.
5. Increases attention span
Many people with mental health issues have problems with short attention span, or easy distractibility. This can make it difficult for people to return to work or move through daily life while paying attention and giving their 100 percent. A short attention span can make it difficult for anyone to maintain a task through to completion, a basic necessity of life. By practicing yoga, a person is better able to continue with their attention focused for longer periods of time and with greater ease. At the same time, yoga can increase awareness of yourself and your surroundings. By becoming aware of basic sensations like heartbeat, pulse, sweat, thoughts etc. on the mat, adjusting to the increasing scope of awareness and the surroundings of all people you encounter will become a reality.
Yoga does so much in a wide variety of ways. It’s a psychology, a spiritual practice, and a movement pattern of the body. It has the power to alleviate stress and calm the mind, but it can also help heal mental health issues like addiction, depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia. According to Newsweek, 1 in 5 people in the U.S., or 43 million Americans suffer from a mental illness. Yoga is a powerful holistic tool that can help people across the mental health spectrum. It can help bring you back to yourself.
Kelly Fitzgerald Junco
Kelly Fitzgerald Junco is a sober writer based in Southwest Florida who is best known for her personal blog The Adventures of a Sober Señorita. Her work has been published across the web including sites like The Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, Ravishly, SheKnows, Elite Daily, The Fix, Brit + Co, Addiction Unscripted and AfterPartyMagazine. She is currently writing a memoir.