A Guide to Yoga and Mental Health


A Guide to Yoga and Mental Health

Yoga is well-renowned for its apparent ability to make us feel better- both physically, and mentally. After a boom of interest in natural therapeutic methods like yoga and meditation in the 1970s, one national survey reported that 7.5% of U.S. adults have tried yoga, and 4% of U.S. adults practice yoga on a regular basis (Source: Harvard Health). 

There is an increasing amount of research coming out shows that yoga does have noticeable benefits on mental health; these beneficial effects have been reported to be therapeutic for a vast range of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, schizophrenia, and more. 

If you’ve been considering taking up yoga as a part of your mental health self-care routine, you’ve come to the right place. This exhaustive article is going to take you through what yoga is, the beneficial effect yoga has on treating certain mental health conditions, and more. Keep reading to discover how yoga can help you heal and rebuild a more balanced, focused, and fulfilling life.

Yoga Has Always Been About More Than Physical Health 

Yoga, broadly, is a practice that originated in ancient India that utilizes physical, mental, and spiritual methods. There is a multitude of existing yoga schools and practices that are utilized by Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist religions. Traditionally, yoga involves more than just cultivating physical strength through poses and is meditative and spiritual at its core. 

Traditional yoga has the goal of practitioners utilizing all five senses (including the mind) with inactive intellect in order to remain entirely un-distracted. One is entirely immersed in their practice, feeling no pleasure or suffering, so that practitioners can reach the “highest state.” 

While traditional yoga gurus (or yogis) in India practice yoga for this very spiritual purpose, Western yoga practitioners do so as a method of posture-based physical exercise. 

Yoga Becomes Part of the Mindfulness Movement in the U.S.

Yoga is believed to have been brought to the Western world in the late 19th/early 20th century by Indian philosopher Swami Vivekananda. He gave a speech about yoga and the concept of body, spirit, and mind at the University of Chicago in 1983. It never reached popularity until later, though.

Yoga was popularized in the West following the United States’ “hippie” movement of the 1970s, when people started dedicating time to living mindfully. Yoga was even further popularized in the 1980s and 1990s, following the introduction of VHS tapes and DVDs, allowing for the mass distribution of yoga-related content. 

Western yoga focuses mainly on the ‘asanas’ (postures) as a way to build physical strength while using through-the-nose breathing techniques and mindfulness to achieve relaxation and stress-relieving effects. It gathered a reputation for its calming effects and became a go-to for de-stressing and relaxation purposes. It’s likely the most mainstream form of meditation in the West.

US Studies Show Yoga Does Improve Mental Health

Hatha yoga is the most popular form of yoga in the United States. Hatha yoga is a three-step practice, which focuses on physical poses, controlled breathing with the poses, and a final time of intense relaxation and meditation- which is what yoga is most known for.

Since reaching popularity in the West, Yoga has been turned to for improving symptoms of mental health conditions, and the amount of scientific research on the correlation between the two has greatly increased. You can even find yoga classes on YouTube entirely dedicated to treating the symptoms of certain mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc.

With a practice this encompassing, it’s no wonder its effects on improving mental health have been studied in the mainstream. Let’s dive into the beneficial effects Yoga has on mental health in general and on specific mental health conditions. 

Yoga and Mental Health Go Hand in Hand

Yoga is an incredibly diverse practice. There is no one way to “do” yoga. Yoga practice is sometimes gentle and relaxing, while strenuous and strengthening during others. It’s up to each individual ‘yogi’ to choose their pace for themselves. That’s why so many different kinds of people are able to find peace and benefit in yoga- it accommodates everyone.

According to Psychology Today, the reason that yoga is beneficial for mental health across the board is that yoga “increases body awareness, relieves stress, reduces muscle tension, strain, and inflammation, sharpens attention and concentration, and calms and centers the nervous system.”

More specifically, there is a phenomenon called “relaxation response” which comes with mindful mind and body practices like yoga that is the main catalyst for improvements in mental health. This response isn’t simply feeling relaxed- it’s actually based in our neurobiology.

The body, when experiencing relaxation response, actually relaxes at the cellular and nerve level (Source: Psychology Today), so it’s a physiological phenomenon, not a psychological phenomenon. The mental concentration of maintaining a specific pose combined with deep breathing techniques that allow you to maintain a said pose results in the body changing a biochemical arousal state to a relaxation state. 

It does this by halting the production of chemicals we produce when in a state of tension, like adrenaline, and chemicals like sodium leave our body’s cells, which slows down the rate at which our nerves fire and puts us even further into a state of complete relaxation. 

Yoga’s benefits are vast, working on improving all of the systems in our body by increasing blood flow, strengthening and stretching out our muscles, detoxifying our bodies, and more, which allows us to be better prepared to function properly. But how does yoga specifically help people with symptoms of certain mental health conditions?

Studies Show Yoga Helps Lessen Depression

There is a lot of research-based evidence that yoga helps keep symptoms of depression at bay. According to Dr. Chris Streeter, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine, yoga is “not just hippie, granola-crunchy stuff. The science shows it works” (Source: U.S. & World Report News). 

Although I might add that if you like yoga for those “hippie, granola-crunchy” vibes, more power to you.

Serotonin

For many people who suffer from depression, the root cause is an imbalance in serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is known as the “happy chemical,” and plays an important role in regulating our bodies’ emotions, appetite, and cognition. This is why many sufferers of depression take SSRI antidepressants like Prozac or Zoloft, which specifically help regulate levels of serotonin in the brain. 

Yoga is one of many natural methods people can use to increase their serotonin production, which can help to alleviate symptoms of depression. 

Empowerment

Many sufferers of depression experience feelings of worthlessness and helplessness that can be difficult to overcome alone. Thankfully, there is also evidence to suggest that improving your stamina in certain yoga poses can result in feelings of empowerment.

There is a sense of freedom felt by practitioners of yoga that comes with being able to do things your body was not previously capable of, which can be key to rebuilding self-confidence. It’s known that having tangible goals you can work towards and succeed at is beneficial in reducing negative self-thought.

The sensations your body experiences during these strengthening poses can also take the mind off of other negative, intrusive thoughts. Thus, the feelings of worthlessness and helplessness that accompany depression can be alleviated by improving strength and concentrating on asanas. 

Yoga Can Help Lower Anxiety

It’s no surprise that yoga is also beneficial in treating anxiety, given that depression and anxiety can often go hand in hand. 

Reduction in Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can cause a myriad of physical symptoms that can make someone feel truly sick, including nausea, diarrhea, faintness, clamminess, headaches, high heart rate, and more. 

And for many sufferers of anxiety, the physical symptoms that accompany it can be even more problematic than the feelings of anxiety themselves. 

Yoga shows promise in reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety-sufferers. The asanas utilized in yoga practice strengthen, lengthen, and relax the muscles, allowing for a reduction in tension-related physical symptoms. It also lowers our resting heart rate and lowers our blood pressure, which is extremely beneficial for people experiencing symptoms of panic. 

For many with anxiety, a reduction in the physical symptoms of anxiety or panic alone is enough to focus on breathing techniques that can help them help themselves calm down. 

Many people with anxiety also suffer from low pain tolerance, as low pain tolerance is correlated with high levels of stress. Regular practice of asanas helps reinforce our physical strength, making us more tolerant of pain. 

Reduction in Anxious Thought

People with anxiety often deal with negative thinking patterns and constant worrying that can make it hard for them to even get out of bed. Thankfully, yoga can help with this. 

The act of meditating and concentrating on breathing that accompanies the practice of yoga helps people focus on something other than their worry and puts them in a calmer mental state in which they may be more prepared to face their problems. 

And if one’s body achieves the aforementioned “relaxation response” through yoga, they will become overwhelmed with a state of calm which can help make thoughts more manageable.

Another great benefit of yoga is that yoga classes are often social. Sufferers of anxiety often feel isolated, and may even isolate themselves due to excessive worrying. The social nature of yoga allows practicers to meet a like-minded group of peers they can befriend and expand their social circles through. 

Yoga and Other Mental Health Conditions

Yoga is also believed to be beneficial in treating a variety of other mental health conditions, including:

  • ADHD: The relaxation response that accompanies yoga calms the body, aiding in hyperactive symptoms of ADHD. It also improves concentration skills, as mindful breathing and maintaining of asanas sharpen our concentration. One study showed that kids with ADHD who practiced yoga for 20 minutes twice a week performed better on attention and focus tests (Source: WebMD)
  • Schizophrenia: Yoga has been shown to improve social cognition in patients with schizophrenia, which is significant considering schizophrenia severely impacts social cognition. Yoga also is beneficial for anxiety, a major symptom of schizophrenia. The focus skills learned through yoga allow patients to better ground themselves as well.
  • PTSD: One of the major themes of yoga is teaching people how to get rid of feelings and thoughts that don’t serve them. PTSD sufferers often have difficulty regulating their survival response. Yoga helps people return to a baseline psychological state, which may help sufferers of PTSD better manage their thoughts. It also increases mind-body awareness, which can help with feelings of dissociation.
  • Insomnia: Sufferers of sleep deprivation are sure to find solace in the practice of yoga. Regular yoga practice not only helps you fall asleep, but it also helps you stay asleep and helps you sleep for longer. Certain poses help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down bodily processes.
  • OCD: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder shares roots with anxiety, so it’s no wonder yoga can have beneficial effects on treating the condition. The balance and relaxation experienced by yogis can be enough to quell intrusive, compulsive thoughts and bring someone back to a state of calm. Many studies have been done that show a positive correlation between yoga and improving symptoms of OCD. 

Practices Like Yoga for Mental Health

Many of the components of yoga that make it beneficial for improving mental health are shared with other similar practices that can help in similar ways. Read the following synopses of similar practices you can use to supplement your self-care routine and decide if any of these are right for you. 

Meditation

Meditation is a practice used as a means of “noticing what happens moment to moment, the easy and the difficult, and the painful and the joyful. It’s about building a muscle to be present and awake in your life” (Source: Psychology Today)

Many mental health conditions have symptoms that deal with a struggle to be grounded, and a struggle with intrusive negative thoughts. Meditation involves cultivating control over our minds and learning to be present at the moment, rather than thinking about ‘what if’s.’ 

Thanks to this, meditation can help mental health patients gain some control over their thoughts, and find pleasure in the little things. It is also extremely beneficial in cultivating regular sleeping patterns, which is even more beneficial considering how much sleep deprivation exacerbates negative symptoms of mental health struggles.

Thanks to meditation reaching mainstream popularity in recent years, you can find guided meditation resources all over the place. However, Amazon has some great meditation resources that you can follow for a good price, or even for free. Try this 15-minute guided meditation for emotional healing on Amazon here

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial arts practice, but don’t worry, it’s not the strenuous, sparring kind you think of when Taekwondo or Karate is mentioned.

Tai Chi involves performing, gentle, fluid movements while fully concentrating. With it’s emphasis on maintaining balance and it being a no-contact form of martial arts, it shares many of the beneficial effects on mental health that yoga has. 

It helps cultivate balance and focus both on the physical movements and in the mind. Thanks to the grounding, focused nature of Tai Chi, Harvard Medical School has reported that it may benefit people with mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and insomnia, along with benefitting people with a multitude of physical ailments. 

Just like yoga, you can find tai chi classes online on outlets like YouTube entirely for free. You can also find Tai Chi classes in your local community. 

Pilates

Many people tend to confuse yoga and pilates with each other. This is because in a lot of ways, they’re very similar- you perform poses within a yoga mat that focus on building strength and cultivating focus. 

While yoga is more relaxation/meditation-based, pilates is more about building physical strength in a positive, encouraging environment using the proper postures. If you’re someone who benefitted from the feelings of empowerment that come with building strength and completing physical activities you couldn’t do before through yoga, pilates might be the next step for you.

Joseph Pilates used to say that “reawakening ordinarily dormant muscle cells we are reawakening thousands of dormant brain cells, thus activating new areas and stimulating further the functioning of the mind.” Thanks to this, many people feel a feeling of ‘uplift’ after pilates sessions, which can boost mood and empower sufferers of depression. It also is another way of naturally increasing serotonin production, only adding to the benefits of this practice. 

Pole Dancing

No, you didn’t read this incorrectly- I really mean it.

Pole dancing isn’t just for dancers. It’s another form of physical exercise that involves focusing entirely on maintaining poses, like yoga. The pole dancing community is full of all kinds of individuals from differing backgrounds, and offers a great social support system for those dealing with mental illness.

It also improves confidence in its practitioners. Just like yoga, as you work on focusing to maintain these poses and postures, your strength builds and you feel empowered in being able to do something you haven’t done before. The act of stepping out of your comfort zone to perform something challenging and vulnerable helps rebuild self-confidence and positive thought patterns. 

It is also similar to yoga in that there is an emphasis on being present in the moment, and focusing entirely on your task at hand. This can help both ground and distract people who are experiencing anxious or worried thoughts. 

Many people have found pole dancing to be therapeutic when dealing with feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation. 

Frequently Asked Questions about Yoga and Mental Health

If you’ve got some more questions about how yoga can benefit your mental health, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading to discover the answers to some of the most popular questions regarding yoga and its effect on mental health.

Can yoga replace other forms of psychiatric treatment?

While yoga is absolutely beneficial in the treatment of a variety of mental health conditions, it’s important to remember that you cannot replace necessary psychiatric treatments with yoga. 

If your doctor recommends medication, therapy, or other forms of treatment for your disorder yoga cannot act as a replacement for those treatments. Rather, you should treat yoga as a helpful tool you can use to supplement your existing treatment plan. 

Will doing yoga cure my mental illness?

No, yoga alone will not completely cure mental illness.

That doesn’t mean yoga can’t help or provide you with a noticeable difference in the symptoms of your mental health condition. Yoga has many beneficial effects that will help practicers alleviate symptoms and better manage their lives, but it’s important to remember that yoga works best for this purpose when it supplements a doctor-approved treatment regimen.

Can I take a yoga class that is specifically meant to treat depression/anxiety/insomnia/etc.?

While it might be more difficult to find classes that cater to specific mental health conditions in person, there is an incredible number of free online yoga videos on outlets like YouTube that are meant for helping out with specific mental health conditions. 

What makes these courses catered to a condition is the choices of asanas (or poses) the yoga instructor makes. Certain yoga poses are beneficial in promoting sleep, relaxation, empowerment- you name it. A yoga YouTube video meant for insomnia will include a variety of yoga poses that promote sleep, etc. 

You can find endless catered yoga videos just by searching for them online, but if you’re looking for a yoga video for treating anxiety or stress for instance, try this one by Sarah Beth Yoga.

I’m not flexible. Can I still try yoga?

This is a very understandable question. Oftentimes, the image that comes to mind when we envision a yogi is someone doing contortionist-type poses, yet they make it look easy.

Thankfully, literally everyone can try yoga. Yoga has all different kinds of levels and purposes for practicers to choose from, ranging from gentle flexibility courses to high-level strengthening courses. If you’re not flexible and you’re worried about fitting in at a yoga session, don’t be!

You can take yoga courses for beginners specifically meant to cultivate flexibility. Look into what classes are available to you in your community or online. For beginners try this: Yoga For Beginners Course

How often do I have to do yoga to see improvements in my mental health?

As everyone is on a different healing spectrum, it’s difficult to say how quickly it will help for everyone. Most people recommend daily yoga to feel the best effects- physically and mentally. For instance, five minutes of yoga a day is more beneficial for you than one hour of yoga a week. 

That said, many people have found benefit in spot-treating symptoms of anxiety or depression by doing yoga while experiencing problematic symptoms as a way to calm down and ground down. 

Even if you can’t dedicate an hour of yoga time a day, you’re bound to feel positive effects from this practice from even just a single session. It’s better to do it when you can and as much as you can than to not do it at all! 

I feel like yoga hurts me more than it helps me. What should I do?

Many people experience this and the reason is often that you’re straining in an attempt to perfect a pose that your body is not prepared to perform yet. 

One of the main mantras of yoga instructors is “strengthen, don’t strain.” Many beginners try and follow their more experienced instructors or friends only to find that the poses are painful and difficult to maintain. If you’re straining to do something you aren’t yet ready to do, you aren’t able to get the other beneficial effects of yoga, like relaxation response. You can even really hurt yourself by trying to do an asana that you aren’t ready for.

Instead, try and find peace in wherever you find yourself during your practice. If you need to modify, modify. Don’t fight your body if it’s not ready. You’ll find that you’ll naturally improve as you go along, and you’ll be able to feel more peaceful and accepting during your practice. 

As more and more people transition into finding natural, holistic ways of self-healing, many are turning to yoga for its beneficial effects on improving mental health. Yoga can help treat a myriad of different mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, OCD, PTSD, and more. While it can never replace a psychiatric treatment regimen, it’s a fantastic supplement.

Yoga’s ability to trigger a relaxation response helps calm people, and it’s emphasis on concentration and focus help bring people back to the present moment and ground them. There are similar practices one can benefit from in a similar way as well, like tai chi or pilates. Anyone can try yoga for any reason, and if you’re thinking about trying it, you’ve got nothing to lose.

~Namaste

Dakota Carroll

Yoga have been a part of Dakota's life for 10+ years. Her practice has helped her grow stronger, more flexible and fearless. Dakota encourages her students to be creative and challenge the body. She seeks to inspire every student to feel refreshed, nourished and balanced both on and off the mat.

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