Updated: May 2, 2020
Ever wondered why yogi's look so peaceful, chilled and harmonic? It's not only due to the culture of yoga (or the stuff they spray in the air), there really is something more to it. Besides any aerobic movement being beneficial for our minds, yoga seems to have superior qualities when it comes to building mental fitness. This is why we see it being used as part of treatment for chronic medical conditions, mood disorders, stress, anxiety and even addiction. It is also my personal favourite way to calm down and reset and, after many years of practice, I can see the amazing benefits for myself. Today I'm going to tell you about why it is superior in increasing mental fitness, the many ways you can access yoga and the benefits of practicing it regularly.
There are many types of yoga out there, from more aerobic power yoga to more meditative gentle/ restorative yoga. Each form of yoga has different benefits but there are common threads which run through each practice and these are: Asanas (poses/postures); controlled breathing; and varying periods of relaxation. I personally have grown to love Vinyasa yoga, sometimes practicing in a heated class and other times within normal room temperature. As well as Yin yoga, which I practice less regularly but I find really important for restoration (especially if you do a lot of other exercise, like me). I’m fascinated by the science of yoga - what specifically happens in our bodies that allows for significant development in our mental capacity? Why is yoga more beneficial in relieving depression and anxiety symptoms than running 10km a day? What is it about heated yoga, in particular, that is so transforming? These are questions I've asked myself over the years and what clients, friends and family who are considering starting always seem to ask.
Your body knows you best: Yoga can help you understand your body better
The first reason I believe yoga to build mental fitness is the fact that our bodies know us best and yoga allows us to get in touch with our bodies. Our bodies are so aware of every experience we encounter and every emotion we experience, even those that we are not consciously aware of. Our bodies are vessels and they physically hold our emotions within them and therefore, by mentally connecting our bodies and our minds through controlled breathing in yoga, we are able to release such emotions and tension within the body. The term 'yoga' means union which refers to uniting our individual consciousness (our individual experience of reality) with our spiritual consciousness (the truth as perceived when we quiet our five senses and reconnect with our true selves within).
Yoga helps us learn to control our breath, taming our stress response
Unlike some aerobic exercises which increase cortisol levels, yoga tames the stress response by tapping into our parasympathetic nervous system; enabling us to get out of fight, flight, or freeze mode and into a more relaxed mental state of being. This is available to us by means of controlling our breath - by choosing to change the rate, depth, and pattern of our breathing, we can start to change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain. In this state of calm, we are able to destroy and metabolize stress hormones, increasing our resilience to stress and emotional discomfort. Through breathwork, there is a meditative element to yoga which increases one's ability to be present in the moment. We refer to this as mindfulness, which is a proven as an effective method of therapy for depression and anxiety. Yoga not only helps moderate our stress response systems but also decreases our physiological arousal: by assisting in reducing heart rate and lowering blood pressure, yoga can help us reach that state of 'calm' we are looking for in our daily lives.
Detoxifying body = detoxifying mind
Yoga redistributes blood flow, increasing oxygen delivery and improving the circulatory system. This also means greater blood flow and oxygen to the brain; which helps us to be less stressed, more present and more focused after yoga our practice. Having increased physical health also enables us to focus more attention on our mental health. The improved circulation of blood flow in our bodies further connects our minds and bodies and allows space for internal healing and releasing of emotional trauma held within the body. Heated yoga is particularly beneficial in detoxifying your body, allowing you to sweat out toxins stored in your fat cells just beneath the skin.
At the end of a yoga class you will find there is time built-in for Savasana (resting pose, where you will lie flat on your back, releasing tension left in the body). This can be particularly challenging for those of us who like to move around constantly and have busy minds but it trains and establishes our heart-rate variability, a predictor of heart health and of general health, and it forces us to spend time being still within our ever-moving lifestyles.
Yoga generates new neural pathways in the brain
Not only does yoga connect the body and mind but it also enables development of the brain because in yoga practice we are constantly learning. We not only learn different asanas (postures) and sequences but we also learn new words. Yoga instructors will often use Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) to describe some of the yoga poses done in class. We learn what each pose is by following example in class but over time, with consistent practice, we become familiar with the terminology used thus learning a new language. Research shows that learning another language offers proven benefits for intelligence, memory, and concentration and lowered risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Learning another language is one of the most effective and practical ways to increase intelligence, keep your mind sharp, and buffer your brain against aging and yoga can give you these benefits.
There is a strong sense of community in Yoga
By engaging in a consistent yoga practice in a communal space, we exposed to a caring and compassionate community of people. The yogi community is renowned for its philosophy of acceptance of all people and non-judgement of self or others. Within a yoga class, you will learn to let go of your ego and make space for yourself to lean into introspection without judgement of yourself. There is something powerful about moving in unison with a group of individuals, who are all there for similar reasons and are all working towards self-improvement and putting the hard work in to get there. Even if you choose to keep to yourself before and after class, sharing a smile or a knowing glance with someone familiar in class can be a real sense of comfort, knowing you are not alone. You may have heard the term 'Namaste' which is normally used by the facilitator at the end of the class as a way of greeting the class. It means 'the light within in me sees and acknowledges the light within you'. This shows the acknowledgement and compassion of the yoga community.
Yoga gives you permission to focus on yourself
Yoga gives you time on your mat solely dedicated to YOU. It gives you permission to leave everything else behind and focus entirely on being present, in the moment, giving yourself time to: breath, move and relax. It encourages listening to your body and slowing down when you need to. These are important skills we can take from our mats and bring into our everyday lives.
Yoga improves your posture and alignment, helping you stand tall
Why is this important for building mental fitness? Because the way you hold yourself, your posture and body alignment, is indicative of how you are feeling emotionally. Yoga gives us time to put our bodies back in alignment by ensuring we do each pose on both sides of our body, evening the body out and improving our posture. This further translates into our daily lives: by us walking out of class standing tall, we are encouraging our minds to stand tall too, building mental resilience. Our body language has a direct impact on our emotional state and practicing lengthening and opening our bodies can help us to feel more calm and confident.
Music and Sound in yoga is healing in itself
The sounds vibrations given off in yoga playlists naturally enhance our mental well-being, giving off those feel-good vibes and making us want to move our bodies and flow. Music therapy is inherent in many yoga classes and is one of the many benefits of yoga on our minds. Chanting is also used in some yoga practices and can be highly beneficial for building mental fitness. Chanting in a group can provoke an intense sense of connection between ourselves and the outside world and can allow us to feel grounded in our space.
Where to start?
Starting anything new can be daunting and yoga can be particularly nerve racking for those who don't see themselves as 'flexible' or 'fit' but it really is accessible to anyone who is interested in trying it. If you don't feel comfortable going to a yoga class then why not start practicing at home first? There are plenty of YouTube videos and Online Apps that provide guided Yoga practices so you can begin there and see how it goes. I personally felt too intimidated going to a yoga studio when I first started practicing and so I found myself practicing in my room at university. I loved it so much that I decided to started attending sessions at the gym. From there I started to have a better understanding of the language they use and I learnt how to control my breath. After about a year of practicing at home and going to classes at the gym, I built up the courage to go to a studio. It was scary but it was a life changing experience for me and I will never look back. The point is, start wherever you feel comfortable and see what works for you and you can build from there.
I have experienced the benefits of yoga on my mental fitness and wellbeing first hand and that's why I have done training in yoga and offer a form of therapy called Integrated yoga and Lifestyle therapy, which you can read up on under One-on-ones. Happy yoga'ing lovely humans! I hope to see you in class sometime.