Updated: Jun 7, 2021
It's been a year since the first lockdown began here in the UK and the stress, uncertainty and isolation of the past year has taken it's toll on people's mental health. According to a survey by the BACP and YouGov, around 85 per cent of people with a pre-existing mental health condition, and almost half of those without one, feel their mental health has been negatively impacted during this time.
We've probably all heard that yoga is good for our mental wellbeing. I know this first-hand, having experienced anxiety and depression in the past, and I've met countless others who've felt the benefits.
But how exactly does yoga help our mental health? It would be impossible to list all the ways in one article so I've chosen to narrow it down to five.
1. Yoga decreases stress chemicals and increases happy chemicals
Research shows that yoga helps to reduce cortisol levels thereby reducing our stress levels. Higher cortisol is linked to depression so a reduction in cortisol can help to relieve symptoms of depression. Yoga also elevates levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA, which decreases our anxiety levels.
In addition, during yoga practice our brains release chemicals associated with happiness and wellbeing including dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, contributing to what is sometimes referred to as the 'yoga high'!
2. Yoga helps us to deeply relax
In a society which encourages us to be constantly busy and in which stress levels are so high, our nervous systems can be constantly on high alert. Many of the practices we do in yoga, especially in a slow-moving practice, help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system - the body's 'rest and digest' mode.
When the parasympathetic system is activated our blood pressure and heart rate decrease, we can rest deeply and our mood is likely to improve. The body is also able to perform many important functions such as digesting food and healing itself.
3. Yoga improves sleep and reduces pain levels
We all know how important sleep is for our mental wellbeing and poor sleep has been linked to depression. One study found that over half of people doing yoga report improved quality of sleep. Another found that people who practice yoga are able to get to sleep more quickly, sleep for longer and feel more rested when they wake up.
Yoga can also help people who are experiencing chronic pain to reduce their pain levels. Chronic pain is often linked to depression so this can also help to improve mood.
4. Yoga brings us into the present moment
When we're struggling with our mental health we're likely to be either ruminating on past events, worrying about future events or a combination of both. By connecting us with our bodies and our breathing, yoga helps to bring us into the present moment where we can experience a sense of peace. A break from thinking offers us the opportunity to see our perceived problems from a new perspective and perhaps to come up with creative solutions.
5. Yoga helps us to be kinder to ourselves
Society puts a lot of pressure on us to look a certain way, be productive, acquire certain possessions. With all the messages we get through advertising and social media, it can be easy to feel like we're constantly falling short. Yoga helps us to accept ourselves as we are and to develop a compassionate relationship towards ourselves. It teaches us to respect our bodies as they are and to find our own truths rather than follow someone else's. When we can find purpose and meaning from deep within ourselves we are likely to feel happier and more fulfilled.
There's no better way to discover the benefits of yoga for mental wellbeing than to try it out. I'm running a free session on Tuesday 30th March for anyone experiencing depression, anxiety or low mood - you can book your free space here. Or try out my Gentle Friday Flow - a mindful class suitable for all levels, currently via Zoom at 11am each Friday.