Yoga for Mental Health: 5 Major Benefits, Explained
by AnnaMarie Houlis
Ever feel a bit lighter – mentally – after a satisfying yoga session? Maybe your mind is quieter, your spirits brighter, and looming stressors seem less pressing. Turns out, there’s something to that uplift: A growing body of research in the mental health field is confirming the benefits of yoga for anxiety, stress, and more.
Here are five mental health benefits of yoga, explained:
1. Yoga increases both social and self connection
A growing body of research indicates that yoga cultivates deeper social and self connection. It does so in a number of ways, one of which is by improving the function of the vagus nerve. Those of us with low vagal tones experience more difficulty recovering from stressful events and connecting with our senses of selves. Those of us with higher vagal tones, however, tend to be more resilient and connected.
As for social connection? Turns out, that high that you get when you lunge into Warrior 2, or other synchronized poses, can actually boost oxytocin – the hormone associated with social bonding. Studies suggest that when yoga students breathe and move together, they’re mentally synchronizing, and often leave class feeling part of something larger than themselves.
2. Yoga decreases cortisol levels
Studies have shown that yoga has strong potential to decrease levels of cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone.”
Theories as to why vary, but most point to the mindfulness-based aspect of yoga. When you step onto the mat, you’re seizing an opportunity to release stress by shifting your focus to the here and now. Staying in the moment can help you let go of negative energies – overall boosting your mood, and dropping stress.
Certain yoga poses can actually relieve stress in the moment, too. Cat-cow, for example, grants you the time and space to tap into what your body needs – you can even expand on, and personalize, the pose to relieve tension. Roll through your shoulders, hips, arms, and thighs to get into any “nooks and crannies” that might benefit from a little extra mobility and stretch. Close your eyes in this pose, and feel into it to embrace what comes naturally, allowing stress to float away with every deep breath and stretch.
3. Yoga aids in deep relaxation
When you snuggle into child’s pose or catch your breath in savasana, you’re giving your mind and body some nourishing relaxation.
“On a physical level, yoga helps induce a relaxation response and reduce heart rate; on a psychological level, mindfulness promotes a focus on the present moment, guiding thoughts away from anxiety or worry about future events,” says Kristen Acciari, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and yoga teacher in Rhode Island.
Acciari particularly recommends seeking yoga classes titled “yoga for anxiety” or “yoga for stress,” as well as restorative classes for reducing anxiety, releasing tension, increasing relaxation, and focusing on the present.
“These classes have the specific needs of individuals experiencing these feelings in mind, and the practice is curated accordingly,” she explains. “For example, the class may include breathing techniques and self-compassion exercises. If you do not have access to a class with an explicitly-stated focus on helping ease stress and anxiety, classes described as gentle, restorative, or mindful can also be a good fit.”
4. Yoga promotes compassionate observations of your inner dialogue
In yoga, we “learn to draw our senses inward, to shut out external stimuli, so that we can really look at what are we thinking, what are we feeling, and what are we doing,” says Nikolai Blinow, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and yoga teacher in Rhode Island, in her TED Talk on the similarities between mental health treatment and yoga practices.
Blinow continues, “From here we cultivate concentration... and we can focus on just about anything.” She adds that when we can focus, we can explore our thinking, what we’re feeling, and what we’re doing – from a place of non-judgment. Pairing with your mantra of choice can be particularly effective.
5. Yoga provides space for intentional thought patterns
If you think with intentions, as we often do in yoga practice, you understand how you can change the situation at hand. Intentional thought patterns are the essence of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which involves countering negative thoughts by noticing positive feelings.
“If you change the way you think, you’ll change what you do, and you’ll change the way you feel,” says Blinow.
Yoga is an awesome way to boost your mood and contribute to positive mental health. If you are interested in finding a talk therapist to support you in your overall mental health, you can watch videos and book free initial calls with the right counselor for you on Zencare.