The benefits of yoga for mental health
Discover the benefits of yoga for mental health
Yoga delivers a raft of impressive physical benefits, from increased flexibility to improved muscle strength. But it’s the mental health boost that yoga offers that is one of the reasons many devotees continue practising this ancient discipline.
In fact, mental health is at the very core of traditional yoga philosophy, says yogi and influencer Duncan Peak. And although Duncan acknowledges that people may start yoga to help with injuries or as a stretching exercise, the reason they stay is for the mental health benefits.
“In my experience, yoga practitioners tend to be happier, more content, less reactive, more intimate and open – and a big one – they let go of the need for other people’s approval!”
A brief history of yoga
Developed more than 3000 years ago, the practice of yoga combines physical postures or poses (known as asana), breathing practices (pranayama), meditation and relaxation.
A type of mind-body fitness, yoga is classified as complementary and alternative medicine. And, yoga isn’t just about keeping ‘zen’; regular practice can help with injury rehabilitation, build muscle and improve lung and heart health, sleep and wellbeing.
How does yoga help mental health?
Hands up if you’ve ever felt overloaded with thoughts that cause stress and anxiety or stop you from focusing?
You’re not the only one.
Yoga can help us separate our thoughts from the stress they can make us feel, which has a calming effect, explains Duncan.
“Yoga in its many forms, from meditation right through to a dynamic asana practice, aims to engage students to be present, concentrate the mind, withdraw from their senses and observe their mind’s constant chatter and stories,” Duncan says.
Reviewing our thoughts and then learning to observe without judgement can have a huge impact on mental health, Duncan says.
“Modern science calls this ability meta-cognition – or monitoring and control – but its practices have existed in yoga for millennia.”
How quickly you see results will depend on your individual circumstances and how often you practise. But one US study found that practising yoga three times a week for eight weeks was enough to cause significant reductions in depression and anxiety.
Eight steps to calming your mind
Duncan says Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) is an eight-step practice that reminds us to be present and has a calming and centring effect. The best bit? All you need is a comfy seat and a few minutes to spare. Here’s how it’s done:
Sit in a relaxed upright position with the spine straight, supported by a chair or wall if needed.
Hold your right hand in front of your face. Position your ring finger so that it can be used to close your left nostril. Position your thumb so that it can be used to close your right nostril. Your ring finger and thumb will be used to close alternate nostrils as you breathe throughout the practice. (If it helps, you can rest your index finger and middle finger between your eyebrows as an anchor).
Breathe out through both nostrils, then cover your right nostril and breathe in through your left nostril for a count of four.
Then hold the breath with both nostrils closed by the thumb and ring finger for a count of four (reduce to two if required)
Keep the left nostril closed with your ring finger, and using the above hand shape, breathe out through your right nostril for a count of four. Then, breathe in through your right nostril for a count of four.
Then hold the breath with both nostrils closed by thumb and ring finger for a count of four (reduce to two if required).
Breath out through your left nostril for a count of four.
Breath in through your left nostril for a count of four, and so on for three to 10 minutes.
Tips: If you exhale with more force at the start and run out of breath, try to slow the flow of the inhale and exhale smoothly over the count of four. Once you can do this practice and remain relaxed, you may increase your count.
During this exercise, if you find that your mind starts wandering, train it to come back by focusing on the breath pattern, Duncan says.
How can I get started with yoga?
You can attend a local yoga studio or see whether your gym or community centre offers yoga classes. Duncan notes that some people might find online classes more convenient or comfortable. It’s all about finding the right fit, Duncan says.
Making yoga a lifelong practice
Just like any new lifestyle change, making yoga practice a regular habit can be tricky, but to really reap the mental health benefits, it’s important to stick at it. Here are Duncan’s tips.
Make the commitment. Set out with the mindset that the practice of yoga is a long journey. You can adapt your practice at any age and stage, including during pregnancy, decreased mobility or injury.
Be consistent. The more you practise, the better the results. Practising three to five times a week for five to 10 minutes is a good start.
Find the right fit. Find the time, place and even people that you feel best practising with.
Go safely at your own pace. Focus on the alignment and movement of your joints, keeping your practice safe and pain-free. Don’t try and keep up with others or push too hard too fast. Remember to ask your yoga instructor for help if a pose is causing you discomfort.
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Duncan is a pioneer of contemporary yoga in Australia and the Founder, Master Facilitator and CEO of Power Living. Duncan has more than 20 years of teaching experience, runs seven studios across Australia with 12,000 students coming to classes each week and manages a world-class teacher training program. He is author of Modern Yoga, creator of multiple yoga DVDs/CDs and launched Australia’s first virtual yoga platform, YOGAHOLICS.