It's a well known fact that exercise is good for your mental health, it releases those feel-good endorphins and research shows exercise actually detoxifies your body from harmful chemicals that alleviate depression and anxiety.
Any form of exercise that you enjoy will give your happiness levels a boost but one form of exercise that is particularly amazing for mental health is yoga.
The mind and body are linked more than we perhaps realise and this means negative processes in one will no-doubt have repercussions for the other. Regular yoga practice is a great way to maintain healthy mind-body balance and keep that positive mindset intact.
Another benefit of yoga is the focus on breathing and meditation techniques, which are also used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to treat patients with depression and/or anxiety. This meditation is often referred to as 'mindfulness' to avoid the spiritual connotations of meditation but it is the same thing.
Meditation or 'mindfulness' brings your awareness and focus to the present moment which is crucial for clarity of mind and reducing stress levels. Whether you practice yoga or not, we should all try to live in the present as much as possible!
The comparison in the list of symptoms of depression with the proven benefits of yoga practice is also very interesting. Yoga improves mental clarity, quality of sleep, reduces stress levels and relieves tension, so by practicing yoga you are directly targeting some of the hardest hitting symptoms of depression.
In addition to this, yoga teaches you the art of self-study, whether this is in the form of your mental or physical state yoga helps you find clarity in other parts of your life that may be causing you stress or worry - your relationships, your work, your home life or your ability to care for yourself. We become empowered to make changes, build on our own strengths and it becomes clear which areas of our life need tending to.
Now for some sciencey stuff! A 2013 study by Massachusetts General Hospital found that the deep physiological state of rest induced by the three elements of yoga (posture, breath and meditation) produced immediate, positive change in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion. Insulin is known not only for regulating blood sugar, but also for triggering the production of serotonin - the feel-good neurotransmitter than can be stimulated by some anti-depression medications.
Regular yoga practice was also shown to improve the levels of amino acid GABA, a neurotransmitter that is often low in people who suffer with depression and anxiety. Other forms of exercise also improve GABA but scientists found that the levels of the amino acid were significantly higher in those who did yoga in comparison to other forms of exercise.
Yoga also helps to raise levels of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels and relaxes the body.
I know first hand just how beneficial yoga can be, in fact I’d go as far as to say it changed my life and was the key to me overcoming depression and an anxiety disorder. A few years ago I was at a horrendous point in my life, I was crippled by self-consciousness, suffered daily panic attacks and my depression was the cause of unimaginable pain. I felt hopeless, lost and constantly terrified but one day, for some unknown reason, I decided to try yoga. Ever since that day I’ve practiced yoga more or less every single day and it’s become such a hugely important part of my life.
Yoga has helped me feel stronger (physically, mentally and emotionally), it’s aided me in my journey to self-acceptance & self-love, it’s taught me to be mindful, I’ve become less anxious and I feel like the light within me has been switched back on.
If you’d have told me a few years ago I’d be practicing yoga regularly, preaching to others that they just have to take it up and it’d be one of the key things in my life keeping me feeling happy, safe and calm I’d have probably laughed in your face, but here I am….a self confessed yogi and damn happy about it! It goes without saying that it's highly unlikely attending one yoga class is going to cure years of mental health problems but with time and regular practice you will reap benefits.
Modern medicine has it's place and if I was hit by a car I certainly wouldn't be interested in a vinyasa flow but I think it's vital to try some natural alternatives before jumping straight in with prescriptions and pills when it comes to mental health concerns.
Whether you suffer from depression and/or anxiety or not yoga is a great way to shine light into your body, free energy, help you with self-love, teach you to be kind to yourself and build physical strength. I can't recommend it enough and would love you to give it a try too.
This article was written by Ari Yahalom