When most people think of yoga, they think ‘gymnastics’, ‘hippie culture’, ‘contortion’ etc. It’s considered to be a visually mesmerizing activity and it’s very easily associated with, and praised for the aesthetic, physical nature of it. Few people consider yoga for mental illness.
Of course, the physical aspect is a core element of the practice, but what about the importance of the mental aspect of yoga? Engaging in yoga means you allow yourself to have a connection between your mind and body, therefore you encourage yourself to use them simultaneously.
If years of religious yoga practice can transform your body into a strong, slender specimen of health, just imagine what it can do to your thoughts, emotions, feelings and mind.
Anxiety: Everyday Mental Illness
One of the most common mental illnesses is Anxiety Disorder. A lot of people suffer from anxiety as a result of a build-up of stressful life situations. There are many factors that influence the prevalence of anxiety symptoms or even a diagnosis of an Anxiety Disorder, such as personality types, childhood experiences, life quality, life satisfaction etc. For some, anxiety can be a crippling chain around them, and suddenly everyday tasks become dreadful and terrifying.
The neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that is very closely related to anxiety, is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It is considered to block specific brain signals and inhibit or decrease activity in the nervous system. When a GABA molecule connects to a GABA receptor, the result is a calming sensation. Studies have shown that yoga increases this neurotransmitter drastically, lifting the symptoms of anxiety and regulating nerve activity.
According to Patanjali, one fundamental characteristic of the mind is that it usually struggles to remain in the here and now. It jumps around from one thought to another, and always fluctuates between the past, present and future.
The human mind is constantly interpreting information, observations and perceptions from the world around it. It is led by thought patterns, habitual behaviour, evolutionary paradigms and conditioning. Naturally, the mind is remarkably busy, agitated and sometimes overworks its capacity. Yoga is a pathway that clears and calms the mind.
Impact of Yoga on Mental Health
According to Psychology Today, sufficient practice of yoga can increase positive body awareness, relieve stress, muscle tension, emotional strain and inflammation. Yoga can also provide longer attention span, sharper concentration and calming of the nervous system.
All these points have a separate but direct correlation to various mental illnesses caused by genes, everyday life or trauma. When looking specifically at Anxiety Disorder, we understand that outside stimuli cause stress and abnormal neurological firing patterns to the individual.
The effect of yoga on a person who suffers from Anxiety is remarkable. Engaging into an asana, like puppy pose (Uttana Shishosana) for example, alters the firing patterns of neurotransmitters in the brain. Being in a yoga pose and concentrating on deep breathing, lowers the brain’s need to act upon the flight or fight response. Your body decreases the secretion of arousing nerve chemicals like adrenaline and stops bodily processes that prepare energy for motor activity. Relaxing deeply into a yoga posture means your heart rate slows down, your alkalinity gets balanced out and your blood gets a flush of oxygen.
Remaining in a posture for more than 30 seconds causes your brain to produce a relaxation response. Once you engage into a posture, your body is tense and your mind is aroused, but the longer you hold and the deeper you focus on your breath, your muscles relax and your mind shifts to a calming state.
There have been a few scientific studies conducted about yoga for mental illness. Not only is the relaxation response that yoga produces great for improving mental states, but it’s also beneficial for physical health and bodily processes. A study at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital found that this deep, calming state of relaxation induced by practices, like yoga, produces a drastic change in the expression of gene makeup. The result is improved immune function, energy levels, secretion of insulin and metabolic processes.
How to Manifest Relaxation Responses
One session of yoga can be so effective on an uneasy mind, that you are convinced you have concurred your abnormal mental state. However, upon the next minor inconvenience, you might spiral back into instability.
The key is consistency. Like any therapeutic tool, yoga as a remedy for abnormal mental states, takes time and dedication. You have to endure a few uncomfortable beginner yoga sessions in order to evaluate if it’s the right remedy for you. Because the truth is, not every healing method works effectively for everyone. Yoga is a versatile tool, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work for everyone or every uneasy mental state.
But if you have endured a few first yoga sessions and you find it really does wonders for how you feel on that particular day. Don’t stop. Yoga might not be the easiest activity or hobby and getting to an advanced place in the discipline may take many years. But the entire journey, every moment you spend doing yoga, you invest time into bettering your mental and physical health. Not even a mere 10-minute session is wasted.
Also, if your goal isn’t to become a master yogi, then there is no need to push yourself or track your progress. You can do any yoga sequence at your own pace, in your own space, whenever you feel you need it. If you can find a few minutes or an hour a day to give your mind the pleasure of being still and at peace – you will see valuable differences in your thought patterns, reactions, behaviour, emotions and overall health.
Yoga as Natural Self-Medication
Yoga is by no means an instant healing mechanism for serious mental illness. It is unfortunately not a permanent mind-altering tool. Yoga for mental illness means someone who struggles with anxiety, for example, and does not necessarily want medication or therapy, can try yoga to see if it might be the perfect remedy.
Life as we know it today is tough and unpredictable and you will always have to endure highs and lows. But what yoga can offer you, is an escape. So, without further ado, grab your mat, grab your water and give your mind the release and relaxation it so desperately needs.