What are the mental health benefits of yoga?
Stretching across both physical and mental benefits, yoga has a lot to offer us – so it’s time to break down barriers and invite everyone on to the mat
Generally speaking, if something has been around for a long time without losing its spark, it’s safe to say there’s something special about it – and there’s something really special about yoga. Humans have been practising yoga for thousands of years, and, yet, every day, people are discovering its uplifting power for the first time, or in new and invigorating ways.
It’s hard to enter into a conversation on wellness without the topic of yoga coming up, and for good reason – studies consistently find that yoga can support depression, anxiety, stress, mobility, and our relationship with ourselves.
But, running alongside its popularity, a poll by the Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal found that, while the number of people practising yoga continues to rise, there were several points that participants highlighted when considering the reasons why they didn’t try yoga. Those reasons were that yoga can feel exclusive, and there is a perception that it’s ‘designed for young women’, and those who are flexible, athletic, or spiritual.
Social media and a sense of competition may enforce those judgments, but we’re here to break down misconceptions and barriers – holding open the door to anyone who is interested in stepping on to the mat and giving it a go – and to explore why this ancient practice is so relevant to our wellbeing today.
Forget about the ʼgram
On Instagram there are more than 95.9 million posts under the tag #yoga, with many of the snapshots showing people in complicated, athletic poses, against stunning backdrops. While these feats are no doubt impressive, yoga practice is a personal thing, and the reality for the vast majority of people who enjoy it looks very different.
So, first things first, let go of any sense of competition, or expectations about how you should look. This is a point that resonates with life coach Andy Gill, who is also a qualified yoga teacher, and highlights how a large part of the practice is about how you feel on the inside.
“Yoga is about more than stretching or becoming flexible, it is a way to connect with, and be in your body – to become embodied,” he explains. “Many of us are profoundly disconnected from our bodies, cut off from a resource that can keep us grounded, centred, and connected. Developing a deeper connection and trust to the resource of the body is a foundation for good mental health. Through yoga, we can develop this body connection, learning to have a better relationship with our bodies and thereby with ourselves, others, and the world.”
This sense of connection is precisely what Jasraj Singh Hothi found when he began practising yoga after leaving his corporate job in 2015. “For me, it’s a more active, embodied form of meditation,” he explains. “I was a member of a yoga studio here in south-west London, and I made some like-minded friends there, too; other folks with an interest in holistic health, many of whom had their own mental health journeys.”
That yoga seems to be mostly practised by young women, as the poll from the Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal found many believed, is something that Jasraj has noted, but that doesn’t stop him.
“As a man, I have no issue owning my love of yoga,” he says. “I’ve experienced how much it helps me, and I’m increasingly owning my sensitive nature, and the value of looking after my holistic health.”
“Yoga is a mindfulness practice that promotes relaxation by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system – calming things down and moving your body into ‘rest and restore’,” says Andy.
In this state of mind, feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression are soothed as we slow down and take back control. “Yoga can also reduce anger and reactivity, improve sleep, positively impact mood, and has been shown to be an effective tool as part of the treatment PTSD,” he adds.
It’s often said that our most important relationship is the one that we have with ourselves, but yoga can also support our relationship with others. Many studies have highlighted the link between synchronised movement and a sense of connectivity – exploring the evolutionary advantage of moving together as one, and the bonding that follows this. With this in mind, activities such as dancing, walking, and – of course – yoga, can give our relationships a boost, something that we can all stand to benefit from after a year of isolation.
Ultimately, it’s up to you what you want to take from yoga, and how you want to practise it. You are the world-leading expert in what works for you, and your intuition should be a guide for how you want to approach any activity. This self-knowledge is a well-known confidence booster, and the philosophy at the heart of the approach of Karen James – a yoga teacher with Mind Walk Yoga, where all classes are currently being taught by Black women.
“I came to yoga later in life, more out of curiosity than anything else,” she explains. “In 2014, I started my practice, and in March 2019 completed yoga teacher training. For me, yoga is about self-belief, peace, and empowerment. It’s about coming to the mat exactly as I am in the moment, taking the time to pay back into my health bank account – with no pressure to perform.”
Karen notes that, while she initially was drawn to yoga for the physical perks, she quickly began to notice subtle differences in herself, off the mat – she was no longer afraid to say ‘no’, and started to set boundaries.
“It has given me a confidence I never knew existed, which has served me well considering most of the time, especially in the earlier days, I would be the only Black person in the class.
“Fundamentally, the yoga I love reconnects people with their bodies. I truly believe in the ethos that yoga is for everyone.
“I’ve learnt to allow the pose to suit my body, not the other way around. It’s important to be as inclusive as possible, allowing agency, and the space to be true and kind to yourself.”
Find your flow
Did you know that, if you wanted to, you could just curl up into child’s pose for a few minutes? Or catch a couple of breaths in lotus? You can do a sun salutation morning, noon, or night. You can do it in your 20s, 40s, 60s, or 80s, and you can invite the whole family to join in. You can keep it traditional or you can mix it up. Go solo, or join a class. You can discover your spiritual side, or tune-in to your body. And, best of all, you can do all these things, and more.
Yoga is for everyone, and every-body, and the wellness benefits are within reach, for us all.
To connect with a life coach like Andy Gill to discuss how yoga and meditation can benefit you, visit www.lifecoach-directory.org.uk