Yoga supports health, both physical and mental – we’ve heard that many times. With the exercises, we can ease the back pain that plagues us after a long day at the office, but also put the mental pain that gnaws at us after a breakup, for example, a little in its place. Practiced regularly, it can have long-term positive effects on our psyche. But what is it that helps our mental health exactly? Here are my personal top five.
1. More mindfulness
In yoga, you’re always encouraged to feel inside yourself: how does this movement feel in certain parts of the body? How does the leg we just stretched feel in contrast to the leg we haven’t stretched yet? Where can you notice your breathing particularly well? In short, your attention goes inward, not outward. A stark contrast to the world outside the yoga studio, where we are constantly inundated with stimuli of all kinds. On your mat, however, you are invited to focus entirely on yourself and how something feels to you or what thoughts creep into your mind. After practicing for a while, you will notice how this habit spreads to your daily life. You’ll become more receptive to your body’s signals, you’ll notice sooner when your mood changes, you’ll take on the role of observer more often. More mindfulness also means being more in the moment, more with yourself and not so “defenseless” against external influences or worries about events in the past or future.
2. More relaxation/parasympathetic nervous system
What should not be missing at the end of any yoga class is deep relaxation. Our sympathetic nervous system saves us when we have to run away from a saber-toothed tiger, which nowadays also sometimes appears in the form of an unpleasant colleague or a frenemy. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, helps us to regenerate. In today’s hectic times, the sympathetic nervous system often dominates, as we are constantly in a “guarded” position. Thus, many of us find it difficult to really shut down and come to rest. In a pleasant, extended deep relaxation we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, additionally stress hormones are reduced and happiness hormones are released. But it’s not only the final relaxation after a yoga class that helps: an enjoyable yin yoga session can also contribute to greater relaxation and well-being.
3. A sense of belonging through synchronized breathing and movement in the group
Of course, it helps your mental health enormously if you practice alone at home. Especially if you are suffering acutely from anxiety or depression, it can be a sheer overwhelming task to go outside, come to the yoga studio and practice with strangers – believe me, I know exactly what I’m talking about. In those cases, it’s great that you can just fire up YouTube and get on the mat on your own. But if you’re doing well at the moment and would just like to take precautions, then the effect of a class on the spot is not to be underestimated. Practicing yoga together creates a very special energy in the room that can have a positive effect on your well-being. The comforting feeling of being with like-minded people spreads. The mindful and synchronized breathing and movement creates a sense of belonging all by itself – even if you’ve never seen the other participants in the class before.
4. Learning to accept/adapt
They say anyone can do yoga – as long as you can breathe. And it’s true! The seniors and senior women I get to teach prove it to me every week. Despite poor eyesight, back problems and other ailments of old age, they come to my classes enthusiastically time and time again. The secret? Adapt the exercises accordingly. You can do that too! Over time, you will learn how to adapt asanas to your needs and how to use aids such as blocks and straps to do so. This is not just about permanent physical limitations, but also about temporary tweaks like minor injuries. Even if you don’t feel up to it, you can always practice yoga if you adapt accordingly – a lesson that is incredibly valuable off the mat as well. When we accept what is right now, we save valuable energy. When we adapt accordingly, recalculating the route so to speak, we take our destiny back into our own hands – a great feeling!
5. More concentration
What often comes hand in hand with mindfulness, is concentration. In yoga, we learn to focus on ourselves and our needs – a skill that is often lost when mental health is not up to par. If we have more concentration in everyday life, this also benefits us at work and in everyday tasks. We can devote ourselves fully to a task and complete it conscientiously and neatly, instead of being mentally preoccupied with the next to-do item while carrying it out and thus acting carelessly. The resulting sense of achievement has a positive impact on our self-esteem – we feel successful, capable, productive. And whose mood wouldn’t that lift?
My own experience
After a long time of not liking yoga, I tried it again when I was in the midst of a crisis that involved almost every area of my life: job, place of residence, circle of friends, love life. When all these aspects are in shambles, it’s only natural to keep thinking about what to do next. For me, it even felt like I had to constantly worry about it, like it was a “waste of time” to focus my attention on anything else, since it wouldn’t get me out of the situation. To get “permission” to switch off from a yoga teacher, saying “This class belongs entirely to you and your well-being” was incredibly relieving for me. When I came out of the classes, I noticed how I could think a little more clearly – simply because I had allowed the mental merry-go-round to take a break. Today, I also like to start my own classes with these words.
Yoga is not only good for me when I’m brooding, but also when I’m suffering from anxiety or panic. Admittedly, I often have to force myself to hit the mat when I’m in this state, but I have never regretted it afterwards. When the heart and thoughts are racing, moving in tune with my breath brings me down every time. If I go on the mat in a bad or even depressed mood, a few tears may flow while practicing – but that is also allowed! Especially when we are not feeling well, we often hold tensions in our bodies that are released through movement. Getting emotional is quite natural and can also be healing.
Have you had any experiences with the effects of yoga on the psyche? Feel free to share them in the comments!