By now, you have probably heard of yoga; there is a yoga studio popping up everywhere; celebrities are practicing yoga on their social media channels, and your friend has probably told you about the yoga class she took last week.
Whether you are a seasoned pro or you are just about to dabble into yoga, let me tell you why you should practice yoga. Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Yuj,’ meaning ‘to join’ or ‘to unite.” Yoga is a discipline that aims to bring harmony between your body and mind. The practice of yoga builds self-awareness, self-esteem, and muscle strength. There are many different types of yoga, from the active Vinyasa and Hatha to the gentle restorative and yin, to name a few. All with their own styles and a common thread to use poses “asanas,” rhythmic breath “Pranayama” and meditative exercises to connect the mind, body, and spirit.
To understand the way yoga can improve your mental well-being, we must first set the stage for what is going on in your body. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is an involuntary system that regulates physiologic processes such as heart rate, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal. The ANS is further composed of three distinct anatomic divisions: sympathetic (“fight and flight”), parasympathetic (“rest and digest”), and enteric. All of these systems are necessary but are best when working in harmony. When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes control, which in the short term, is okay. When we experience extended times of stress, the excess release of hormones such as cortisol affects how the rest of our body functions. The practice of yoga can help support the nervous system with yoga postures, breath, relaxation, visualization, and meditation. This activation of our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is important to repair and relax the body, essential to modulate the stress response. So how exactly can this happen?
Yoga affects brain structure.
Studies demonstrate that the practice of yoga can affect brain structure. More specifically, it has been shown that yoga can increase grey matter volume and density in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is important for a number of executive functions, including managing emotions, making decisions, problem-solving, and setting goals. Yoga can also affect another region of our brain, known as the amygdala, which is important in regulating emotions and also shows an increase in size in practitioners of yoga.
Yoga may reduce anxiety.
Anxiety is our fear of what is about to become and is a future-oriented mood state. Anxiety is totally normal to experience and manifests with both physical (rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and blood pressure, headaches) and mental (rumination, irrational fear, racing thoughts) symptoms. It becomes concerning when it impacts our every day with persistent worry and dread and ultimately interferes with our daily living and quality of life. There have been numerous studies demonstrating the decreased anxiety scores with a regular yoga practice. More randomized controlled studies are still needed to determine if there is a specific practice within the yoga discipline that is most beneficial, but for now, any consistent practice will bring many benefits.
Yoga may improve resilience.
Resilience is the ability of a person to “bounce back” and adapt to stressful or adverse situations. Individuals with greater resilience tend to recover from illnesses, trauma, and perceived stress quicker. The practice of yoga has shown improvement in measures of psychological resilience in studies of women who have experienced abuse. The theory suggests that the heightened sensitivity of the ANS may affect individuals of abuse and that yoga postures and yogic breathing may help improve their autonomic regulation with activation of the vagus nerve.
Yoga can improve sleep quality.
Sleep is one of the most overlooked yet significant aspects of improving our mental well-being. It is not just about the number of hours we spend in bed, but also the number of qualitative sleep cycles we experience. Sleep is the time our body repairs and our brain processes our day. Poor sleep can leave us irritable and stressed out and ultimately increase our risk for developing mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. There are a number of important sleep hygiene factors to consider for optimal sleep, and yoga may be one to add to the list. There are a number of studies that have demonstrated that sleep quality has improved in individuals who practiced yoga regularly versus other forms of exercise.
Yoga naturally increases serotonin.
Where worry and nervousness increase, the stress hormone cortisol, yoga may increase the feel-good hormone serotonin, serotonin is primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract and is responsible for bidirectional communication between our gut and brain (gut-brain axis). Serotonin modulates our mood and feelings and is involved in a number of physiological processes. Serotonin can be increased by eating certain foods, but it can also be boosted with mindful meditation and yoga asana exercises. The bonus is that the effect persists even after the yoga practice is finished.
So now that you know that yoga can affect your mental well-being on a deeper level, it is time to give it a try. Yoga is a “practice,” so take the time to explore and experience the different types of practice. The overall benefits will come with consistency, even if you start with daily sun salutations.