Yoga & mental health
Being in a good state of mental health means realising your abilities, coping with everyday stressors in life, and working productively. Mental health encompasses your physical, emotional, mental, behavioral, social, and spiritual health. Because this aspect of our wellbeing contains so many elements, we must give each one equal attention to maintain positive mental health. The only issue is that it can be incredibly challenging to address all of these sides to our mental health along with everything else we have going on in our lives, from our responsibilities, jobs, and physical health, to name a few.
While there is no one-size-fits-all or "easy fix" when it comes to maintaining mental health and wellbeing, there is one practice that has the potential to improve our overall quality of life and mental health from many angles. Like mental health, yoga is a practice that has many elements; still, it is a single practice that enables us to improve everything from our self-esteem to our attitudes and behaviors.
When we see others practicing yoga or first begin to practice it ourselves, it is challenging not to think about yoga as a purely physical practice, helping us become stronger and more resilient - helping us feel better. But did you know that yoga can help accomplish these same things for your mind as well? In the process of strengthening muscles on your yoga mat, you are also supporting your mind.
Yoga boosts confidence
In yoga, we learn not to compare ourselves to others. On days where we are not feeling as strong or flexible, we are encouraged not to compare ourselves to where we were the last time. Yoga teaches the concept of non-judgment and invites us to live more out of intentional thoughts, such as compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness. When we act from self-love and replace our self-deprecating thoughts with more positive ones, we learn to see ourselves from a new perspective and appreciate our bodies.
Yoga reduces anxiety and impacts the nervous system
Have you ever heard of the fight or flight response? It is used to describe a nervous system reaction in our bodies that takes over when we need to fight or flee from danger, whether real or perceived. Fight or flight mode is the mode we are in when we're stressed. It's the mode that makes our hearts race faster so we can be on high alert, but someone with anxiety or high-stress levels will tend to have a nervous system that is almost always on high alert even when there is no real threat. This makes it difficult for them to gain control of their nervous system, meaning it's hard to relax and switch out of this state, which can be detrimental to both physical and mental health.
Apart from the physical symptoms of an overactive sympathetic nervous system such as headaches, muscle pain, and gastrointestinal problems, someone with anxiety may feel on edge, irritable, and easily angered. They may also struggle with sleep, which has its own set of both emotional and physical problems.
The way yoga works to combat this stress and anxiety is by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and releasing chemicals into the body to slow our stress response, taking us out of fight or flight mode and allowing us to experience a newfound sense of calm.
Yoga establishes a sense of presence
One of the most valuable things we learn from yoga is how to be present. In yoga, we use the body and the breath as a tool to create more awareness. When you practice yoga regularly, this level of awareness stays with you off the mat, enabling you to be more mindful of things in everyday life. The more we practice mindfulness and being present, the more control we can feel about choosing helpful thoughts and healthy behaviors over harmful ones. We are more aware we become of the impact each has on our lives, mental health, and even those around us.
Yoga helps us accept and let go
The time we spend in yoga poses can feel emotionally uncomfortable at times because many of us do not ever practice stillness for long enough to let our buried memories or feelings come to the surface. Whether it is a challenging pose or a more restorative one, it is common to experience uncomfortable sensations, thoughts, and feelings on a mental and physical level. Yoga gives us a chance to slow down, pause, and reflect inward, allowing us to experience the things we maybe didn't even realize we have buried or have been avoiding. It can be challenging to deal with the unexpected emotions that can arise during our yoga practice, but awareness is an essential step of any healing process. This place of stillness and acceptance is a practical, self-loving place to begin healing from difficult experiences, trauma, or anything else that might be holding us back.
Any pose held for a more extended period can be challenging. Still, when we sit with that discomfort and tolerate the physical sensations, it helps recognize what we are capable of mentally. We move between postures to remind us that what we are going through is temporary and we are capable of handling it.
There isn't a single person in the world who does not struggle with their mental health at some point, whether with anxiety, depression, or stress. From frequent to occasional and mild to severe, each of our mental health situations is unique, and it is normal to feel lost about what to do when you want to start feeling better. Not to mention, it can be hard to gain the momentum or motivation to pick yourself up when you are feeling low. So, if all you do on your most challenging days is lie on your mat and breathe, trust that you are taking a significant step toward bettering your mental health, even if it seems small at the time. Trust that you are exactly where you need to be.
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