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  • Rebecca Foster

Yoga and Mental Health

Updated: May 16, 2022

This Mental Health Awareness Week, find out how time spent on your mat (or meditation cushion!) can benefit your mental wellbeing.

Patanjali’s yoga sutras tell us that ‘yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind’. While a lot of the yoga we hear about in the West is based on physical postures rather than the inner work and enquiry of meditation, Patanjali’s definition still holds true. In fact, for many yogis, one of the driving intentions for stepping onto the mat is to quiet the mental chatter constantly whirring in the brain. Curious about how yoga can benefit your mental health? Check out our top five reasons, here…

Yoga and the nervous system

The body’s nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Let’s deal with the sympathetic side first – this is the side of your nervous system that governs your fight or flight response. Imagine walking down the street and being confronted by a hungry tiger that’s ready to attack. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action by releasing a burst of adrenaline, which leads to a chain reaction of physical responses to help you escape from the situation.

The trouble is, for our hunter gatherer ancestors, the threat of a tiger attack was a real thing. For us, not so much – but that doesn’t stop the body’s stress response from happening in exactly the same way. Ever felt a surge of panic when receiving an unpleasant email at work? A burst of fear when you see a spider on the other side of the room? Does your heart start to beat faster when having a confronting or difficult conversation with a friend or colleague? That’s your fight or flight system at work (and doing a great job!) . But the challenges of modern life mean that many of us spend far too much time in the fight or flight state.

Meditation, smooth/steady breathing and yoga can help shift us to the other side of the nervous system: the parasympathetic. Also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system, this is the side of the nervous system that promotes feelings of calm as the body enters a more relaxed state. Ever wondered why you feel so blissed out in Savasana? Now you know.

Feel good chemicals

When the body engages in physical activity that elevates the heart rate, whether that’s yoga, cycling or a brisk walk, your brain is triggered to release a whole family of feel-good chemicals. We can think of chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins as mood-boosting brain messengers.

So, while it might not feel like it at the time, all that holding and squeezing you’re doing in chair pose is benefiting your brain health as well as strengthening your thighs and glutes. These chemicals are going to increase your vitality and positivity. So, the next time you hear someone say that yoga makes them happy, you know it’s true!

Cultivating mindfulness

Let’s dive a little deeper into what Patanjali was talking about when he discussed the fluctuations of the mind. Ever been so stressed or worried that you’re confronted with a never-ending stream of thoughts charging through your brain? If your answer to that question was ‘yes’, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

One of the (many) powerful aspects of our yoga practice is that each time we step onto the mat provides an opportunity to step back from thoughts as they arise and simply observe them. It doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed in clearing your mind of thoughts like turning off a tap.

However, what it does mean is that over time and with practice, you can cultivate an ability to stand back from your thoughts, watch them arise and have the capacity to let them go again. You – the observer – are separate from the oncoming stream of thought traffic. Honing your role as the witness, rather than getting dragged into the stories that come with your thoughts is a powerful mental tool to take off your mat, too.

Community and connection

Whether you attend an in-person class or a session on Zoom, there are so many mental wellness benefits that come from interacting with your fellow yogis. Plus, after almost two years spent isolating at home, there’s nothing like connecting with others through yoga in order to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Moving and breathing as one promotes a sense of unity, synchronicity and togetherness that you don’t always get from other activities, too. Social connection and community is, of course, a huge part of what we’re about at the Lumi Foundation – so if you have time, arrive early to chat with other yogis and teachers before class.

What our yogis have to say

If you still aren’t convinced about the many ways that yoga can benefit your mental health, we’ve rounded up some thoughts from yogis who attend Lumi Foundation classes.

“I really enjoy the classes – they’re a Godsend to me. I love the sense of community and warmth – plus, my wellbeing has greatly improved since I joined the classes.” – Anon, Maggie’s yoga class

“It’s a pleasure attending class and I leave feeling happy and positive.” – Anon, community class

“What would I do without the Foundation classes? I feel like I’m being encompassed in a warm and protective blanket every time I go, both in community classes and the Lumi Love Foundation classes at Lumi Power Yoga. Thank you to the Lumi Foundation for these supportive classes that have restored my soul and brought me closer to my community.” – Anon, Riverside community class

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