Mental health is just as important as physical health. However, despite a huge increase in awareness and support over the past decade, a huge portion of the population struggle with mental health issues.
According to the UK mental health charity Mind, one in four people in England experience a mental health problem of some kind each year.
It’s important to recognise that mental health conditions can be caused by a number of factors, therefore yoga is by no means the ultimate “cure” for individuals struggling with mental health.
That being said, there’s been a considerable amount of scientific research in recent years, showing yoga can be an effective tool to help manage a range of different mental health conditions.
In this article, we take a look at some of the evidence-based reasons why yoga is good for mental health and share some useful tips to help you get the most from the time on your mat.
Stress levels among adults in the UK have risen dramatically over the past decade. In a 2018 survey, 74% of UK adults said they had felt so stressed at some point in the past year, they had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
Stress can cause a number of changes to your mood, body and behaviour. For example, if you’re stressed you’re more likely to feel tired, irritable and angry. You may also experience issues such as stomach problems, headaches and poor sleep.
However, high levels of stress over a prolonged period can lead to more serious health implications such as high blood pressure, heart disease and weakening of the immune system, in addition to mental health conditions including anxiety and depression.
The good news is yoga has been scientifically proven to reduce stress hormones and lower people’s levels of perceived stress. Simple breathing techniques, which are often used in meditation practices, have been proven to be particularly useful for promoting mindfulness and alleviating stress, and you can use these throughout your practice.
This can be as simple as regulating your breathing by counting as you inhale and exhale. However, try to make your exhalations longer than the inhalations.
Calming the mind and connecting with the present moment can also be an effective way of reducing anxiety.
In recent years, there have been a number of scientific studies looking at the potential impacts of yoga as a treatment for anxiety, and so far the results have been extremely promising.
And this doesn’t just apply to individuals with mild anxiety disorders either. One particular study found yoga provided an increased benefit for those suffering from higher levels of anxiety, as these individuals noticed the biggest improvements.
The number of people suffering from some form of depression is estimated to be around 350 million worldwide. And whilst there is sadly no simple cure, studies show regular yoga practice can have a positive effect on mood, including people with symptoms of depression.
One reason for this can be attributed to the mood-boosting effects of exercise, as research has shown physical exercise to be one of the most powerful natural remedies for treating depression. Therefore, any movement on your mat will help get those endorphins flowing and alleviate your mood.
Yoga is also a great way to indulge in some all-important self-care that will benefit both your body and mind, helping to promote self-worth and improve your self-esteem. Whether it be ten minutes, an hour, or more - you may be surprised what a difference it can make.
Promotes better sleep
Sleep is crucial for both your mental and physical health. However, it’s estimated 1 in 3 people in the UK (approximately 20.6 million) suffer from sleep deprivation and only 6% of the UK population sleep for the recommended 8 hours each night.
There have been a number of studies looking at sleep benefits associated with yoga, including a US survey that revealed over 55% of people reported better sleep when practising yoga regularly. But why?
Anxiety is often at the root of sleeping problems, however, a lack of sleep has been shown to increase anxiety and depression, thus creating a negative cycle that can be hard to break. But as we discussed earlier, yoga can be an effective tool for reducing anxiety. So if you’re struggling to sleep at night, you may find this improves with regular yoga practice.
Of course, anxiety isn’t the only reason behind lack of sleep. For some, it can be hard to simply “switch off” resulting in endless tossing and turning.
If this sounds familiar to you, then a restorative yoga practice before bed could help you to relax, unwind and hopefully drift off sooner.
Tips for your practice
1. Make time (even when you don’t feel like it)
We’ve listed the advantages yoga can have for your mental health. Yet even when you’ve experienced the benefits first-hand, finding the time or motivation to roll out your mat can still be a challenge sometimes.
But remember, practising for as little as ten minutes can have a big impact on your mood. So if you can’t make that evening class or you don’t have the energy for a full practice, just try a few poses for ten minutes and notice how good you feel afterwards.
Then the next time you’re lacking motivation, you can remind yourself how much better you felt at the end of your last practice and hopefully, that will provide you with enough motivation to get back on your mat.
2. Set an intention
The majority of us feel the most benefits of yoga either during, or at the end of our practice. However, that feeling of calmness, connection and clarity can often slip away throughout the day.
Setting an intention at the very start of your practice will not only help you achieve a fuller practice but will also help you to continue cultivating your intention off the mat.
There are so many different styles of yoga, so it’s a good idea to mix up your practice with new variations and find out what works best for you. For example, Vinyasa is one of the most widely used practises in the Western world, but you may find a slower more restorative, practice such as Yin or Jivamukti more beneficial.
If you’re completely new to yoga and unsure where to start, Our Beginner’s Guide to Yoga has more details on the different styles of practice.