Yoga & Mental Health: The benefits of a mindful practice

in Journal

To feel stressed or anxious is the body’s natural response to a perceived threat, feelings that are completely normal when we get scared or feel powerless. With the Covid-19 pandemic we were suddenly faced with a new situation that none of us could control, and mental health awareness became more important than ever.  

Getting used to working from home, not seeing friends, family members, colleagues or classmates like we’re used to, the limited freedom of not being able to move around freely – all these things we took for granted were suddenly out of reach. The question is; what can we do ourselves, in the limited space of our own home, to prevent stress and anxiety to consume us.

Yoga is not a cure, but practicing it can help you stay calm and in tune with your thoughts and emotions – which in turn may help you cope during these uncertain times. 

Physical, mental and spiritual benefits

It’s well known that yoga has a positive impact on flexibility, muscle strength, balance, posture, energy levels, respiration and metabolism. It can also help relieve pain and lower blood pressure.

But the benefits don’t stop there. The most important mental effects of yoga include calmness of the mind, enhanced concentration, decreased anxiety and stress levels, and better sleep quality. Furthermore, practicing yoga may encourage positive thinking, and promote self-acceptance and spiritual awareness.

Yoga as a way of life

The term ‘yoga’ is Sanskrit, which commonly means “union”. But it also refers to a technique or method. If we think of yoga as a method to achieve a union between our body, mind and spirit, ‘The International Journal of Indian Psychology’ provides an insightful explanation of the relationship between yoga and mental health: “Yoga is a way of life comprising mental, physical and spiritual attributes to achieve holism, meaningfulness, excellence and completeness in all walks of human functioning.” 

Yoga meditation and mindfulness practice

To be clear, yoga and meditation are not interdependent; instead they are two different forms of practices that can support and mutually benefit from one another. If you’ve done yoga before, you may have experienced a higher level of focus and/or concentration, an empty mind or a sense of calmness. There are several ways to practice meditation and achieve mindfulness, and you may have to explore a bit before finding a method that works best for you. Keep in mind that it’s a practice, and it may take a few tries before you feel comfortable.

Inhale and exhale

Breathing exercises, also referred to as ‘Pranayama’, are commonly used in yoga and/or meditation and a good way to kick off your mindfulness practice. Haven’t we all been told to take a deep breath at some point? The fact is that the way we breathe is closely linked to our emotional state of mind, and we breathe differently depending on what emotions we experience. This means that we can also use our breathing as a method to change our emotional state and get rid of unwanted emotions.

The ancient practice of Pranayama involves controlling of the breath by inhaling, exhaling and holding the breath in various sequences. There are different techniques, the most famous one probably being the ‘ujjayi breath’. Scientific studies have shown that Pranayama is beneficial in a lot of ways, including but not limited to:

• Reducing stress and anxiety (which in turn can reduce hypertension)

• Promoting the quality of sleep

• Increased mindfulness (the focus of being present in the moment)

• Improved focus, concentration and cognitive skills

• Improved lung function


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