Psychology and, specifically, mental health are topics I have always been interested in. I have alluded to my own personal history in previous posts, but have never really gone in to much detail on here. I was diagnosed with 2 mental health disorders at the tender age of 19, and for a long time my medication was my crutch. Put the tissues down though – this is no sob story. Today I want to write about how yoga transformed my life, and the impact of yoga on mental health.
A few years ago, I was an over-thinker; always turning my attention inwards, but generally not in a positive way. I was always fearful of getting ill, and I was therefore always at risk of getting ill! I thought of myself as ‘being’ the disorder (rather than ‘having’ it – as though that was my identity) and was overly self-critical. My world revolved around me, my labels and my poor sense of self. I’ve mentioned on here before about the first time I stepped on my yoga mat at home as a means of healing myself, and how it pivotal it was. I had done yoga a lot in the past, but only for the physical benefits. This time, my practice really did change everything for me. I stopped looking inwards and seeing myself as a victim. Spirituality started to come into play, and I started to see things as having a greater meaning or higher purpose. Now, I am stronger than I have ever been, and not just from countless chaturangas! I no longer rely on medication to be a cure-for-all, and I can’t remember the last time I felt ill.
I thought I should make the most of my access to the online world of scientific journals while I still have it! There are many papers out there confirming that yoga is beneficial for a whole host of mental health disorders. I’ve just selected a couple to keep this short and sweet.
Ready for some geekery?
Neurotransmitters are the ‘chemical messengers’ in your brain, which affect how you think and behave. γ-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in mammals, meaning it can decrease the excitability of the nervous system. It’s therefore not surprising that fear and anxiety are associated with lower GABA levels. In 2010, Streeter et al. demonstrated an increase in GABA levels in anxious patients who practiced Iyengar yoga, as well as significantly improved scores on mood and anxiety scales. This solidifies my experiences – that yoga has led to my stabilised mood and vanished anxiety, and it is so cool to see it proven at a molecular scale!
Focusing on the breath can also induce physiological relaxation by increasing parasympathetic activity. Yoga has been proven to decrease stress and anxiety, increase mental and physical health and improve quality of sleep. In fact, SKY yoga may be just as effective as medication in depressed patients, and even superior to medication in a subgroup of patients with anxiety!
The mental benefits of yoga may be in part due to connecting with the breath, but I see it as more than that. It requires devotion, commitment, surrender and acceptance. The ego must be removed and the practice is not goal-orientated or materialistic; rather, it is an offering of commitment to a higher purpose. Many mental illnesses are characterised by an excessive inward focus and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Conversely, yoga is a means to open our eyes and free us from the delusion of conditioned existence.
“Practice, and all is coming.”