1. Relaxed body, relaxed mind
From a purely physical point of view, the stretching involved in yogarelaxes the body and increases the supply of blood and nutrients to the muscles. It releases connective tissue, improving the way we move, function and feel, all of which supports mental health. I’m often asked if other forms of exercise can give you all of these physical benefits. The answer is “yes”. However, recent research seems to indicate that yoga has an advantage over other types of aerobic activity when it comes to emotional stability.
2. The posture-pain-depression link
The focus on alignment in many of the yoga shapes improves posture. Dr Min Yeo, a GP at Sydney’s UClinic and a trained yoga teacher, says this can have a significant effect on how the body feels. “Often the appropriate style of yoga will reduce backache, headaches and other ailments that are a result of poor posture,” Dr Yeo explains. “These ailments can stimulate or add to depression.”
3. Breathe away anxiety
The focus on breath work, and in particular Ujjayi breathing, is unique to yoga. This type of breath introduces the breath to the lower lobes of the lungs. For anyone who’s anxious, breath is directed mainly to the chest. This lower lobe breathing activates the parasympathetic nerve receptors which gives us that chilled out quality after a yoga class. The sound that the breathing makes in the base of the throat can also be soothing and I always encourage students to “anchor” their awareness to this sound.
4. A happier brain
A gentle practice of yoga also releases a chemical called Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the thalamus. This chemical plays a central role in suppressing the neural activity that leads to anxiety. Certain antidepressants and alcohol activate the brain’s GABA receptors, but when rapidly withdrawn can result in insomnia and anxiousness.
5. A better stress response
Dr Yeo says she has no hesitation in prescribing yoga to those showing signs of depression. “From a very basic point of view, those who do yoga consistently learn to relax, so their stress levels and [the stress hormone] cortisol go down and they become less reactive. It’s not just exercise – it’s mind control.”