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  • Writer's pictureHelen

Downward dog, uplifted mood

I first started yoga at 18. I was at university and drunk alllll the time when my friend and I had the winning idea to start yoga at 9am on a Saturday morning - honestly I don’t know what possessed us. We both went along every weekend, hung-over to the absolute max, head pounding, poison sweating from every pore, and trying not vomit through the class. I look back now and I wonder if somehow even then I was trying to save myself from the serotonin crisis of crap diet, crap sleep, and too much booze.

Fast forward 10 odd years and yoga is the first thing I wanted to do postnatally to cope with the isolation of being home with babies, the thing I turned to when stuck in a job I hated, and the thing I increased when I hit my mid 30’s and had a minor mid life crisis. Needless to say I started to notice that yoga helped my mental health. I used to say that I felt scrunched up if I couldn’t get to a class. At the time I meant physically scrunched, but I realise now I also meant mentally scrunched.

Being scientifically minded I really wanted to understand how yoga helped me, as doing a few downward dogs a week didn’t seem like something that logically could lift my mood. Yoga philosophy is wonderful and has it’s place, but to fully understand how yoga worked I needed something more concrete. I like to know what is happening in my body and mind and I soon found that other people wanted to know too, so I set about investigating. I discovered there are endless ways that yoga can help with mental health, not only through the physical practice (which is just one part of yoga) but also the lifestyle choices encouraged by yoga.

There is so much good stuff I can’t include it all here. So for this blog I thought I would focus on the benefits to be gained specifically from hitting the mat, and here’s my top 5:

1. Space

Most of us rush around like headless chickens all day every day and never take a moment to just breathe and look around. For me yoga is the pause. The pause in my day, the pause in my breathing, and the pause in my mind. Yoga helps me switch off, zone out, and as a result it soothes me. It’s that simple.

2. Mindfulness

Yoga can be considered mindfulness in motion, and brings many of the benefits associated with mindful techniques. Mindfulness works on the basic premise of trying to live in the moment. We cannot control the past as it’s gone, and we cannot control the future because it hasn’t happened yet. There is a theory that to live in the past is depressive and to live in the future is anxious.

Mindful practices can have profound effects on our wellbeing, with numerous studies showing that mindfulness creates changes in the brain so significant they are visible on brain scans. As a few examples, mindfulness can lessen our experience of pain, lessen the fear response, lower stress, and improve emotional regulation. Mindful practices engage the parasympathetic nervous system, taking our body out of ‘fight or flight’ mode and into a restful state that calms the body and mind.

When we practice yoga we focus on the breath, and when you focus on the breath you are forced to stay in the moment because you cannot breathe in the past or the future. By breathing deeply and slowly and with attention we start to develop an awareness of the present moment and how we feel in it. In this way yoga gives us the health benefits of mindfulness.

3. Emotional release

There is a common misconception that the things we experience and our life events are logged solely in our mind (I thought this for years myself). However there is ever increasing research showing that trauma, pain, and upset are also stored in our body. In response to stressful events our body will show changes in our nervous system, hormone levels, and even gene expression. Shock and trauma are held everywhere from our cells, to our muscles, to our fascia. Most of us can identify with our fists clenching when we are angry, or our shoulders tensing when we are stressed. This kind of mind body connection is occurring everywhere in our body, and all of the time.

The body and mind are entwined, so in the same way that our muscles may tense up in response to an emotion, our emotions can be released by easing the tension in that muscle. Think of the muscles and fascia acting like a sponge; soaking up emotions and trauma. If we can stretch them or wring them out during yoga, the emotions can be released. I personally have spent many a pigeon pose in tears, and felt hugely better for it. Even when there is no emotional release I always feel a release of tension. Yoga for me is therapy.

4. Breathing

As mentioned previously yoga focuses heavily on the breath, and this focus can bring many benefits.

For a healthy body and mind we need a balance between our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) and our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Changing our breathing pattern can switch off the sympathetic system and switch on the parasympathetic. This in turn slows our heart rate, calms an agitated mind, repairs cells, and reduces inflammation in the body. In simple terms the parasympathetic system soothes us.

When we practice yoga our breathing starts to slow. We take longer breaths, deeper breaths, and we create pauses between the breath. There is an ideal ‘sweet spot’ of breathing somewhere between 3.5 and 6 breaths per minute and yoga helps us get closer to that spot. Taking slower and deeper breaths fills up the lungs’ alveoli, which means more oxygen can enter and more carbon dioxide can leave. The result is healthier lungs, and more oxygen reaching the brain meaning we feel more alive and alert.

Breathing is linked to our autonomic nervous system, which controls the involuntary functions of the body. This system pays very close attention to breath as it needs to know how and when to respond i.e. if we choke and can’t breathe the brain knows it only has 3-4 minutes to survive and the body has to act quickly, or if our breath is fast and shallow the brain will interpret this as threat. It follows logic that if we breathe slowly, calmly, and deeply the brain and the body start to relax.

Certain yogic breathing techniques such as Ujjayi are also hugely beneficial. Ujjayi breathing is the human version of a cat purr, and we all know how content a purring cat is. This kind of breathing slightly increases pressure in the lungs, which heightens the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxes us further.

5. Helping to feel

‘Your body has a story and it’s trying to tell you’

Many of us have forgotten how to feel. Bad things happen and we shut down, bury the emotion and carry on with our life thinking we are over it. Rarely are we over it. Often the memory and the shock are still held in the body.

In extreme cases of trauma people can become dissociated and quite literally numb, unable to feel their body or some parts of it. In other cases people can become emotionally numb, unable to feel much at all or differentiate between emotions. However, knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel it, and only once we feel can we start to heal.

Yoga helps us to feel. When we practice yoga and pay attention to our bodies we start to notice areas of tension, and we can start to feel what that might relate to. Sometimes it is a muscular tension but sometimes it might be an emotional one. Through yoga we can start to make a connection between our emotions and our physical sensations and we can start to play around with them. For example we might consider ‘if I send a long exhale to my shoulder will it help the tension release’, or ‘if I sink lower into this pose how do I feel’. Most people find particular poses difficult and there might be a reason for this beyond what the muscles can do, for example someone who has experienced sexual abuse may understandably hold a lot of fear and tension in their hips and find poses like happy baby incredibly difficult or even intolerable. Yoga is a gentle way for us to get back in touch with our bodies; to start to listen to the sensations that we feel, and to hear what the body is trying to say.

It might have taken me 20 odd years to realise that yoga was keeping me afloat, but I take solace in the fact that I can now help others realise sooner. I can explain to someone why their insomnia improves after a class, and how this in turn improves their mood. I can reassure a student it’s entirely normal to feel emotional during a class, and that it’s fine to let this emotion bubble up. I can give legitimate reasons why just 10 minutes of deep breathing can help someone feel less agitated and stave off a panic attack, and I can watch the faces of my students soften and I know I haven’t imagined it. Yoga may have its basis in philosophy and ancient teachings, but in terms of its impact on mental health it’s also backed by science.

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