Several of my clients have commented that if they miss a session of their regular yoga practice, their mood can dip and they don’t feel as good or as positive as usual.
The reports of yoga’s effects on mental health are well documented. Still, they sometimes are underplayed in a yoga class. I have several clients who came to me initially because of physical aches and pain but then noticed the positive impact of yoga on their mental wellbeing.
So can yoga help make you feel happier, calmer and more positive?
The short answer is YES!
I discovered yoga after suffering from anxiety for quite some time. It came to a point after my first daughter was born when I couldn’t sleep and my mind was full of negative and fearful thoughts all day long.
Going to a yoga class was transformational for me, but why?
To understand how yoga helps our mental health we need to look into how stress affects it.
Stress is unfortunately everywhere around us at the moment. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t been stressed at some point or other. Short bursts of stress (such as a near miss in a car) aren’t an issue. Our body can deal with thanks to our central nervous system.
Let’s say you are on a roundabout and a car pulls in just ahead of you.. In a fraction of a second, you have checked the rear-view mirror, slammed on the brake to slow down the car and avoid the crash. This speedy reaction is possible because – once the risk was noticed by your brain – your body was flooded with adrenaline and cortisol which increased its ability to respond fast to the threat. Once the problem is over, the presence of the stress hormones in your blood signals the brain to stop producing them. Your body gets a chance to recover.
Unfortunately, if you are under a low-level constant stress, this system doesn’t work anymore. The stress hormones keep getting produced and your body doesn’t have the opportunity to recover.
The effects of long-term stress on our mood are numerous:
- feeling anxious and overwhelmed
- having difficulties to slow down our mind and relax
- having difficulties sleeping
- inability to focus
- a pessimistic approach to live
So how does yoga work?
Yoga, through awareness of the body and the breath, allows the relaxation response to kick in.
Once you breathe fully and keep your thoughts focused to what is happening in the here and now, you are sending your brain signals that it is time to stop producing the stress hormones.
This is why I tend to remind people throughout a class to move with their breath. I have found it is one of the best way to keep our mind in the present.
All the instructions in a yoga class are there to tell you what to do for each and every pose, but also – and sometimes mostly – to keep you in the moment, connected to your body and your breath. To get the most of your yoga class, keep your awareness fully in your body and your breath, letting go of everything else.
By the time you get to the relaxation part of the class, your body is ready to let go. The restorative magic of the relaxation can happen.
The good news is that we can alter the way we feel by moving and by focusing on our breath. You can use this to your advantage on a day to day basis. If you notice that you are showing some signs of stress, try and do some mindful movements (going for a walk always works for me). You can also take your awareness to your breath for a few minutes, and even do a few yoga moves. That should all help.