Psychological Benefits of Yoga

Psychological benefits of Yoga has been discovered in India and experienced for more than 5000 years. Currently revered worldwide for its innumerable physical, health and psychological benefits, yoga can provide a balanced mind, breath and body. Western Science is still trying to fully comprehend how yoga brings about positive transformations in individuals and document these benefits.

Patanjali is considered to be the father of modern yoga. He documented and put together the “Yoga Sutras”, a system that explains how yoga can help attain a higher level of consciousness.

According to Patanjali, “Yoga is the calming or cessation of fluctuations within the mind”. A Yogi has a steady mind, control over senses, and has the welfare of everyone in their heart.

Yoga is more than just headstands, handstands, downward dogs, and complicated twists and bends of the body! These “asana” or postures are just one of the many aspects of Yoga.

The eight limbs of Yoga are:

1. Yama:Integrity of the self
2. Niyama: Observance of self discipline
3. Asana: Postures
4. Pranayama: Breathing and breath control
5. Pratyahara: Control of the senses
6. Dharana: Concentration or focus
7. Dhyana: Meditation
8. Samadhi: The final stage of bliss and union.

These eight limbs are intertwined and aid in the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of an individual. Practice of these eight principles leads to deeper self-awareness, acceptance, adaptability and a love and respect towards people and the environment. This ultimately leads to the highest level of consciousness.

Yoga supplemented with medical and psychiatric treatments, can provide solace for a range of mental health conditions including chronic stress, depression, anxiety and insomnia. There is growing evidence to support its effectiveness in both prevention and treatment of these disorders.

The yoga asanas or postures and breathing practices have been developed over thousands of years. These asanas stimulate and exercise the internal organs, cells and nerves. This leads to better control of the prana or life force and removes blockages in the body. Long-term practice is known to boost immunity, improve flexibility, and build muscle strength. These asanas not only prevent diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes but improve concentration and slow the ageing process. These are just a few of the well-known benefits.

While the asanas improve physical strength, the overall practice of yoga plays a vital role in maintaining a sound and steady mind. Yoga stresses “self-regulation” and “mindful practices”. Each yoga posture is performed with a focus on breathing and attention to the specific muscle being exercised. This practice creates an enhanced awareness of our mind and body, improving our response to trauma, stress, and anxiety.

The Scientists at the University of Wisconsin have studied gradual change in brain structure during meditation. They have shown that meditation increases the activity of the left prefrontal cortex which controls positive moods and emotional resilience. During meditation, focus is given to breathing or any specific point as we work towards calming or stilling the mind. Without a doubt, a multitude of thoughts comes to mind as we close our eyes. We are encouraged to observe these thoughts without dwelling on them and let them pass. In addition to boosting focus and concentration, meditation improves our ability to observe and deal with negative emotions such as anger and fear. In addition, it also helps us to stay grounded and be in the present moment completely.

Yoga has a profound effect on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Sympathetic nervous systems control our “flight or fight response” and release cortisol into the body. High stress lifestyles result in a permanent high cortisol level leading to anxiety, depression, and other disorders. Regular practice of yoga is known to reduce cortisol levels, eliminate stress, and improve emotional well-being. The reduction of heart rate and blood pressure also helps with wellbeing.

Yogic postures like Paschimottasan (a seated forward bend) and downward facing dog activate the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a calming and restorative response. Hormones like GABA (Gama Amino Butyric Acid), serotonin, and dopamine, are boosted with yoga, directly improving our happiness level. Inversions like headstand and handstands encourage us to face our innate fears, step out of our boundaries and improve our ability to see things from a different perspective. It encourages blood flow towards the heart and brain boosting their functional capacity.

Yoga brings a world of difference to one’s general well being; making the mind less clouded, regulating breath and heart rate and maintaining an internal peace and calm. Breathing techniques, meditation and Shavasana (the corpse pose) help relax the nervous system, alleviating insomnia and promoting better sleep.

Yoga can help people at any stage in life. Starting early gives them an upper hand in dealing with emotions and preventing disease in general. Mental health disorders are becoming more common in teenage years now and yoga can work as a preventative. With the help of yoga, high energy levels in all age groups can be channeled in the right direction.

Research has confirmed that parts of the cerebral cortex associated with cognitive processing (which become thinner with age) are thickened with long-term meditation practice. This could assist in preventing age related cognitive decline. New and exciting research findings are being published on the power of yoga to treat mental disorders such as schizophrenia, PTSD, insomnia, anxiety, ADHD, and depression.

As Chris Streeter, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine states: “Western and Eastern medicine complement one another. Yoga improves stress-related nervous system imbalances.” Being part of a yoga group provides a sense of social security and belonging and an increase in one’s general positive outlook. The evidence supporting yoga’s therapeutic benefits is growing.
Written by Hema Laxman