Yoga is a trifold practice. One that benefits the body, mind, and soul. However, the mental benefits of yoga are one of the most easily proven as the results can be seen almost instantly.
Studies over the past 50+ years all show that yoga reduces stress, improves mood, and increases emotional stability.
If you are suffering from common mental ailments then yoga is the best natural solution. But, just how does it work?
Read on to understand the ancient science behind yoga for mental health.
The Science of Yoga
Yoga was specially designed with autonomy, physiology, and psychology in mind. And while it was first described in an ancient Hindu text, specifically, the Rig Vedas, it may have been practiced for thousands of years prior to its transcription.
Several hundred years after the Vedas, an entire book about the practice of yoga called the Yoga Sutra was written by Patanjali, a sage from India. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lists the eight limbs of yoga and their purpose.
The mental health benefits of yoga are revealed in the practice of these eight limbs of yoga as you will see below.
Moral Code (Yama)
One of the benefits of studying and practicing yoga is its strong moral code. These are called Yamas of which there are five.
Aparigraha- the ability of non-desire, including non-hoarding and exclusion of greed
Asteya- the understanding that stealing is not right
Satya- the willingness to speak the truth at any cost
Ahimsa- the compassion to use non-violence and non-harm either in action or words
Brahmacharya- the control of sexual energy either through celibacy or tantric practices
When these Yamas are part of your yoga practice you gain the benefit of mental health as you become a more authentic, emphatic, and fulfilled embodiment of your higher self.
In addition to a moral code, yoga for mental health also refers to self-care through certain disciplines. There are five of these Niyamas as well, which leads to a balanced emotional state.
Acceptance/Contentment (Santosha)- appreciation of life that leads to the ability to live happily.
Self-discipline/Passion (Tapas)- literally meaning “heat,” Tapas is the driving force of growth through focus, confidence, and perseverance.
Self-purification (Shaucha)- choosing practices like a healthy diet for the benefit of the mind and body.
Self-reflection (Svadhyaya)- looking within allows the mind to remember its connection with the source, which allows your true self to shine through in your physical form.
Self-surrender ( Ishvara Pranidhana)- putting complete trust in the divine surrenders the mind, thus relieving it of anxiety, stress, and constant struggle to control everything.
Once you master self discipline, then you will realize that your mind creates your own reality. Knowing this will ease the tension of blaming negative outcomes on the forces around you. Rather, you will be able to have control of your life by letting go of it at the same time.
Yoga Poses (Asanas)
The postures and movements (asanas and vinyasas) of yoga are more than an exercise routine. The anatomy of your body was designed a certain way to channel energy—this channel can be blocked or cleared. Doing yoga removes blockages from energy points called chakras, contributing to mental health in various ways.
For example, opening your heart chakra heals inner wounds that lead to fear and anxiety. Certain asanas focus on specific chakras, so a yoga sequence could be tailored for a particular one.
Each yoga pose and the various styles of yoga can serve your mental health differently. Some styles, like Yin Yoga, are meant to be slow and restorative, preparing you for sleep or deep healing. Others, like Ashtanga Vinyasa, are mobile and intensive, moving energy through the body to energize or clear major chakra blockages.
Therefore, you should know the purpose of each pose and style of yoga to pick which works best for your mental well-being.
Mindful Breathing (Pranayama)
Another direct correlation between mental health and yoga is its use of breathing techniques. This is called pranayama—the process of controlling the life force within us using the mixture of air and ether elements to direct and retain the breath.
Think about when you are stressed out. The first thing you do is to take a deep breath to calm yourself. The same practice is used in yoga.
Pranayama breathing exercises during yoga releases your mind from excessive thoughts. Focusing on the breath through each pose or cycle builds mindful concentration.
This practice stays with you throughout the day as you continue to maintain patience and appreciation. Pranayama is also practiced before meditation to clear physical and mental blockages that keep you from reaching a state of clarity and transcendence.
Detachment from the Senses (Pratyahara)
Several common forms of psychological therapy involve the concept of sensory deprivation. Why? Because removing the mechanisms that create our reality helps us enter a new realm of awareness.
In a state of complete isolation from the world, you can find your inner spirit. And once you find it then it will be easier to live according to its wishes.
Throughout your yoga routine, you can practice Pratyahara by blocking your senses. For example, closing your eyes is the easiest. Other senses involve relaxing the nostrils, ears, skin, and tongue to remove their function and focus.
Using Yoga Nidra to withdraw from the senses allows you to focus on parts of your body while acting as the observer. Through this observation, you detach from the attachment that is this life. When you detach from the body, both physically and mentally, then you understand that you are not the body nor the mind. In such a state, you become the divine, capable of healing that which you are observing.
Trying to focus on one idea or object has become even more difficult as our attention spans deteriorate. That is why the practice of dharna is extremely important.
Multi-tasking may seem helpful, but it is detrimental to our mental health. Having the ability to focus improves the quality of our thoughts, brings awareness to our true purpose, and relieves the stress of a scattered brain.
To practice concentration during yoga you can simply focus on one object while in an asana. Clear your mind and only think of this object, disallowing your mind to wonder. The more you do this then the easier it will become to concentrate all the time.
Try candle gazing during meditation to practice Dharana. Stare at a candle in a dark room for a minute or two. Then, close your eyes and continue to see the candle’s flame through your third eye. Make this image the only object of your attention for as long as possible.
Meditation or Calm (Dhyanna)
Dhyanna or dhyai in Sanskrit means “to think of” as it refers to the ability to meditate on one object in the mind. This is similar to dharana except that you are able to meditate on that object without effort. Meditation, therefore, is the step or limb after concentration.
It can take time and practice to develop the skills needed to truly meditate for an extended amount of time. However, any time is valuable as you develop a mental habit of going into a meditative state on demand.
This element of yoga can be added to your practice to enhance the mental capabilities of your mind.
So, instead of having an object like a candle flame to focus your thoughts, dhyanna implies that you are already focused on the flame without effort.
The final stage of yoga is the ultimate mental health benefit as it merges the mind with the concept of total self-awareness and self-completeness. This is the highest state of bliss that a mind can reach while still tied to the physical vessel of the body.
Once this practice is achieved the mind is free from suffering and can engage with reality anywhere it chooses. Therefore, samadhi is the ultimate union and release. The latter being a union with the creator and the former a release from the ego.
Mental Benefits of Yoga are Complex
Before reading this article you may have thought of yoga as simply a way to relieve stress. But, now that you know the mental benefits of yoga through specific yogi practices, it maybe much more complex than you thought.
The most important part of your yoga practice is to trust your inner voice. Let your curiosity guide you on a natural path without any expectations. By doing so you will only come in contact with what is pure and that elevates your soul on this journey.