Updated: Dec 10, 2020
‘If the promise of yoga on mental health was found in a drug, it would be the best selling medication world-wide.“
Doraiswamy (2013) M.D., professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Duke University
Although “stretching” or “flexibility’ of the body have become the benefits most synonymous with Yoga in Western culture, in it’s earliest forms Yoga’s effect on the mind was a greater focus of the practice.
In what is perhaps Yoga's primary text, the Yoga Sutras (500-200 BC), Pantanjali wrote: "Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodah" or “Yoga is the stilling of the thought waves of the mind.”.
Most of us who practice Yoga repeatedly sense that it positively changes our mental state, but how does it lift our mood and can it help those with depression?
Depression is a major concern of modern times, and the global pandemic has amplified this risk to our health:
· It is estimated that depression is suffered by 10% of the world population at any given time. (Kessler 2013)
· According to the WHO, depression is on track to be the leading cause of disease globally by 2030.
· Suicide from depression is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29 year olds globally.
Depression not only effects our mood, motivation and emotions, but also commonly effects the body, including changes in appetite, lower energy, disturbed sleep, and how we relate with others.
Although there are a common group of symptoms, the causes and experiences of depression can vary greatly. The commonly prescribed treatments of psychotherapy/CBT and/or antidepressants are only successful for some patients, and people often have to try different forms of treatment before finding what works for them - the solution is not uniform.
Cobra posture stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and can lift your mood and energy
How can Yoga help?
1. Exercise has been proven to be effective for mild to moderate depressed mood, and the physical practice of Yoga postures can be an accessible form of exercise for those low in energy.
121s and online practice that can be done from the comfort of your home, and even your bed, can help those that struggle to get the momentum to get to a public class or gym. Restorative yoga and yoga nidra can help relax those that have exhausted their resources.
Yoga increases flexibility, strength, balance and coordination – stimulating multiple areas of the brain, as you are constantly challenged.
Back bending postures, such as Cobra (shown above), stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and can lift your mood and enhance feelings of confidence.
2. Depression often includes difficulty coping with stress and negative thought patterns – through Yoga we work on mindfulness and self-acceptance, which can help us find a new perspective on persistent negative thoughts: We can become aware that our thoughts are not facts.
3. Depression often brings feelings of isolation. In Yoga philosophy we are all One, and this understanding and felt sense can soothe feelings of loneliness. Practically, we connect with fellow practitioners in a shared safe space, even online, and this can be through uniting our breath alone, with no need for words.
4. Slow breathing techniques are also considered a vital part of a yoga practice for depression. The slowing of our breath moves us into the parasympathetic nervous system (known as the rest & digest state), which in time can raise energy levels.
5. There is more research to be done, but evidence suggests Yoga affects important brain chemicals for feelings of happiness, calm and wellbeing, including dopamine release, GABA levels, and increased serotonin. Studies have also shown that it can reduce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
"The evidence for yoga for depression is now greater than for any other health condition at present."
Research into the efficacy of Yoga is mostly a recent field, and more is needed to understand it's impact more fully, but currently researchers see this as it's greatest impact on our health.
If that has convinced you to commit to your practice, it is worth noting that studies have shown that the efficacy of Yoga grows with increased frequency of practice each week, most notably when increasing practice from once to twice a week.
How does Yoga effect you mental state?
Here's my facebook Live sharing a short practice to open the heart and lift your mood.