Therapist

What does yoga do for mental health

For more than a decade, Houston Methodist’s medical director of psychiatry and telepsychiatry has relied on yoga and its healing powers to help maintain her own mental and physical fitness. As one who deals daily with patients suffering mental health crises, Dr. Corinna Keenmon’s profession demands that she maintain focus, clarity, compassion and sound judgment — even on the worst days.

“Yoga seems to have this powerful combination of the physical movement combined with the deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness aspect,” Dr. Keenmon explains. “This total package helps us physically by increasing flexibility, along with heart and brain health. Plus, the cognitive and emotional improvements that happen over time are priceless.”

Yoga’s mind-body practice dates back thousands of years and has dozens of different types. But its basic premise seeks relaxation through breathing and meditation combined with stretching and strengthening poses. Regular practitioners tout yoga’s ability to help them with everything from mood and emotions to muscle tone, endurance and strength.

And science backs these claims.

Yoga’s physical benefits to the brain and body

As a form of low-impact exercise, yoga has been shown to lower stress hormones in our bodies while simultaneously increasing beneficial brain chemicals like endorphins and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). These feel-good chemicals help decrease anxiety and improve mood.

Over time, yoga’s effects also are believed to slow the natural aging process — there is less brain shrinkage in the areas of the brain that process information and store memories, Dr. Keenmon says. “Making yoga a part of our lives can help protect against the effects of aging on our memory and cognition.”

Researchers compared brain imaging and chemical measurements in people who do yoga for 45 minutes to others who practiced a sedentary form of relaxation like listening to music or reading. The levels of good brain chemicals are higher in those who practiced yoga, Dr. Keenmon says.

“Yoga can help lower our fight, flight or freeze response by activating our parasympathetic nervous system and lowering negative emotions like depression, anxiety and anger,” she says.

Even the inflexible can practice yoga

What about those of us who believe we aren’t limber enough to twist into a body pretzel on a yoga mat?

“For people who are starting out, the first step is learning how to focus on just the feeling of breath going in and out of the body,” Dr. Keenmon says. “If you’re 100% in tune and focused on that, you’re not worried about anybody else’s opinions, judgments or other stressors and pressures.”

Unlike so many physical activities that become more difficult with age, yoga is a lifelong, non-competitive form of exercise that allows people to connect with a supportive community — even a virtual one. It can also be a solo practice, part of a dedicated time to step away from the stress of the day and focus on yourself.

Dr. Keenmon says don’t worry about flexibility. “One of the wonderful things about yoga is accepting yourself and your body just as you are today,” she encourages. “This is the mindfulness aspect of yoga — simply appreciating your body for the things that it can do right now in the present moment.”

How to start yoga and ways to continue

COVID-19 brought with it nearly two years of increased isolation and social distancing. In-person yoga became difficult, sometimes impossible to schedule. Yoga, however, creates synergy even when practicing virtually, with friends, strangers or a solo instructor.

Dr. Keenmon’s favorite YouTube yoga — “Yoga With Adriene” — includes videos for all levels. Beginners, seasoned yoga fans and athletes of all kinds can find a short session that interests them. Just a few of the latest sessions: “Morning Yoga Flow,” “Yoga For Forgiveness,” “Stress Melt” and “Head & Heart Reset.”

For those looking for something more high-energy and interactive, the subscription app Obé Fitness (Obefitness.com) includes various types of yoga classes. Obé Fitness also has a social media component that lets members take a live class virtually with friends and family by inviting them to an online yoga party.

Starting a yoga habit is a journey toward improvement. It begins with accepting yourself at all levels — and then experiencing the physical and mental benefits that naturally follow. Even 10 minutes a day can help improve mood, lower anxiety and cut down on emotional reactivity — something all of us going through COVID, round 4, can truly appreciate.

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Maintaining a regular yoga practice can provide physical and mental health benefits

Learn about the different types of yoga and how it can be used as a tool to help you stay healthy.

Like yoga, the osteopathic approach to wellness focuses on your body’s natural tendency toward health and self-healing.

“The purpose of yoga is to build strength, awareness and harmony in both the mind and body,” explains Natalie Nevins, DO, a board-certified osteopathic family physician and certified Kundalini Yoga instructor in Hollywood, California.

While there are more than 100 different types, or schools, of yoga, most sessions typically include breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming postures (sometimes called asana or poses) that stretch and flex various muscle groups.

“As an osteopathic physician, I focus a lot of my efforts on preventive medicine and practices, and in the body’s ability to heal itself,” says Dr. Nevins. “Yoga is a great tool for staying healthy because it’s based on similar principles.”

Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine​, or DOs, focus on prevention by examining how your lifestyle and environment impact your health, rather than just treating your symptoms.

Beginners welcome

Because there are so many different kinds of yoga practices, it is possible for anyone to start. “Whether you’re a couch potato or a professional athlete, size and fitness levels do not matter because there are modifications for every yoga pose and beginner classes in every style,” says Dr. Nevins. “The idea is to explore your limits, not strive for some pretzel-like perfection. It is a great way to get in tune with your body and your inner self.”​

Physical benefits

“The relaxation techniques incorporated in yoga can lessen chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome,” explains Dr. Nevins. “Yoga can also lower blood pressure and reduce insomnia.”

Other physical benefits of yoga include:

  • increased flexibility
  • increased muscle strength and tone
  • improved respiration, energy and vitality
  • maintaining a balanced metabolism
  • weight reduction
  • cardio and circulatory health
  • improved athletic performance
  • protection from injury

 

Mental benefits

Aside from the physical benefits, one of the best benefits of yoga is how it helps a person manage stress, which is known to have devastating effects on the body and mind. “Stress can reveal itself in many ways, including back or neck pain, sleeping problems, headaches, drug abuse, and an inability to concentrate,” says Dr. Nevins. “Yoga can be very effective in developing coping skills and reaching a more positive outlook on life.”

Yoga’s incorporation of meditation and breathing can help improve a person’s mental well-being. “Regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness; increases body awareness; relieves chronic stress patterns; relaxes the mind; centers attention; and sharpens concentration,” says Dr. Nevins. Body- and self-awareness are particularly beneficial, she adds, “because they can help with early detection of physical problems and allow for early preventive action.”

Yoga is practiced by more than 36 million Americans and by many millions more worldwide. A discipline that is thousands of years old, yoga has spiritual and philosophical roots. Many who practice it, especially in the U.S., seek the physical benefits . There are also powerful benefits of yoga for your mental health .

Release helpful brain chemicals. Most exercise triggers the release of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain . These mood boosting chemicals include brain messengers such as dopamine , serotonin , and norepinephrine. Although yoga movements are slow and controlled, they still elevate your heart rate , make the muscles work hard, and stimulate the release of brain chemicals. As a result, yoga can make you happier.

There are many kinds of yoga . The type most practiced in the U.S. is hatha yoga, which combines physical poses and mindful breathing. Yoga can improve balance, flexibility, range-of-motion, and strength. It can also enhance mental health, although these benefits are harder to measure. According to many studies, yoga can:

‌‌Relieve depression. Studies show that yoga can ease depression. Researchers have found that yoga is comparable to other treatments, such as medication and psychotherapy. Yoga is usually inexpensive and doesn’t cause the same side effects as many medicines. It can even benefit those with major depressive disorder. The use of yoga for depression needs more study because there aren’t very many controlled trials.   

Reduce stress. When Americans answered a survey about why they practiced yoga, 86% of them said that it helped to deal with stress. The tightening and relaxing of muscles can reduce tension. You may also benefit from the peaceful atmosphere, calming music, and positive attitude that you will find in most yoga classes.  

Ease anxiety. Yoga can improve anxiety. The breath training included in yoga may be especially effective, as there is a relationship between anxiousness and breathing problems. If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, yoga may not help. Still, some psychologists are using yoga to supplement other forms of therapy.   

Improve sleep. Research suggests that yoga can improve sleep. This may be especially true for older adults. In one study of yoga participants over the age of 60, participants reported an increase in both the quality and quantity of their sleep. They also increased their sleep efficiency, which measures the percentage of time in bed actually spent sleeping.

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