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.
Psychological Benefits of Yoga
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:
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.
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.
Enhance social life. If you attend an in-person yoga class, you may benefit from interacting with others in your group. Social ties can positively affect both mental and physical health. Also, acting in unison with others, sometimes called synchrony, carries unique social benefits. Moving and breathing at the same time as others can give you a sense of belonging and promote bonding with the group.
Promote other healthy habits. If you practice yoga, you may be more likely to choose more wholesome foods. Yoga may also be a gateway to other types of physical activity. Exposure to other health-minded people can inspire you to make other positive lifestyle changes.
Besides these benefits, yoga may be beneficial for those trying to lose weight, stop smoking, and manage chronic disease. Of course, your results may vary. Your outcome can depend upon your attitude, the quality of your instruction, and the type of yoga being practiced.
How to Use Yoga to Improve Your Mental Health
The best way to learn yoga is with a qualified teacher, either in a private session or in a group. A yoga teacher can correct your poses and show you how to modify them if necessary. You can use blocks, straps, and other items to make some poses easier. You can even do yoga in a chair instead of on the floor.
It's also possible to learn yoga online or from a book or DVD. But the best way to avoid injury is to take an in-person yoga class. Once you have the basics down, you can use books and videos to help you practice. You will benefit more from yoga if you do it at home between classes, and online classes can keep your home practice interesting. If you are comfortable doing yoga at home, you can practice when you experience extra stress, sleeplessness, or other challenges.
Risks of a Yoga Practice
Yoga is a low-risk activity, but it can cause injuries, primarily sprains or strains. Poor technique, pre-existing conditions, or simply trying too hard can cause injury. Some injuries may be traced to teachers with inadequate training. The risk of injury doesn't keep most yoga fans from their practice. Among those who have been hurt while practicing yoga, fewer than 1% gave it up.
The risks of yoga are higher for older individuals, who may have less muscle strength and lower bone density. You should talk to your doctor about your exercise program if you experience injuries. Also, you should never use yoga practice as a substitute for medical care.