The NHS explains that the main component of yoga is postures and is an ancient form of exercise that focuses on breathing, strength and flexibility, which can boost our physical and mental wellbeing. It involves stretching the body through different poses while controlling our breathing aiming to keep it nice and slow. The goal is for the body and mind to become both relaxed and energised.
There are many physical benefits of practicing yoga; including cardiovascular benefits, increased flexibility and strength and protection from injury, but today I want to focus on the benefits to our mental health and wellbeing. Looking at how yoga has been linked with decreasing stress and symptoms of depression, relieving anxiety and improving sleep quality.
Cortisol is the hormone best known for producing the ‘fight or flight’ response and is often referred to as the ‘stress hormone.’ Increased levels of this hormone are linked with anxiety, stress and depression. Regular practice of yoga has been found to lower cortisol levels, so physically it can reduce the negative side effects that cortisol can create within the body.
Yoga can help to reduce stress as it promotes relaxation. Many techniques are suggested for reducing stress including breathing exercises, fitness activities, meditation, guided imagery and stretching, and yoga offers us the perfect opportunity to combine all of these. Many studies have found that a short yoga session in the morning, on a lunch break or at bedtime can minimise stress levels and improve our productivity.
Serotonin is a messenger chemical; thought to have a good influence on mood, emotion and sleep. Decreased levels have been linked in some studies with depression. According to the journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience serotonin production plays a role in treatment of depression and yoga (like all exercise) is a natural way to increase serotonin production. So the increased serotonin plus the gentle, calming fluid movements of yoga and focus on breathing could improve mood and reduce depressive symptoms.
Yoga reduces the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and eases our respiration rate and for these reasons is often described as ‘natural anxiety relief.' The practice of yoga concentrates on connecting our body with our mind, emphasising the importance of being in the present moment, calming the symptoms of anxiety and offering a moment of peace in our day to day lives. Engaging with the poses offers our mind a focus; quietening racing thoughts whilst also physically easing the tension within our body.
Stress, anxiety and depression often affect sleep; so yoga could be doubly effective in this area, as along with reducing these feelings, it also increases melatonin levels. Like meditation, regular yoga has been shown to increase melatonin; the hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness, therefore aiding better sleep. Helping us to sleep longer, fall asleep faster and return to sleep quicker if we wake in the night; improving overall sleep quality, meaning a more energised feeling in the morning. There are yoga videos tailored for nighttime; preparing the body for sleep rather than energising and waking the body.
When gyms were open I enjoyed dipping in to yoga classes, as they were lovely and sociable, then during the summer lockdown I enjoyed hour long yoga sessions in my lounge as they offered me something to do. Now due to the dark cold winter mornings, I am enjoying starting my days with short fifteen minute bed yoga videos. I find it helps to wake up my body, stretching and warming up my muscles whilst also allowing my mind time to switch on, clear and feel ready for the day.
Considering Giving Yoga a Go?
Find a place that feels safe for you, whether that be at home, joining a class or doing it outdoors.
You don’t need special equipment, just somewhere comfortable and maybe a few props for extra comfort; for example a matt/ blanket, a cushion/ pillow or yoga blocks; anything you need to avoid injury and make the time enjoyable.
Google and YouTube can help you to find the perfect session for you; consider your body, your limitations, your age, your expertise level and your aim. (Search ideas; bed yoga; yoga for beginners; yoga for anxiety, the options available are so wonderfully varied).
Enjoy. Relax. Breathe. Listen to your body.