Yoga has been recognized as one of the most effective ways to calm the mind for over 5,000 years. Scientific research now allows us to ask and to understand, exactly why does yoga makes us feel so good?
We all feel at our best when our minds are relaxed. In fact, having a physically fit body doesn’t bring much pleasure if your mind is full of tension and anxiety. Mental stress can also be a trigger for physical ailments. Yoga refers to the ‘union of the mind and body’ and aims to bring about optimal mental and physical health. For this reason, thousands of people practice yoga today, whether at home or at a gym class.
The good news is that it doesn’t take much time to reap the benefits of yoga. According to a new American study, just 20 minutes of daily yoga relaxes and sharpens the mind more than aerobic exercise like running or cycling. In fact, just a single 20 minute session of Hatha Yoga was shown to significantly improve performance in memory and concentration tests. Participants were immediately able to “process information more quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout”.
These mental benefits may sound rather abstract, but remember this calmness overflows into our everyday lives and applied to day-to-day tasks. So if you have a day with a lot of mental challenges ahead, a quick yoga session appears to be the ideal preparation ground.
Breathe....and relax your mind
It’s really all in the breath. We all know that a tense, anxious body produces shallow breathing, and slower, deeper breathing when you are relaxed. Hatha yoga teaches physical positions or ‘asanas’ to help control breathing and promote the more beneficial deeper, rhythmic breathing. As you breathe in and out more deeply, for example in the warrior pose, blood and oxygen flows more rapidly around the brain and vital organs, putting the body into a state of relaxation.
A relaxed body promotes a relaxed mind. Your mind is then able to function at a superior level. Everyday mental processes such as problem solving, reasoning, decision making, learning, attention and memory are boosted.
Yoga also directly boosts the level of the amino acid GABA which is required for a relaxed brain. Levels of GABA have been shown to be higher in those who participate in yoga than those who do an alternative aerobic exercise such as running.
Yoga and stress
Our pressured modern lives means that stress has become one of the biggest killers, contributing to chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure and even cancer. Practising yoga has been shown to soften our reactions to stressful situations. In fact, it’s even been suggested that relaxation can change how our genes behave in response to stress.
Anxiety and depression are both conditions which can be effectively treated with yoga. People with anxiety and depression often have low GABA levels and yoga can help to boost levels of this chemical in the brain. In fact, it’s been suggested that yoga may be just as effective as medication and many doctors now refer patients with depression to yoga classes, and even cancer patients do yoga as part of their battle towards beating the disease.
Yoga boosts positive feelings
As well as relieving unpleasant feelings, yoga has also been proven to boost mood and self-esteem. As it quietens the mind you can focus your energy where you want to, whether it’s preparing a report for work or helping two bickering siblings resolve an argument! A calmer mind encourages more positive thoughts, greater self-acceptance and a deeper awareness of your body, your own feelings, and the feelings of others around you.
5 relaxing yoga postures
To experience mental relaxation yourself right now, try these postures:
For depression try...
The forward fold – just like standing up and touching your toes but trying to get your hands flat on the floor. Breathe deeply and hold for 2 minutes.
For anxiety try...
Child’s Pose – sit on your shins with your buttocks resting on your feet. Gently lower your forehead to the floor and hold for 10 breaths. For acutely anxious states you could also try alternate nostril breathing.
For mental clarity try...
Tree – stand on one leg and bring the other foot to rest on the inner calf. One balanced, stretch your hands up above your head with palms together towards the sky. Hold for 10 breaths.
While you don’t want to stop those aerobic bike rides and gym visits, yoga is the perfect way to make sure you take some time for the health of your mind too. A weekly yoga class could be all you need to learn some basic techniques. Or simply ending your workouts with a couple of asanas and meditation. After all, your mind and body working serenely together is the best foundation for a satisfying, happy life.
by Jessica Ward
by Kath Webb
by Jessica Ward
by Laura Briggs
by Jessica Ward