Much has been made of the physical health benefits of yoga and its sister disciplines of breathing techniques and meditation -- how your muscles are lengthened and strengthened, how your heart thumps at a slower pace and how your posture and flexibility are improved. These benefits are measurable through science and the way your doctor nods in appreciation at the new you. But determining the psychological health benefits of yoga is more of an individual process. What it can do for you mentally comes down to how much you're willing to give to a yoga practice and how open you are to receiving these benefits.
Breath work is integral to a yoga practice. Using breathing techniques to slow down your respiratory rate, while practicing yoga poses, has the effect of lowering your blood pressure and rapid heart rate, both of which can be caused by too much stress. By focusing on the quality and rate of your breathing and the correct way to execute yoga poses, you are diverting your attention away from your stressors. The physiological benefits of yoga are almost immediate and sustainable, but the psychological benefits can only be maintained by practicing yoga regularly and taking what you've learned in class into your life to mitigate the effects of stress.
Mild depression or emotional ups and downs can be a side-effect of living with constant challenges. Practicing a gentle form of yoga, such as Hatha or Restorative yoga, regularly combined with breathing techniques like Alternate Nostril Breath, can relieve the symptoms of depression. In two different studies conducted in 2004 and 2005 on the effects of yoga on anxiety, stress and depression, participants were rated on the Profile of Mood States before and after the study and it was concluded that the regular practice of yoga can ease depression over time.
Everyone gets in a lousy mood for one reason or another. It doesn't even have to be because you suffer from anxiety or depression. It could just be because that so-and-so co-worker spilled her coffee on your desk. One of yoga's psychological health benefits is that it teaches you that all of life's little annoyances are transitory. Remember when you couldn't touch your toes in Standing Forward Bend? No, because through regular practice you can now touch the floor with your hands. Serenity can be yours at any given moment through the practice of yoga, breathing techniques and meditation.
There are many reasons why people have a low regard for themselves. One of yoga's psychological health benefits is that you can build your self-esteem muscle the same way you build your leg muscles in Chair pose -- with constant practice. Whether you have always lacked confidence or have factors in your life right now that are contributing to you questioning your self-worth, yoga can help. Yoga builds physical endurance along with mental resilience. It takes courage and confidence to balance on two hands in Crane pose. How many people do you know who can do that? So keep that in mind when you leave at the end of your yoga class, and get your swagger on.
Linda Kaban is a certified yoga teacher and professional life coach who specializes in helping people achieve their fitness goals. With a bachelor's degree in the humanities, Kaban has been writing since 1998 and has been published in YOGALife magazine along with other healthy living publications.