For many years the benefits of practising yoga have always been associated with ‘flexibility’ and ‘stretching’ (in some respects now we know it can pay to be stiff, but that’s another blog post).
However, with the rising popularity of Mindfulness (a form of meditation) emerging research is showing practising yoga can benefit our mental health too. To understand this we need to take a little tour around the brain and nervous system.
Our brain is like a muscle in the sense it needs to be exercised in order for it to remain healthy. It’s made up of grey matter which is filled with synapses or connection points between neurons. The brain is divided between 5 lobes within its cortex, each area responsible for a variety of roles for example our frontal lobe is responsible for decision making and our motor functions.
Scientists once believed after childhood the brain didn’t have the ability to change however, through the study of neuroplasticity we now know nervous tissue can adapt. Just like a muscle, use it or lose it. The more we can stimulate the brain the more nerve tissue we develop. Equally how we condition the brain is just as important. The more you practise physically or mentally the more networks are created, a good saying goes, neurones that fire together wire together. The good news is – Yoga can assist this process.
When we practise any form of yoga, whether it be Asana (poses) Pranayama (breathwork) or Meditation we have the ability to change the neurological pathways between the brain and our nervous system. What does this mean? The autonomic nervous system is divided into two systems of control that were designed to complement each other. The Parasympathetic Nervous system (PNS) rest and digest and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) fight or flight.
With modern-day living resulting in many of us living in chronic stress, too much to do and not enough time to do it our brains and bodies are running on empty. Stress is helpful in proper doses however, the issue with stress now is that our stressors are constant. The stress outcomes are the perception of what our mind is d0ing. Our cortisol rhythm is high in the morning and lower in the evening, during chronic stress this rhythm can be disturbed.
So how can practising Yoga help to manage this?
- Stress Reduction – Styles of Yoga such as restorative yoga have been found to actively reduce stress levels. Consistent practise draws people to a one point focus which can be extremely effective in reducing stress and lowering cortisol levels, sending messages to the PNS to activate the relaxation response.
- 2. Supports Pain Management – Pain happens in your brain, therefore, the body will always air on the side of safety. People affected by pain tend to experience low mood, anxiety and depression. Through the practice of Yoga, we can change the way we perceive pain, seeing it as a friend rather than an enemy, thus changing our relationship to pain to recognise it as an important communication system. To adapt and re-pattern to make changes here we need to be persistent. Pranayama practises and restorative yoga can be extremely beneficial.
- 3. Encourages less reactivity – We now know through studying the effects of mindfulness we can re-wire our brains to fortify our pre-frontal cortex. Mindfulness clears the pathway to the brain making space to be less reactive which allows a balance between each hub of the neurosis. Over time this contemplative, less reactive part of the brain will override the more primitive parts of the brain (the limbic and a little bit of the brain stem) more of the time allowing us to be less reactive and more consciously present.
- 4. Slows us down – More neurones are shaped in response to our experience, neurones that fire together wire together. They’re formed in a ‘use-dependent manner’ so use it or lose it. Teaching people to slow down, notice, be aware and non-reactive will reinforce these neural pathways resulting in them becoming the default pathways.
- 5. Enhances the Mind-Body connection – Consistently practising yoga connects us to our real selves. One of the key tools in our practice is interoception without judgement. Yoga teaches us to notice the response of the poses we choose which helps students to regulate and shift. This results in more confidence in our ability to make life choices and have a clear understanding of who we really are and the power to turn the volume down on negativity overall improving our mental health.
In conclusion, the more we practise and turn our awareness inwards our ability to improve our mental health is endless.