September 24, 2021

Yoga and Mental Health: Why and How It Helps

Our contributing writer delves into some of the science behind yoga and how it may be working to improve her mental health. You can read about Christine’s personal experience using yoga as a tool to keep from spiraling here

By Guest Contributor, Christine Bushrow

Have you been feeling overwhelmed lately? Perhaps you may want to consider incorporating yoga into your routine.

It’s becoming more and more apparent to most people how important it is to maintain positive mental health for our general wellbeing. We also know that mental health factors, including depression, trauma, and severe stress or anxiety can play a role in suicidal ideation and behaviors. However, keeping our mental health ‘healthy’ can be a bit of a beast to deal with and can often feel like a continuous uphill battle. For many of us, staying above water requires daily work and intentional practices. Here’s where yoga enters the conversation. 

While there has not been much scientific research into how yoga affects suicidal behaviors, there are threads of evidence, such as this study in a complementary medicine journal. Research has shown us that yoga benefits our mental health, but to be clear, yoga alone is not a treatment for suicide and suicidal ideation. Still, it’s an excellent way to manage stress levels, lower anxiety, and increase self-worth and self-confidence, which can reduce the spiraling that may lead to suicidal behaviors.

Practicing yoga has been long revered as a way to ease anxiety and promote balance and calm. But what is it about yoga that helps with these concerns? Chloe Hodson Watkins, a yoga instructor and owner of Santosha Yoga in Crozet, Virginia, says, “We live in a frenetic and fast-paced world, which leaves little opportunity for the digestion and integration of all of the things we experience on a daily basis. It’s almost as if our minds and our bodies create a bottleneck to our experience of life. Yoga and meditation offer us an opportunity to clear the bottleneck. An opportunity to turn off our phones, our work, and our families to be quiet and spend an hour or so of time reflecting, digesting, and downregulating from our active fight or flight sympathetic nervous system into our rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system. This lets our physical bodies repair and heal and put mental bodies back in a place of equilibrium.”

So, is it the movement that serves as the key factor here? Or is it the breathwork component? What about a sense of community? Is it the feeling of safety? Might they all contribute to why yoga is beneficial? It appears so. 

We know that moving our bodies changes our minds. And, studies show that breathwork plays an essential role in stress resilience and keeping our mental health in check by quickly bringing our mind to the present moment as we focus on breathing intentionally.

Perhaps due to craving a sense of community, especially in a pandemic when we’re unable to leave our homes or pay for an in-person yoga class, there is some indication that in-person classes may be more effective for anxiety and depression than practicing online. 

As mentioned earlier, depression is another mental health struggle that is often associated with suicide and suicidal ideation. Especially when depression is chronic or recurring, those affected are often feeling alone, hopeless, stuck, irritable, and exhausted. Depression tends to eradicate any passions and interests its host had before, as well. With all of this considered, practicing yoga doesn’t always feel doable for someone who is depressed, no matter how badly they may want to heal. In cases like this, breathwork can be an excellent gateway to yoga and a more accessible way to begin healing, even if someone feels they can’t get out of bed. 

In addition to possibly aiding in the management of anxiety and panic disorders and depression, there is some evidence that yoga is also beneficial for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and deep-rooted trauma. Much like anxiety and panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and significant trauma are highly complex, severity varies from person to person, and risks of suicidal thoughts and behaviors are increased. Because of this complexity and individualization, there’s no one size fits all solution, and more than one kind of treatment is often required to provide relief. Yoga offers an accessible, low risk intervention that can be paired with other therapies. 

According to this small study, the emphasis on the mind-body connection aspect of yoga helps those who have interpersonal post-traumatic stress disorder “regain mental and physical health, foster wellbeing, and cultivate personal growth.” 

We have much to learn about suicidal thoughts and behaviors and other mental health struggles that sometimes lead a person to hopelessness. We’re still learning about the scientific and biological connections between yoga and positive mental health, but this is a practice that has calmed and centered people for centuries. It is promising and exciting to know that yoga represents a predominantly accessible and safe option for most people, whether it is in a studio or online. 

Many yoga instructors use the term Namaste, often defined as meaning ‘the light in me honors the light in you.’ Recognizing the light within each of us, and within ourselves, is a great first step to healing and serenity. Namaste.

Christine Bushrow is a passionate freelance mental health writer and mental health advocate. When she’s not writing, you can find her reading, spending time with loved ones, practicing yoga, and exploring the outdoors in a constant state of wonder.