Mental Health Awareness Month:Yoga For Body&Mind

4 minute read
By Ece Ozkan

Picture this: you had a stressful day, body is tense and mind is just restless with a million thoughts. Feeling unmotivated and quite grim, you still set your foot on the yoga mat. 15 minutes later you are flowing and don’t even remember what you were ruminating about, and by the end of the class your body and mind are basically thanking you for the practice, serotonin rushing to your brain and you have a yoga glow on your face. Sounds familiar? As we move into May, which is the National Mental Health Awareness Month, I’d like to dig a little into the yoga-mind-body connection, starting with the “what” – a brief introduction to the research on yoga, mindfulness and stress response, and then continue with the “how” – yoga’s transformative impact on stress, depression, anxiety.

The Relation Between Yoga, Meditation,  Mindfulness and Stress

Studies in the last 5-10 years show the positive impact of yoga on our mental health, that a regular yoga practice (at least twice a week for 6+ weeks) can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and improve quality of life, optimism, and cognitive and physical functioning. As a matter of fact, the more the participants attend yoga classes the lower their depressive symptoms at the end of a study. I’ll talk about two research legs briefly, one is the noetic science research on mediation and the other is psychology studies on yoga.

Let’s start with the first one by giving a definition of what noetic science is, as it’s not a very well known area. The word noetic means “inner wisdom”, “intuition”.  And noetic sciences is basically bringing scientific techniques with our inner knowing. Simply put, it is the science behind how our beliefs, thoughts and intentions affect the physical world. If it sounds too surreal to you, let me tell you that it is indeed a real thing and being studied in a fully functioning research center, Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), which was found by the 6th person who walked on the moon – Dr. Edgar Mitchell. 

“I realized that the story of ourselves as told by science—our cosmology, our religion—was incomplete and likely flawed. I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discrete things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description. What was needed was a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming:” – Dr. Edgar Mitchell

Image taken from the IONS website

IONS is quite an interesting place as they have a variety of “unconventional” focus areas. One of their research areas involves studying the impacts of meditation, for instance. Nina Fry-Kizzler of IONS recently wrote an article about how meditation can support our immunity and wellbeing. To give a brief summary, it talks about how our bodies respond to stress and how stress affects our immunity. What you need to know in a few bullet points is:

  1. Our sympathetic nervous system cannot tell the difference between an actual physical threat, e.g. you are chased by a lion, and an imagined or perceived threat, e.g. a tight deadline or a fast spreading pandemic. 
  2. Nervous system that perceives a threat gives the same reactions even when we aren’t facing any physical danger, e.g. releases cortisol (stress hormone).
  3. There is, however, a counterbalance mechanism in the body called the parasympathetic nervous system which manages relaxation, re-building, and the optimal functioning of our immune system. 
  4. If we realize we are stressed even in the absence of an actual physical danger, we can choose to intervene in that process and switch over from a sympathetic (fight or flight) response to a parasympathetic (relaxation) response. 
  5. When we switch, the body starts repairing itself. Meaning, it can direct energy towards digestion, reproduction and immunity. 

So basically this is the reason you get sick easier when you are stressed, working extra hours or going through a tough break-up, as the body is  sending all its resources towards helping you tackle the perceived stress. How do we switch over to the  parasympathetic (relaxation) response though? Several scientific experiments (e.g. iRest (Integrative Restoration) Meditation for Older Adults with Depression Symptoms and Internet Mindfulness Meditation Intervention (IMMI) Improves Depression Symptoms in Older Adults) and research suggest that meditation, yoga and mindfulness practices are powerful tools for that. 

Now, let’s look at the psychological research on yoga. American Psychological Association (APA), which is  one of the authorities in the psychology field, has published several papers on yoga-mind related studies, touching on how “yoga may help strengthen social attachments, reduce stress and relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia…”  Related to that, Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, of Harvard Medical School has a study showing that yoga targets unmanaged stress, a main component of chronic disorders such as anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes and insomnia. How does that happen? According to his study, this happens by reducing the stress response; yoga practice improves resilience and mind-body awareness, which in turn helps people adjust their behaviors based on the feelings they’re going through in their bodies. Quite powerful, isn’t it?

How Does Yoga Affect Our Mind?: The Physiology of Yoga

How could holding a physical pose, like dolphin, relax the brain while strengthening the body? In a nutshell, a regular yoga practice alters the firing patterns of the nerves and chemical constitution of the body’s fluids and blood gases that activates a relaxation response. When you concentrate on a specific pose and hold it as you regulate the breath, the body starts to shift from a state of “biochemical arousal and tension to calm and relaxation”. Deep breathing lowers the brain’s response to threat, and a set of other reactions in line with that takes place. This is also related to yoga’s impact on the release of a neurotransmitter called GABA (which produces a calming effect and helps with anxiety, stress, fear). In a 2007 study, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to compare levels of it before and after two different activities: an hour of yoga and an hour of reading a book. The yoga group showed a 27% increase in GABA levels, while GABA levels of the reading group remained unchanged.  

“The body starts to turn off arousing nerve chemicals, like adrenaline and stops dumping fatty acids and sugar into the bloodstream for brain, muscle, and motor energy.  Also, sodium leaves the inside of the body’s cells. This slows down the rate of nerve firing and further relaxes your brain, heart, and muscles. This state of biochemical relaxation oxygenates the blood, restores blood acidity and alkalinity balance, and reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and motor activity.” – Psychology Today

Yoga poses work on all systems of the body; while you are strengthening your muscles you are also toning up glands, internal organs and spine nerves. Plus, increased blood flow helps your digestion to better extract nutrients and lymphatic system to eliminate toxins. You might remember hearing cues in the class encouraging you to “twist from the internal organs”, that twists can be detoxifying. Indeed, twists stimulate circulation as the organs are compressed during a twist, pushing out toxins and when we release the twist, fresh blood flows in, carrying oxygen and the building blocks for tissue healing. Another example is backbends, or “heart openers” as they might be referred to sometimes. A backbend will “open your heart and release the stiffness between the shoulder blades—at some point, you will have some sort of emotional release, which you may or may not be conscious of.” 

To sum up, yoga and meditation practices provide a powerful tool for handling stress, anxiety, depression and several other challenges. Moving with the breath and holding certain poses help us build mind-body awareness, become more present. It also leads to several chemical changes in the body and brain, from a reduction in cortisol (stress) hormone to dialing down the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. This makes yoga a great alternative or complementary treatment for issues that require medication and/or therapy. I’ll finish with a great quote from Iyengar which summarizes yoga-mind-body connection quite well: “Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” 

P.S. As part of the May – Mental Health Awareness Month efforts, Mandala Yoga is holding a donation based charity class in aid of AWARE, on May 4 at 10 am Irish time. You can enroll here and support this cause, where all proceeds will go to Aware to support mental health services in the community.