How Does It Work?: Yoga & Mental Health

The very purpose of yoga practice according to the Yoga Sutra—to bring about “the cessation of fluctuations of the mind”—is clearly intended to affect the practitioner’s mental health. These are some of the specific ways it does that:

  1. Yoga balances the nervous system – Yoga is beneficial in part because of its proven ability to impact the nervous system and bring stress relief.
  2. Yoga affects brain chemistry – Dharma Singh Khalsa MD explains that “yoga and meditation can alter the very biochemistry of the brain more directly and efficiently than regular exercise.” Not only does yoga stimulate the Relaxation Response, it also invokes a balance of stimulation and relaxation via glandular secretions of endorphins and adrenaline. (Amy Weintraub)
  3. Yoga brings attention to the present moment – Present moment awareness is a key element of relieving symptoms related to many mental health concerns, including anxiety.
  4. Yoga cultivates self-awareness without judgment – Meditation and mindfulness teachings help the practitioner to invoke the observational distance necessary to release identification with emotional patterns. This brings the student vital knowledge, increased acceptance and peace, and a pathway for change. “If you are willing to take a step back and observe your mood, you are practicing self-awareness. From here, you can better manage and even overcome your depression by developing  a practice that suits your feelings.” (Amy Weintraub)
  5. Yoga leads to an embodied experience – Embodiment is key to yoga’s impact on one’s sense of well-being. And, as clinical psychology Bo Forbes has found with her patients, embodied insights tend to have a lasting effect on emotional balance and mental health.

Bo Forbes summarizes it this way, noting these “five building blocks for lasting healing:”

  1. Balancing the nervous system
  2. Regulating the breath
  3. Cultivating direct experience
  4. Quieting the mind
  5. Changing our personal narrative