Mental Health Awareness Story: The Power of Yoga

By Katie Yeager

Power of Yoga

Mental health is no stranger to most of us. If you have ever dealt with nerves before a presentation or tryout, stress from work or relationships, or sadness from being left out or feeling isolated, you have experienced what it’s like to struggle with mental health. Even though the examples just given are small, these types of events can have a big impact, especially on someone prone to anxiety or depression. 

How is Mental Health defined? The World Health Organization says “Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. It exists on a complex continuum, which is experienced differently from one person to the next, with varying degrees of difficulty and distress with potentially very different social and clinical outcomes.”

Now more than ever, leaders, friends, and colleagues are working to bring mental health issues to the forefront. Conversations are happening in boardrooms, dining rooms, offices, and homes. Leaders are working to bring mental health solutions to their organizations globally – knowing it is the right thing to do for their teams and that it will positively impact the bottom line of their business.

This is why we are excited to spread hope and positivity to our readers for the next month to honor and bring light to Mental Health Awareness Month. Throughout the next few weeks, we will feature a weekly article to foster the betterment of the mind through various positive activities. 

There are many things you can do to help promote and maintain good mental health. Here are a few suggestions we will cover in detail over the next few weeks:

  1. Practice Self-care
  2. Stay Connected
  3. Manage Stress
  4. Garden
  5. Talk to someone
  6. Get into a good sleep routine
  7. Exercise
  8. Practice Yoga

The first activity to give your mental health a boost that we are highlighting is yoga. 

What is Yoga?

According to the National Institute of Health, yoga is “an ancient and complex practice, rooted in Indian philosophy. It began as a spiritual practice but has become popular as a way of promoting physical and mental well-being.” 

Yoga takes on many different structures depending on location, intention, and culture, but the basic format of yoga, especially yoga in the Western world, centers around asana or physical poses and postures, pranayama or breathwork, and dyana or mediation. 

The practice of yoga is a constant journey, does not have a one-size-fits-all requirement, and is meant to be built upon and grown upon throughout one’s life. According to a well-known retreat center and yoga studio in Bali, Indonesia, Shanti Toya Ashram, “the entire aim of yoga is to self-reflect, control the breath, achieve deep relaxation, and grow through meditation.” Continuously engaging in a yoga practice “will result in better mental, emotional, and physical health as we challenge the mind and body through a sequence of yoga asanas.” 

Oftentimes, as humans, we can become intimidated by the unknown or the skillset and abilities of other people when we begin to try a new activity. However, yoga is not meant to be a competition on who can do the most inversions or the perfect handstand, it is a practice that encourages turning inwards and listening to what your body needs. 

Yoga recognizes that everybody is different in their bodies, minds, and souls, and its goal is to help a person become more aware of their minds and bodies, as well as create openness and grounding within their physical beings. As Harvard Health puts it, you can think of yoga as “weightlifting for the brain.”

I am a yoga teacher, teaching a class called Yoga Sculpt. This yoga format combines the intensity of a HIIT workout with weights, cardio, and muscle activation in the form of a heated vinyasa flow. I have been practicing yoga for six years and am nowhere near being the best yogini in the room. I always tell my students at the beginning of class that they know their bodies more than anyone else if they are able to listen to them. This means that everyone’s yoga practice is going to look different, and that is the beauty of yoga. Listening to what your mind and body need at the moment is one of the key foundations of a yoga practice. 

Why is Yoga Beneficial for Mental Health?

Harvard Health says, “Yoga may have additional ben­efits [than any other form of physical movement or exercise].” It is widely accepted that moving your body, sweating, and exercising can release stress hormones and create endorphins that improve mental health. However, yoga takes your brain a step further because of the ability to “affect mood by elevating levels of a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is associated with better mood and decreased anxiety.”

Yoga is a unique form of exercise and movement because of the major emphasis on breath, intention, and meditation. These practices, combined with physical movement, “ can reduce activity in the limbic system—the part of the brain dedicated to emotions.” This means that you are more grounded in your emotions and are able to diminish strong emotional reactivity “and have a more tempered response when faced with stressful situations.”

When you think of tranquility and peace, perhaps you think about yourself outside, surrounded by a beautiful beach or mountains, breathing in the fresh air, and allowing your senses to be stimulated by the environment around you. Yoga has a unique ability to take you there. Yoga cultivates mindfulness and stresses acceptance as you move through and hold poses for an extended amount of time. The repetitive flow of movement that yoga is rooted in forces your mind to be present, create calamity, and breathe. 

My yoga practice has evolved throughout my time practicing. When I began practicing yoga, I went to class mainly for the workout, the constant movement, and the hope to get stronger and leaner. Although this is a fine reason to begin, it is not the end all be all of what yoga is meant for. As time has gone by, I have become much more rooted in my emotions, have begun to appreciate the power of repetition for the mind, and deeply appreciate the breathwork required in yoga to quiet my mind. I am someone who lives with anxiety, and that is one of the reasons yoga has been so helpful in my life journey as it allows me to push all anxiety and stressors away for one or two hours every day, as well as feel grounded down in the earth and community. 

How to Begin a Yoga Practice?

If you want to begin practicing yoga but are not sure where you should start, do not worry! Yoga can be as simple as sitting in a comfortable seated position or a chair and using breathwork to bring presence and awareness to your mind and body. However, one of the best ways to get into yoga is to join a community at a studio. 

Practicing yoga at a studio allows for deeper connection, the endorphins of synchronized movements with others, and a community of like-minded individuals to encourage and inspire. Furthermore, practicing yoga at a studio will allow you to learn poses from trained professionals who are passionate about the practice and aim to guide you on the right path to greater self-actualization. 

Push yourself out of your comfort zone and into movement and see for yourself all of the benefits, physically and mentally, that yoga can do for you.  We are big fans of weaving yoga and nature together in a way that dissolves the boundaries between them. So practice your favorite yoga pose on your patio, next to your garden full of fresh herbs- a physical and mental gift for yourself.