Comment for Livescience magazine, written by Kin founder Laura Pearce.
Full article available to view here - https://www.livescience.com/is-yoga-good-for-you
Yoga is synonymous with improved mental wellbeing and relaxation, the science behind this is actually more extensive than you might think.
The use of Yoga practices to help with mental health disorders such as depression are so sure-fire now even your GP will recommend Yoga as part of a treatment program. There are myriad studies that show improvements in self perceived happiness, and overall wellbeing (eg. Golec de Zvala et. al.).
Yoga has also been shown to help with management and treatment of anxiety, stress, sleep disorders and burnout. There could of course be an element of perceived efficacy; any 'self-help' program you embark upon gives you a sense of hope and empowerment, so the very act of committing to take up Yoga could on the Psychological level have some benefits. It's generally accepted, however, that embodiment is a powerful concept- the idea that body and mind are intrinsically connected, that they are one and the same thing. Embodiment implies that features of cognition, whether human or otherwise, are shaped by aspects of the entire body of the organism. Basically when body is happy, strong and flexible, the mind is too (and visa versa).
Having said all that, there are actually very tangible mechanisms at work when we practice Yoga and meditation that have a measurable effect on our mental health. For example -
- The key mechanism is Parasympathetic nervous system activation: Through breathwork and single-pointed focus we bring the body into a 'rest & digest' state. When we feel agitated, stressed or anxious, our body shifts to 'fight or flight' aka its Sympathetic state, and so one of the main 'goals' of Yoga is to bring the body out of chronic sympathetic (stress) activation, and balance the nervous system, keeping us calm and literally reducing secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
- Different types of Yoga have been shown to elicit different benefits in the body - hot Yoga for example has been shown to increase production of protein cytokines, which reduce inflammation. Often Inflammation is a marker of depression, stress and anxiety.
- Having a strong supported body with good flexibility (ie. Good body 'suspension ') can help reduce chronic pain; one of the many symptoms of and causes behind depression.
- Practicing Yoga aids in the secretion of melatonin; our 'sleep' hormone. Whilst the mechanisms of this are uncertain, what is sure is that Yoga can be a wonderful way to improve sleep quality and duration.
One of the glorious things about Yoga and its therapeutic effects are that pretty much anyone can take it up at any stage of life. Yoga for kids is seen as a great way to settle overactive children, and help behaviourally challenged kids to leant to self-soothe - you'll see Yoga on the curriculum at many primary and high schools nowadays.
I personally think that the younger you begin to practice Yoga the better; the prefrontal cortexes of young children haven't fully developed yet, which means they don't have as much 'functional fixedness' as adults ie. They are literally more open minded and creative. Kids are able to explore the many different aspects and layers of Yoga in a much more curious way, hopefully creating coping mechanisms and skills that will stay with them for life.
There are no upper age limits either thanks to it's low impact, varied nature. I know first hand the way Yoga uplifts and energises the elderly, having taught wheelchair Yoga in a nursing home for many years, and there also research showing Yoga and meditation may play a role in prevention of Alzheimer's and dementia, and may improve symptoms and quality of life for patients and their caregivers. (Dale Bredesen UCLA showed signs of reversed memory loss).
There's a reason why Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years, and more and more interest is being taken into researching this special relaxation elixir, so who knows what we'll discover in the future about the benefits of this ancient practice on our mental health and wellbeing today.