How Can Yoga Help The Mentally Ill?
We all know that yoga has many mental and spiritual (as well as physical) benefits.It’s likely that a goodly proportion of the people who attend your yoga classes will be doing so to ‘relax’ – which is often code for ‘alleviate mental illness’. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorders – all of these can be aided through yoga. Here’s how:
Yoga Improves The ‘Mind-Body Connection’
In the modern world – particularly within Western cultures – a disconnect has been developing between the way we consider our bodies, and the way we consider our minds. Consider, for example, the prevailing stereotypes of the physically attractive, and the exceptionally brainy individual. Almost without exception, the stereotypical ‘physical’ paragon (the ‘Dumb blonde’, for example) has little brainpower, while the stereotypical ‘brainiac’ is reasonably unattractive. Of course, this doesn’t hold true in real life, but the stereotype stems from the prevailing idea that body and mind are separate entities. This leads to all kinds of issues – pursuing physical ‘perfection’ at the expense of mental health, or neglecting the needs of the body (sleep, a healthy diet) in favor of more ‘cerebral’ matters. Yoga, however, makes the thoroughly integrated nature of mind and body very clear. As the actions of the body through the poses works to calm and relax the mind, people who have abused their bodies in the pursuit of mental thrills – substance abusers, for example – come to a new understanding and respect of their body, and a greater comprehension of how what one does to the body affects the mind. This is very important, and can really help people to rethink the way in which they treat both their bodies and their minds – leading to an overall improvement in health.
Yoga Relaxes People
‘Relaxation’ is the best known mental health effect of yoga. But it should not be underestimated. Relaxation is very important for combating stress – a leading cause of many mental illnesses. As we’ve mentioned above, yoga uses the body to influence the mind. It does this by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system which is responsible for ‘relaxed’ functions, such as digestion and healing (including mental healing). It’s the system under the influence of which we should spend most of our time – it’s opposite, the ‘Fight or flight’ system, being designed only for brief bursts of energy. However, the stresses of the modern world means that many of us are in ‘fight or flight’ for unhealthily prolonged periods, with no actual ‘fighting or fleeing’ to resolve the situation. This is not what evolution designed us for, and it is profoundly unhealthy. To switch of ‘fight or flight’, and re-activate the parasympathetic nervous system, yoga can effectively ‘trick’ the brain into believing that everything is fine. Just as panicky thoughts can result in physical symptoms such as elevated heart-rate and rapid breathing, so calm movements can result in mental relaxation. When undertaking yoga, the practitioner effectively mimics the physical state of a relaxed person. Languid movements, steady breathing, expansive gestures…it’s all the kind of ‘body language’ one uses when everything is just fine and we’re feeling pretty chilled. This has the effect of convincing the brain that everything IS just fine, and it responds by making us feel pretty chilled! In a world in which stress is becoming an epidemic, and wreaking havoc upon mental health worldwide, the benefits of this cannot be underestimated.
Yoga Improves Self Esteem
On a level which some may find more ‘superficial’, yoga helps people to feel better about themselves. Whether it’s through achieving a new pose, improving physical fitness, doing something they thought they couldn’t, or simply getting a social ‘kick’ out of a communal yoga class, yoga can improve one’s self-image, and give one a much better opinion of one’s own abilities. This is important, as many suffering from mental health issues believe themselves to be generally inadequate, and have trouble with treating themselves compassionately. Self-esteem and self-compassion are essential for mental health recovery. Many mental health programs have large elements of self-esteem building incorporated into them for this reason. If yoga can help to build self-esteem and self-compassion, it’s likely that an improvement in mental health will follow. Particularly when combined with the benefits mentioned above!