Yoga is often (and mistakenly) portrayed in the West as a form of light exercise and stretching, though this concept is changing as more people become exposed to the depth of what yoga has to offer. Yet, many people are still unaware of all that yoga provides. While performing yoga postures (asanas) certainly has the benefits of building strength, balance, and mobility, yoga is about far more than that.
Yoga, in its entirety, is an in-depth, holistic, ancient practice and philosophy that can contribute to overall well-being by enhancing physical and mental health.
Now, let’s take a look at the profound influence that yoga can have on your mental health. For simplicity’s sake, I will focus on the mental health benefits of performing asanas, but I will also share important knowledge about yoga as a lifestyle.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
The first thing to be aware of are the eight limbs of yoga as described by the ancient sage Patanjali. These eight limbs are foundational to the yogic practice and philosophy. Think of these eight limbs like petals on a flower. Each petal contributes to the whole, and the flower would not be complete if it were missing a petal. The eight limbs are:
- Yama, or abstinence. These are practices involving discipline over biological impulses and cravings.
- Niyama, or observances. Put simply, the niyamas are positive habits (do’s instead of don’ts) such as self-study, restraint of mind, and purity.
- Asana, or yoga postures, which we are familiar with in the West.
- Pranayama, or breath control. Though pranayama involves the breath, it is actually about channeling the life-force, or prana. Pranayama maximizes the absorption of vital life force (prana).
- Dharana, or concentration, is the honing of our ability to focus and concentrate the mind.
- Dhyana, or contemplation, may also be translated as meditation. Dhyana is the practice of single-pointed awareness.
- Samadhi, or absorption, a state of unity in which the meditator, the object of meditation, and the meditative process become one.
As you can see, a devout practitioner of yoga will develop a profoundly healthy state of mind. Furthermore, the advanced yogi will be pure of thought, have no problem concentrating, develop positive habits, and be aware of the unity of all things. Easier said than done, we know! Even for those who have been practicing for many years, the eight limbs are a practice and a process.
That said, trying to tackle all eight limbs of the yogic tradition at once can be extremely difficult. For this reason, I’ll discuss the mental health benefits of the yoga limb we are most familiar with—asana.
Asanas – Yoga Mental Health Benefits
In addition to enhancing flexibility and mobility, performing asanas on a regular basis can enhance our mental health in a number of different ways.
- When you focus on a yoga posture and the sensations in your body, you also hone your ability to concentrate. This increases body awareness and could even be considered useful for people struggling with conditions labeled as ADD.
- Yoga enhances blood flow throughout the body and brain, leading to enhanced cognitive ability. It can help enhance memory formation, making it easier to think more clearly. This is an important factor to consider in the aging process.
- Yoga has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety. Furthermore, consistent practice can enhance overall quality of life.
- Yoga is fantastic for helping to improve self-esteem and can help people better understand their tendencies, strengths, and limitations. By learning about the capabilities of your body, you can enhance your self-awareness and perhaps your self-compassion as well.
- Yoga can help us process trauma stored in the body. Mental health experts understand that the body stores emotional information, both positive and negative. Practicing asanas can be useful for processing through traumatic memories that are stored in the body. This can be important for acknowledging and ultimately removing these emotional barriers and stored trauma.
A Wealth of Benefits
As you can see, yoga is a time-tested system that enhances mental and physical health. The whole system of yoga is designed to purify the mind and body, ultimately preparing the individual for a state of complete liberation. This may sound lofty and esoteric, but there are many benefits from simply taking a daily downward do or sun salutation! Furthermore, a regular asana practice (just one of the eight limbs) can provide numerous mental health benefits. Imagine what incorporating the other limbs could do!
Reviewed by Dr. Jayant Lokhande, MD (Botanical Drugs), MBA (Biotechnology)