In recent years, yoga has undergone quite the dramatic rise in popularity. Touted by fitness professionals as their new favourite workout, and flung into the limelight when the trend of mindfulness made its mark in the mainstream; think adult colouring books and miniature zen gardens. Drowned out amongst the active wear, #fitspo laden newsfeeds of our daily lives the scientific studies on yoga we easily missed.
In fact, the benefits of yoga and meditation have been undergoing psychological and physiological studies for decades. One of the first randomized trials (high-quality experiment) on yoga was published in The Lancet in 1975! Since then, resoundingly positive results have been proven in dozens of studies. From stress relief to serotonin increases, emotional adaptability, and flexibility, yoga improves our mental health and wellbeing, and is especially good at helping us combat anxiety, stress, and depression.
But how exactly does yoga help?
Yoga is a fundamentally holistic practice, intended to be a way of life that actively helps individuals find harmony and health for a meaningful and peaceful life. Nevertheless, we can consider four layers of yoga which work both independently and in conjunction with each other to help us manage our stress, anxiety and depression. They are; body, breath, meditation and philosophy.
Body - Asana
The vast majority of us start yoga because we are drawn to the physical movement aspect (asana). Some people may begin to delve deep into the history and holistic practices encompassed by yoga, but it is often foreshadowed by months, often years of physical practice.
Modern yoga studios, like us at Salt Power Yoga, allow students to find their own interpretation of yoga. So, it begs the question, if our practice is asana-centric, what benefits are we experiencing that keep us coming back?
It's the movement. The exercise. Everybody now knows how important physical exercise is for our mood, energy, and physicality. Yoga is no exception. Yoga, on an exercise level, has proven to be incredibly beneficial for our body's strength and flexibility, along with increasing our serotonin, melatonin and dopamine. Not to mention; reducing symptoms of lower back pain, improving diabetes management, sleeping patterns, and blood circulation, and increasing energy/decreasing fatigue.
Plus, yoga is surprisingly accessible. Forget the six-pack yoga dude doing some ridiculous hand balance at the beach. Yoga postures come in all levels of attainability, think pre-natal yoga, seniors for yoga, yoga for back pain, yoga for kids. There's an asana for everybody and every ability, and they all have the primary effect of making us happy.
Asanas are a tool that helps us influence our own happiness and relieve tension. They valuable for all of us in this busy life, and particularly helpful in combating and treating anxiety, depression, or stress.
Breath - Pranayama
Most simply, Prana means ‘energy’ or ‘life source’, it can refer to the breath as the very action that keeps us alive, as well as the energy in the universe around us. We can read Pranayama in two different ways, the first being prana-yama which would translate to ‘breath – control’ or ‘breath restraint’. Or you could read it as prana-ayama which would mean ‘freedom of breath’, ‘breath expansion’ or ‘breath liberation’.
In yoga classes, we utilise breathing exercises because their effects on our mind and body are resounding. Our breath controls our energy flow and our minds, but whether we see these breathing techniques as an act of freedom or controlling is up to our perception.
In 2017 a Boston University School of Medicine study found that "[during the] intervention of yoga plus coherent breathing, depressive symptoms declined significantly". In our practices of pranayama (breathing techniques), we learn to turn our minds inwards and focus on our breath. When we do so, we quite our minds, slow our heart rate and generally reduce stress.
Understandably, the emphasis on becoming still and quiet during a meditation can seem genuinely impossible when your brain is having a weird time. For that reason, many instructors advise in active breathing, combining slow and gentle postures with mind focal points.
For example; if you are feeling agitated, anxious, or fearful, instead of trying to force yourself to become calm, practice some sun salutations (surya namaskar), focus on breathing deeply, emphasising the exhale.
Our minds and our bodies are inexplicably interwoven, when we calm our physical bodies we can calm our minds, and visa-versa. Remember, the definition of yoga is 'union', between our mind, our body, and our world.
Meditation - Dyana
The elusive act of meditating is best described as something we can not just 'do', rather it is something which 'just happens'. The best way to describe Dyana is the feeling of being so absorbed in something you completely lose track of time, even of the need to eat. It is the act of being so keenly aware, yet without focus.
Meditation has proven positive effects on our brains, helping us increase our concentration and improve our memory. In a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, meditation was found to actively stimulate the region of the brain associated with positive emotions and lower anxiety.
As a tool for managing anxiety, depression, and stress, meditation encourages us to practice true, unclouded self-awareness. When we turn our contemplations in on ourselves we learn to listen to our thoughts, to our unconscious desires, our inner turmoils, our hidden emotions.
Then, we can get to know our true selves. When we learn to understand and recognise our traits of anxiety, depression, fear, and stress, without judgement or expectation we can begin to meet our needs from within. It's a matter of self-care, mental fortitude and compassion.
Meditation, breath, and body are enveloped by yoga when we think of it in its traditional sense, as a lifestyle. In Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga, we learn that yoga is a guide to living, it helps us to find harmony and health, and live a meaningful and peaceful life.
These examples are just some of the teachings of yoga philosophy which help us to withstand hardship, adapt to change, and fundamentally nourish mind, body and soul.
In the philosophy of Aparigraha ('non-greed' or 'non-hoarding' ), we learn to become aware and in control of the way external influencers effect us, the media we consume, the company we keep, the food we eat. In choosing pure options which nourish our bodies we inevitably nourish our minds.
Consider the practice of Svadhyaya as getting to know your true inner self. Without judgment, guilt or emotion, we examine our past actions, think on how they affected our emotional, mental and physical state. When we can reflect on ourselves, our actions and reactions become a mirror to see our subconscious motives, thoughts, and desires clearly.
Isvarapranidaha, meaning adaptability, is the teaching of freeing ourselves to a presence of inner stillness. The idea is that in doing so, it will lead us to live an authentic life, free of expectations and judgment, aka self-love!
These philosophy principles teach us a kind of self-awareness that nurtures compassion and understanding. This can help us to predict negative emotions and reactions, in turn helping us to better manage the triggers of our anxiety, stress or depression.
Yoga has always been a holistic practice, a dedication to find union within our body, mind, and soul, as well as in our greater environment, community and world. While the traditional spirituality may not be for everyone, the principles and teachings are invaluable. Modern yoga allows us to take in the teachings on a level that resonates with us, whilst still having and understanding and fundamental respect for the origins of our practice.