The benefits of yoga on mental health

The fundamental element of yoga

When you practive yoga, you become quickly familiar to the word asana. Asana is the generic term which refers to the postures of yoga. It actually means sit or to sit down. We usually associate asanas as the main element in the practice of yoga. In fact, the asanas are only the physical and mental preparation needed in order to stay comfortable in a sitting position.

The most important element of the yoga practice are not the asanas but the mediation which follows them. The body is the tool which is used to access the mind. First you learn to switch perspective on a very physical level and then you implement it to your mind and your thoughts.

Yoga teaches you to look inwards and accept who you truly are. Of course this is a long process and yoga will not turn your life upside down in one day, but the more you practice and the more you get to tune in with yourself. Switch the thoughts off and all that remains is yourself without judgment. You get to truly accept it and come to terms with it.

Cognitive distortions

Wether it is depression, addictions, anxiety, eating disorders or anger issues, when someone suffers from a psychological disorder, behaviours are the result of dysfunctional thought patterns mixed with positive or negative emotions, a.k.a cognitive distortions. For example, depressed people will tend to have negative iterative thoughts, which then affect their behavior. They tend to see the glass half empty, rather than half full and focus on the clouds, rather than the blue sky behind it. Addicts will associate a self-destructive behaviour to a sense of happiness. They induldge in this behaviour, feel a short-lived pleasure, which will be followed by guilt. They might want to change, but they feel powerless against the voice inside of them reminding them of the positive emotion they feel when they fall back into their bad habit.

Mind and body are one. When cognitive distortions are the epicentre the behaviour, the body as well is affected. An angry person will be short of breath, his heart beat will increase, his muscles will be tensed… A depressed person secrets less hormones of happiness, experiences a loss of apetite, suffers from constant fatigue… Anxiety affects the stomach and digestive organs, hence the sickness feeling and loss of apetite when some-one is anxious. This can on the long term cause ulcers or strong damages to the digestive system. These are just a few examples amongst many.

The mind body connection in yoga

Yogis a few thousands of year ago were already aware of the mind and body connection. In yoga they are considered as one entity. One of the meanings of yoga is union. Union of the body and the mind. The practice aims to integrate these two elements together. The postures appear to be only affecting the physical level, but they indeed affect the chemicals of the brain and eventually induce a general sense of well-being. But this alone is not the only reason why yoga can be so impactful when it comes to dealing with psychological pathologies. The key element is meditation.

When one meditates, one learns to distance themselves from their thoughts. A common misconception about meditation is that you are trying to have no thoughts at all, but indeed you are only acknowledging them for what they are : thoughts. Thoughts come and go. If you purposly decide not to give them importance, they eventually disappear. Realizing this is extremly important in regard to psychological disorders. The thought pattern being at the origin of the behaviour, getting rid of the thought is getting rid of the behaviour.

By tuning in with your breath or any other focal point, your attention is focused. When your attention is fully engaged, the thoughts are active in the background. They are no longer the center point of everything and you suddenly realize how insignificant they can be. Our thoughts do not necessarly need to condition our behaviours. We might all have dreamt of murdering someone at one point in our life, are we therefore all murderers?

What does science tell us?

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), developed by Aaron T. Beck in the 60s, has definitely been trending over the past decade in the field of psychotherapy. It is a technique based on meditation. The key elements are paying attention to what is going on around you, being self-conscious, taking a non-judgmental approach and focusing on the present moment. Instead of focusing on the causes of the disorder, like psychoanalysis do, it focuses on finding a practical technique to avoid the symptoms, just like psychiatry does, but avoiding the downside of chemical treatments.

Several meta-analysises have proven the efficiency of this method of therapy on a whole range of psychological disorders, such as depression, phobias, eating desorders, addictions… Which is why this technique is being used more and more frequently to treat these pathologies.

Disclaimer

That being said, it is very important to remind that yoga is not a subsitute for therapy. It might be a useful tool to help you in your journey to recovery, but it will never replace the help from a specialist. If you are affected by psychological disorders, you are definitely not alone. Try to seek the help of a doctor at first and keep in mind that yoga might be a strong ally in you fight against your demons. If you are interested in learning more about yoga, a good place to start is always here.

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