How Yoga and Meditation Influence Mental Health

Over the last few decades, we have seen an increase in popularity of yoga. More and more people are attending yoga classes in gyms, local studios, and community centers. They are experiencing the myriad of benefits that yoga provides. Yoga students are gaining more flexibility and strength as well as a greater sense of self, calm, and peace of mind. How does yoga offer so many things in what seems like a relatively simple concept?

Yoga has evolved into something that is intentionally simple on the exterior. One enters the practice often wanting to change a physical aspect. Perhaps someone wants to regain flexibility in their hips and hamstrings. Another wants to gain upper body strength. Some new students just want to feel a bit more relaxed. These are all wonderful entryways into this ancient philosophy, but as one continues to practice, they will begin to understand and experience the greater depths of the practice and reap its benefits.

One of the benefits, as mentioned, is a feeling of calm and peace of mind. But if yoga is such a physical practice, how can one gain a sense of inner peace? One aspect of yoga is certainly the physical, but there is much more to it that goes beyond the physical. With a consistent practice, one experiences less stress, an easy-going nature, a decrease in anxiety and depression, and an increase in joy, gratitude, and appreciation. The leading part of these outcomes is breath.

Breath is considered the foundation of yoga; whatever style of yoga you practice, breath is the main feature. In a physically moving yoga class, like Hot Yoga or Anusara Yoga, breath allows for greater blood and oxygen flow for better performance. Breath helps to keep the body warm and limber while moving from pose to pose. But breath also is attributed to regulating your central nervous system thereby positively effecting your mood and mental health.

In yoga, the practice of breathing is called Pranayama. It is an intentional practice that teaches you various ways to breathe with greater awareness. Each breath exercise has a specific function: to give you more energy, to clear your mind, to warm a cool body, to help you relax, and many more functions. Deep cleansing breaths in Pranayama can be associated with regulating your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the function of the body that regulates your stress response. When this system is triggered or hyperactive, your heart rate and pulse rise, cortisol is released; these are in accordance with your body ready to take flight or fight in a stressful situation. We have learned, though, that stress can lead to several types of heart disease and other illnesses. Anxiety and depressive orders can also be a result from heightened stress.

Yoga, particularly Mindfulness Meditation, can be well suited to decrease this stress response in your brain. In a meditative practice, you intentionally focus on one object or activity. This may be focusing on a candle flame in a room or paying attention to ones own breath cycle. The deliberate focus is the crux of the meditative practice. It allows the practitioner to tune out the distractions of the outside world and ongoing internal processes so that the mind can experience clarity. The Buddhist who meditates, for example, is clearing and cleansing the mind to have a greater and deeper connection to the Divine.

This same practice, though, also has links to reducing the symptoms of emotional conditions like depression or anxiety. These are moods that are regulated by important neutral functions of the cerebral cortex. Some studies suggest that meditation is associated with changes in the brain. One such change is the relative thickness in the cortical region of the brain.

The cerebral cortex of the brain is related to awareness, thoughts, attention, memory, language, and other important central nervous system functions.

MRI scans of individuals who meditate regularly show heightened connections between brain cells, particularly in the cerebral cortex. As these areas of the brain grow due to these reinforced connections, functions like decision making, remembering, and mind control all improved. Seeing these scientific results can be very encouraging for someone who may be experiencing mental health concerns, like anxiety or depression. Since mood is regulated by the cerebral cortex, adding a meditation regimen to the course of treatment may stimulate cell growth thereby resulting in improved brain functioning.

A regular and consistent practice of mindfulness meditation is key to influencing these potential changes. When you take the time to be in stillness, practice mindful Pranayama, you grow into the habit of calming your mind and body. The results will be quite beneficial to you: a better mood and overall positive sense of self.

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Natalia Korsakova

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