Depending on the source, you have probably heard some variation of the following:
“Calm your mind!”
“Overall health benefits!”
While these buzzwords may sound great to someone looking to pick-up a new hobby or add it to an exercise routine, you may be wondering how exactly it ties in with mental health. Specifically in individuals that have experienced post-traumatic and/or anxious symptoms, yoga is indicated.
A focus on deep breathing and gentle stretching through the practice of yoga helps you recalibrate your stress response and general feeling of wellness. Yoga is one of the oldest types of exercise, and while there are many different styles of yoga ranging from easy to demanding, most yoga practices include stretching, breathing, meditation and mindfulness. As stress response improves, post-traumatic stress and anxiety improve. Over time, the Central Nervous System balances more with the present rather than unconsciously seeing life through flashbacks or a subconscious reliving of trauma and unprocessed stressors.
Yoga is a type of mind-body medicine that integrates a person's physical, mental, and spiritual components to enhance many areas of health, particularly stress-related disorders. According to research, stress is linked to the etiology of heart disease, cancer, and stroke, as well as other chronic disorders and diseases like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Because stress has been linked to a variety of diseases, it is critical to include an emphasis on stress management and the reduction of negative emotional states in order to lessen disease burden. Yoga is a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that causes a physiological sequence of events in the body that reduces the stress response.
What are the effects of yoga to the brain and body?
Yoga teaches people to relax, calm their breathing, and focus on the present moment, changing the sympathetic nervous system's flight-or-fight reaction to the parasympathetic nervous system's relaxation response - it slows breathing and heart rate, lowers blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, and promotes blood flow to the intestines and vital organs, making it tranquil and restorative.
One of the major aims of yoga is to acquire mental tranquility and develop emotions of well-being, relaxation, enhanced self-confidence, efficiency, increased concentration, decreased irritation, and a positive view on life. Yoga provides balanced energy, which is necessary for the immune system to operate properly. Yoga causes the hypothalamus' posterior or sympathetic region to be inhibited. This inhibition improves the body's sympathetic reactions to stressful stimuli and recovers the stress-related autonomic regulating reflex systems. Fear, aggression, and fury are inhibited by yogic practices, while rewarding pleasure regions in the middle forebrain and other places are stimulated, resulting in a feeling of happiness and pleasure.
Yoga practice relieves depression by increasing serotonin levels while decreasing monoamine oxidase (an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters and cortisol). A number of studies have shown that yoga therapies can help people with depression, stress, and anxiety. For the treatment of depressive disorders, a variety of therapeutic techniques are available, however, many patients resort to complementary treatments owing to drug side effects, lack of response, or just a preference for the complementary approach.
What are the benefits of yoga?
To understand the benefits, one must first take a step back and look at what is occurring in both the mind and body of an individual that has experienced significant stress. Essentially, when a scary or dangerous thing happens, our bodies go into survival mode, frequently referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This response sends the emotional part of our brain into overdrive – pumping our bodies with everything they need to tackle the danger. As a result of this, the thinking part of our brain may go “offline”, allowing our emotion/survival center to take control until we know we are back to safety and can mentally process the details of the event. While that may sound fine and dandy to someone in a very dangerous situation, it may be less than ideal for people whose stress response systems are constantly sending their bodies into overdrive in normal, everyday situations. For someone that is regularly in a state of anxiety or panic, one might compare their experience to having a finger constantly on the panic button in their brain, acting on even the “slightest” trigger, regardless of if it was warranted by the situation or not. If that thinking part of our brain is underactive, we don’t have the ability to immediately put our reaction into context; we can’t reassure ourselves in the moment that we are actually OK.
This is where yoga comes into play - one of the key aspects of a yoga practice is the idea of mind-body awareness. When an individual starts to become overwhelmed by the discomfort they’re feeling in their body on a regular basis, they may make the unconscious decision to separate the two – meaning that it is sometimes safer to try to not feel than to constantly be feeling something unpleasant - which leads to difficulty identifying and regulating extreme emotions. If we can’t identify the difficult feelings, how can we work through them?
Yoga practices encourage individuals to first become aware of emotions and bodily sensations and learn to tolerate them, giving them the space to be curious about what their body is telling them without passing judgment about whether the feelings are “good” or “bad”. Opening this door allows an opportunity to learn – to understand the body on a deeper level and become more in tune with how we physically hold stress, as well as giving us clues as to our mental and emotional state. The active use and focus on deep breathing also provides a tool to assist individuals in engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of that “fight or flight” response, which allows the body to move toward a state of relaxation.
Trauma-sensitive yoga groups and programs have further bridged the gap between yoga and the field of mental health and have provided a way to facilitate the reconnection of mind and body in trauma survivors (as well as developing this skill in the general population). In the face of trauma, individuals so often lose their sense of control and learn that their bodies are not a safe place as a result. Trauma-sensitive yoga programs not only seek to help individuals feel comfortable in their bodies, but do so by empowering the individual and providing choices to help them gain back their power. By providing options, facilitators can walk with individuals as they learn to identify physical discomfort and anxiety in the body and identify movements that seek to decrease or eliminate this distress.
Ultimately, yoga practices offer a wide range of benefits, inclusive of the buzzwords presented earlier. However, it is important to highlight that these benefits are not limited to physical health and general wellness. By combining active breathwork and movement, individuals are able to learn how to maintain control over their physical and emotional responses, as well as better understand their bodies and what is being communicated. If you stop and listen, you might be surprised with the messages you receive.
While modern medicine has the ability to treat physical ailments and alleviate psychological issues in many situations, it is suggested that a strictly medical approach is significantly less effective in curing the emotional, intellectual, and personality aspects of the human entity. Yoga is a timeless and holistic paradigm of health and healing for individuals, and while it may not completely eliminate physical ailments and/or unpleasant circumstances from the body, it is practice that will change everything from insomnia to appetite to creativity and concentration. There is an undeniable link between a person's entire physical and mental health and the inner serenity and well-being that yoga delivers to someone who makes it part of their routine. Yoga calms the mind, allowing us to live better and suffer less by behaving deliberately.
Pacific Solstice is Orange County’s only Community Mental Health Center (licensed by CDPH). Not only do we provide functional medicine to change mental health for the long term, but we include movement and meditation in the healing process to treat PTSD, GAD, Depression and many other disorders.
- Woodyard C. (2011). Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International journal of yoga, 4(2), 49–54. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.85485