If you’re suffering from depression and have never really tried yoga, then I’d really suggest you give it a proper go.
Why? Well, research shows that a yoga practice is beneficial for symptoms of anxiety and depression. But you don’t really need to rely on research as you’ll likely feel the benefits yourself pretty early on. Plus, yoga is a very ancient practice and I would say it’s now past the “latest-craze-stage” in the Western World too. If millions of people worldwide are reaping the health benefits of a certain activity, then chances are you might find it rather useful as well.
why yoga is so beneficial for depression
Yoga is about more than just stretching. It’s both a physical and spiritual practice where the body, mind and spirit are seen as one. It’s a whole philosophy for living a meaningful and purpose-led life. A life that’s not ruled by your chaotic mind.
And really, I’d say the biggest benefit of yoga for when you’re feeling depressed and anxious is exactly that: calming your mind. Your mind can be so hard to “control” when it keeps giving you all these negative thoughts about the past or worries about the future.
My clients often tell me that they really struggle to switch off. That their racing thoughts just won’t stop, and of course those thoughts will create certain feelings too. It’s just so hard to get out of that never-ending negative loop. All you want to do is to be able to relax and yet you can’t.
So why is it that yoga can help you to calm your mind?
Well, yoga consists of three main parts: physical poses, breathing techniques and meditation.
Shift from your thoughts into your body
The physical exercise part of yoga in itself where you’re stretching your body is already super beneficial for you. Any form of movement is a crucial part in recovering from low mood.
The breathing exercises will help you to lower the stress hormone cortisol.
Mindfulness and stillness play another big part in yoga and in fact, yoga was traditionally used to prepare you for meditation afterwards.
But it’s the combination of those three elements that makes yoga really stand out as a tool to fight depression.
With yoga you “drop into your body” and you’re really shifting your attention away from your thoughts and into your physical reality that is your body. I always tell my clients to shift their awareness into their body and into their senses, particularly when they’re experiencing intense feelings of anxiety. Focusing on your body activates different parts of your brain than those that have initially caused those high levels of stress. It grounds you and really helps to calm your mind.
Positive psychology, the research-based science of how humans can thrive in life, talks a lot about the state of flow. The state of being “in the zone”, fully immersed in what you’re doing with a level of focus that allows you to forget about anything else in that moment. It’s a wonderful feeling and these flow states are often called the secrets to happiness. There are entire books written on this subject and it’s worth checking out.
And with regards to yoga, well there are just so many similarities to flow.
In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Csikszentmihalyi (fantastic name!) writes:
“The similarities between yoga and flow are extremely strong. It makes sense to think of yoga as a thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration which is made possible by the discipline of the body.”
A self-forgetful involvement through concentration made possible by the discipline of the body. I love this and it’s so true!
In fact, in my last yoga class I was able to achieve this deep sense of stillness that reminded of my meditation retreats a few years ago. After all the physical poses and breathing techniques, I was laying on my mat and felt this complete sense of calm and stillness. My mind felt blank and it was a wonderful feeling. Even when a thought did arise, it just washed over me like a cloud in a windy sky. I found this place of deep calm and all I did was to stretch my body in a sequence of flow, to focus on my breathing, to let things be just the way they are. These states and feelings are still inside you, even if you are currently struggling with your mental health.
Now I’m not saying that I or you will feel this way each time we practice yoga. Having such high expectations would likely just set us up for disappointment. Sometimes this peace and calm will come, other times perhaps less so. But when you sign up to your local class or decide to practice at home using videos for a few weeks, you will likely reap some benefits before too long.
Yoga is self-care
If you’ve never done yoga, know that you’ll be one of many, many beginners either in your class, or at home on your own using all those yoga-for-beginners videos. Apart from a mat you don’t really need much to begin with it. Yoga is a practice you do entirely for yourself, so try not to let issues around your body image, your strength, flexibility or stamina prevent you from trying. And certainly don’t compare yourself to yogis out there who have been doing it for years! Be gentle with yourself, go easy and know when to stop if certain poses feel to uncomfortable. Remind yourself that you’re doing this to find a sense of calm and ease within yourself.