May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, a time dedicated to raising awareness of and education on mental health conditions, including but not limited to depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), personality disorders, ADHD, substance abuse disorders, and more. Though it is a generalized statement to say mental health conditions have directly impacted everyone, it is not far from the data-driven truth.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five adults experience mental illness, and many more of us know, love, or support someone living with a mental health condition. In addition to the several diagnosable conditions experienced across the globe, broad mental and emotional stressors are extremely common, too. We’re all susceptible to burnout, emotional exhaustion, and mental fatigue, and everyone deserves help and support.
Yoga is one powerful tool that can aid in whole-person health, including mental and emotional wellness. There are also many things that make yoga accessible, including that it can be practiced virtually anywhere for any length of time. While the media may inaccurately be pushing the narrative that yoga is strictly a series of complicated physical poses (asana) and suggests that it requires time, physical strength, or other—simply 2-5 minutes of breathing, meditation, or mindfulness can give you the benefits of this multi-faceted practice. Really, yoga can look like and be many, many things. And, more and more studies are showing how effective yoga is for mental health, especially when paired with mainstream medicinal options and other holistic practices.
Here are the big ways yoga supports mental health:
Yoga boosts mood: As we move through a yoga practice, the mindful movement paired with controlled breathing releases many natural “happy” chemicals and hormones, including serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin.
Here is a look at how activating these hormones helps us feel better:
• Dopamine: Promotes feelings of reward, pleasure, and achievement
• Endorphins: Combat feelings of sadness and overwhelm
• Oxytocin: Activates feelings of love, affection, and connection
Altogether, these happy hormones can help grow self-esteem, ease tension, and—of course—promote happiness! There are also several studies that point to yoga’s ability to reduce stress, curb anxiety, and battle depression—positive outcomes to the individual components of yoga or its combination of asana (physical poses associated with yoga), pranayama (mindful breathing), and meditation.
Yoga curates mindfulness: Yogic philosophy emphasizes an importance on expanding our awareness and focusing on the present. For many, our minds, bodies, and lives move fast. Societal norms, financial pressures, work, school, health, family, and so much more can leave us feeling stuck in a race and always behind. By practicing mindfulness, we can slow our thoughts and, overtime, curate a greater sense of peace and steadiness. The mindfulness in yoga helps bring our bodies and minds back to the present moment and quiets anxiety, which allows us to show up in our lives with more intention, clarity, and sense of control.
Yoga supports brain function: Scientific research has uncovered so much about how yoga affects the brain, including its benefits on neuroplasticity (our ability to change thinking patterns and build new behaviors), improve memory, and support our ability to problem-solve. It has also been proven to be an effective tool for those living with and in recovery from traumatic brain injury, as it touches the many-connected systems within the body. This includes improving blood and oxygen circulation, soothing the parasympathetic nervous system (our flight our flight response), and promoting better rest and sleep.
Yoga builds community: A sense of connection and community is vital for humans to feel purpose and belonging. For these reasons, feeling disconnected, isolated, or lonely can heavily contribute to poor mental health. Unfortunately, a recent Harvard study suggests that 36% of Americans feel “serious loneliness,” a large portion of which are young people and mothers with young children. So, how does yoga make an impact? As a global and ancient practice, literally, millions of people participate in yoga every day worldwide. This includes taking in-person classes with groups or sharing the practice with others on virtual platforms. Though yoga can be deeply personal for each practitioner, it is also grounded in a sense of unity. And, in fact, the word itself means “to yoke” or “to join” and “to come together.” It is also a practice for all, meaning truly everyone can benefit from yoga; and it can be shared multi-culturally, multi-generationally, and across all lived experiences.
If you’re looking for an easy place to get started, explore the Yoga Alliance Yoga for Beginners series on YouTube.
Beyond yoga, there are several mental health resources and associations available to the public, including:
If you are a Yoga Alliance member, you also have access to the Member Assistance Program where you can tap into personalized and expert mental health support.
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health support, visit the World Health Organization (WHO) for mental well-being public resources. Those living in the U.S. can also contact NAMI by calling 1-888-950-6264 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.