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By In-house Team, Circle Health Group

Finding some peace: the power of yoga in improving your mental health

If you're struggling with your mental health right now, you might find a friend in yoga

If you're living with a mental health condition, you're not alone

One in six people, or approximately 45.8 million adults, report experiencing symptoms of common mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, in any given week in England. Although living with a mental health condition can often feel like trudging through the mud of everyday life, it doesn't always have to. There are several powerful steps you can take to begin to feel that little bit better, one day at a time.

This week (13-19 May 2024) is Mental Health Awareness Week, and so we're exploring the emotional benefits of yoga, which is a practice now cited by the NHS as beneficial in helping manage or control mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. If you are at the beginning of your yoga journey and need help in getting started, we're here to share some useful information about the practice.

What is yoga?

woman meditating in her living room showing self care

Yoga began thousands of years ago as an Eastern spiritual practice to help improve the function of the body and mind. The word yoga is a Sanskrit word (an ancient Indo-European language of India), that translates as union, reflecting harmony between your internal self and the world around you.

Yoga has evolved into a hugely popular form of modern exercise that helps thousands of people build physical strength and flexibility. While it is exceptionally good for your physical wellbeing, yoga is not just about twisting your body into a variety of unusual shapes to have a sculpted and toned physique. More and more communities and healthcare organisations now recognise yoga for what it really is - a way of embracing a more peaceful, meditative life.

If practiced regularly, yoga can help you to feel calm and experience some relief from feelings of anxiety and low mood. This is not to say that yoga helps everyone, or that it is the magic answer to all of life's problems. Yoga can't take what is happening in your life away, but it can sometimes help you to feel more emotionally balanced and calm in order to deal with these difficult events.

It is also important to note that yoga is not an alternative to traditional medication or treatment, so if you are suffering from poor mental health, it is always best to speak with your GP or a mental health specialist who can help diagnose and treat your condition.

If practiced regularly, yoga can help you to feel calm and experience some relief from feelings of anxiety and low mood.

Anyone can practice yoga - here's why

There are many types and styles of yoga that mimic different ancient yoga teachings and practitioners, making it accessible to everyone. Different styles offer different types of movement and levels of difficulty.

Bikram yoga

Bikram yoga involves a set sequence of 26 poses that you move through repeatedly until the end of your session. This style tests your balance and strength when holding a pose on each side of your body for a set amount of time, which is often one minute long.

Vinyasa yoga

Vinyasa yoga is another common type of yoga that can test your core strength. It is vastly different from Bikram, because it connects each pose together through a set sequence of movements known as sun salutations or flows. No two classes are ever the same - sometimes the flows can be fast paced and include several poses, while others can be slower and include less poses. A fast-paced flow is often called a power flow or a dynamic flow, while a slow-paced flow is often called an open flow.

Yin yoga

Yin yoga is specially known for its passive and restorative style - with longer-held poses that target the deepest tissues of your body. It's especially beneficial if you're looking for a recovery class that isn't too strenuous.

Booking a yoga class

When booking a yoga class at a studio or via a fitness app, you will have access to information about the style of class you are booking and whether it's suited to your physicality and your personal preference. There is a common misconception that practicing yoga requires you to be at optimum levels of fitness and flexibility, or that it is an exclusive physical practice for the elite experienced, but there is a popularised type and style for of yoga everyone - no matter what your physical capabilities are. You might want a more restorative class or a more dynamic one - this is up to you. All styles are considered a workout with many health benefits.

Take it one pose at a time

We understand that fitness is often the last thing on your mind when you're feeling emotionally burnt out - in fact, you often feel the opposite, which is sluggish and lethargic. If you feel this way, you can start with 20 minutes of yoga at home to get a feel for whether you enjoy it. If you do enjoy it, you can find a local class that suits your needs.

Why is yoga good for your mind?

It is relatively obvious why yoga is so good for your physical body. It's varied movement that often warms up your muscles, toning your body and strengthening your core. This goes beyond flexibility, with people often becoming more sculpted and generally physically fit through practice. But why is yoga so good for the mind? There is a whole other side to yoga that is centered around breath work and meditation, which is known to have a positive impact on your mental wellbeing.

The power of breath work

Breath work during practice, which is also known as Pranayama (the Sanskrit word for life force), is an important part of your sequence. The act of bringing attention to your breath and inhaling and exhaling deeply as you move between poses, or during held poses, is believed to balance the flow of energy within your body and create mind body equilibrium. Most yoga instructors will be trained in performing a specialist breathing technique that matches the style of their class. They will teach this technique during class, so you'll know whether you're breathing properly and how to adjust your breath if needed.

When you're anxious, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises, and you take fast, short inhales of breath. Taking time to intentionally focus on your breath, and spending a prolonged period lengthening your inhalation and exhalation as you move, can calm your nervous system and reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. Studies by The National Library of Medicine have explored the positive impact of yoga breathing on mental health.

"There is clear clinical evidence for the use of yoga breathing in the treatment of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and for victims of mass disasters. By inducing stress resilience, breath work enables us to rapidly and compassionately relieve many forms of suffering." The National Library of Medicine

Channelling your meditative mind

Although yoga and meditation are separate from one another, yoga is often described as a moving meditation. One of the main pillars of meditation is that it helps connect you to the present moment by training in awareness. It asks you to take some time to observe your thoughts or feelings without judgement and attempt to disconnect from external distractions in doing so. Mindfulness is a key component of meditation, involving resting in the here and now and being fully engaged and content with just being.

People usually meditate for up to half an hour by sitting in a comfortable position, closing their eyes, and breathing deeply. Although breath work is another important part of finding balance and calm during meditation, it is a separate practice. During yoga, you can meditate as you move, by focusing on your breath and trying to remain focused in the present moment as you go through your practice, bringing your body and mind to a state of connection and harmony. There are many studies that show meditation could be beneficial to lowering your blood pressure and stress levels in the same way as breath work.

The NHS recognises meditation as a way of experiencing a sense of calm and emotional balance, offering a guide on how to meditate within an article about mental wellbeing tips.

There is a whole other side to yoga that is centered around breath work and meditation, which is known to have a positive impact on your mental wellbeing.

Any exercise can help your mind

Yoga is a form of exercise like any other, and what we do know for definite is that exercise helps the mind. It helps balance the levels of chemicals in your brain such as serotonin, stress hormones and endorphins, which leads to improved mood and a generally more positive mindset.

"Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal." The National Library of Medicine

Exercise doesn't have to be high-impact or strenuous to help your brain produce more serotonin and endorphins. It can be a low-impact restorative class of stretches and breath work, such as a yin yoga class.

Get help for your mental health with Circle Health Group

While yoga can be a trusted friend to help you feel that little bit better during a rough patch, it's not a replacement for traditional medication.

We have a huge network of mental health specialists who can help diagnose your mental health condition and build a treatment plan to help you get better. Book an appointment with a specialist today.

Clinical reviews and sources

Content reviewed by Circle in-house team in November 2022. Next review due November 2025.

Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity The National Library of Medicine

Exercise for mental health The National Library of Medicine

Meditation for beginners The NHS

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If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on this subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Circle Hospital.