Yoga For Mental Health: 6 Unexpected Ways Yoga = Happiness

The nitty-gritty of the chemical and psychological processes that happen during yoga.

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When discussing yoga’s many benefits, the focus is often on the physical body. However, yoga can be a fantastic asset to your mental health.

Whether you are using yoga for maintenance, or as a tool to cope with a mental health crisis, it can be a life-changing experience.

I am no stranger to mental health troubles myself, and I can personally attest to the different ways yoga has helped me. Don’t worry, my personal experiences are backed by science too.

A yoga class doing a lunging twist.

6 Benefits Of Yoga For Mental Health

The question we are here to explore today is, how does it work?

I could easily list a number of ways yoga can have a positive impact on your mind. Instead, we will get into the nitty-gritty of the chemical and psychological processes that happen during yoga.

1. Stress Relief

Stress is a physiological and psychological response to challenging or threatening situations that demand adaptation. It can manifest in various forms, such as pressure at work, financial concerns, relationship challenges, or major life changes. 

The physiological response to stress involves the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which, when elevated over an extended period, can negatively impact brain function and structure. 

It is a natural part of life, and while short-term stress is normal, bouts of chronic or intense stress can have detrimental effects on mental well being. Prolonged exposure to stress factors can result in or worsen an existing mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, as well as worsening physical health.

If your goal is to use yoga to relieve stress, you are in luck! Studies suggest that regular yoga practice helps to lower stress by regulating cortisol levels in the body, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and calming the nervous system. Although sample sizes are relatively small1 Azami, M., Shohani, M., Badfar, G., Nasirkandy, M., Kaikhavani, S., Rahmati, S., Modmeli, Y., & Soleymani, A. (2018). The effect of yoga on stress, anxiety, and depression in women. International Journal of Preventive Medicine9(1), 21., there is a definite correlation between yoga and the improvement of stress-related conditions2 Katuri, K. K., Dasari, A. B., Kurapati, S., Vinnakota, N. R., Bollepalli, A. C., & Dhulipalla, R. (2016). Association of yoga practice and serum cortisol levels in chronic periodontitis patients with stress-related anxiety and depression. Journal of International Society of Preventive & Community Dentistry6(1), 7–14.

Lower cortisol levels have also been shown to have an antidepressant effect3 Thirthalli, J., Naveen, G., Rao, M., Varambally, S., Christopher, R., & Gangadhar, B. (2013). Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian Journal of Psychiatry55(7), 405., with or without medication.

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2. Improved Sleep

As mentioned above, cortisol plays a crucial role in managing stress by mobilizing energy and resources. However, it is responsible for various physiological functions, including metabolism regulation, immune system response, and sleep. 

Cortisol levels follow a natural daily rhythm known as the circadian rhythm. Typically, cortisol levels are highest in the early morning, shortly after waking, to help promote alertness and readiness for the day. Throughout the day, cortisol levels gradually decline, reaching their lowest point in the evening and during the early stages of sleep.

In high or chronic stress situations, the body may continue to produce higher levels of cortisol throughout the day. In turn, elevated cortisol levels can interfere with your ability to fall asleep or maintain a regular sleeping pattern.

Irregular sleep patterns, such as inadequate or disrupted sleep, can result in an imbalance4 Hirotsu, C., Tufik, S., & Andersen, M. L. (2015). Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Science8(3), 143–152., potentially leading to a vicious cycle where poor sleep contributes to elevated cortisol, and elevated cortisol disrupts sleep further.

Why am I telling you all of this? Sleep plays a major part in mental health management. Since yoga has been proven as a great way to regulate cortisol levels, it can also serve as a way to aid your sleep5 Suni, E. (2022, May 6). How Yoga Can Improve Your Sleep Quality. Sleep Foundation.

A systematic review of several studies6 De Nys, L., Anderson, K., Ofosu, E. F., Ryde, G. C., Connelly, J., & Whittaker, A. C. (2022). The effects of physical activity on cortisol and sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychoneuroendocrinology143, 105843. identified a positive trend between yoga (or general mild exercise) and various sleep factors, such as the ability to fall asleep, periods of uninterrupted sleep, nightly sleep duration, restfulness, and self-reported overall sleep quality.

A woman sleeping in a white bed with an alarm clock.

3. Emotional Regulation and Self-Esteem

Mental health and self-esteem go hand-in-hand. Just as feelings of low self-worth can lead to mental health issues, low self-esteem can also be a result of conditions such as body dysmorphia, eating disorders, depression, or anxiety.

When you step onto the yoga mat, it gives you the perfect opportunity to be honest with yourself and connect with your emotions. This type of mindfulness is a game-changer for emotional regulation, allowing you to navigate feelings instead of simply reacting to them.  

Although the studies I found focused on adolescent subjects (age 13-187 Janjhua, Y., Chaudhary, R., Sharma, N., & Kumar, K. (2020). A study on effect of yoga on emotional regulation, self-esteem, and feelings of adolescents. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care9(7), 3381., both indicated an improvement in levels of self-esteem, emotional regulation, and feelings of the participants.

Yoga gives practitioners many opportunities to recognize their physical and mental prowess, build a sense of accomplishment, and subsequently, boost their self-esteem. Plus, the positive affirmations and intention-setting aspects of yoga contribute to a more positive mindset, shaping the way you see yourself on and off the mat.

I have witnessed this transformation countless times among my adult students, as well as experiencing this boost in confidence first hand.

A woman in cross legged meditation with her hands in prayer.

4. Community Support

We are social creatures by nature. Unfortunately, mental illness can be very isolating. Sometimes, no matter how much you want to engage with the rest of the world, it can be daunting.

Yoga provides an excellent avenue for socialization. Sharing the practice with others creates a sense of belonging8 How Does Social Connectedness Affect Health? (2023, March 30). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. and reminds you that you are not alone in your fight against the struggles of life.

In the yoga environment, you get to connect with people from all walks of life and develop life-long friendships with fellow students as well as your teachers. I have met some of my closest friends through the practice, and I still keep in touch with many former students, even though we don’t physically practice in the same space anymore.

If you prefer to do yoga in the comfort of your home, there are ways to connect with other practitioners through online communities. Social connection with your peers9 Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2011). Social Relationships and Health: a Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior51(1), 54–66. can be incredibly nourishing for your mental health.

A group of yogis standing and chatting together.

5. Endorphins

Endorphins are chemicals in the brain that transmit signals between nerve cells. Endorphins act as natural painkillers and mood elevators10 Harvard health publishing. (2021, May 18). Yoga for better mental health. Harvard Health., and they are produced in response to various stimuli, including physical activity.

Exercise is known as an effective way to stimulate the release of endorphins. During physical activity, including yoga, the body experiences moderate stress, producing endorphins as a natural response to help manage and alleviate that stress.

These neurotransmitters bind to the brain’s opiate receptors, reducing the perception of pain and creating a sense of well-being.

The release of endorphins through exercise can contribute to improved mood and reduced feelings of stress or anxiety. Additionally, endorphins have analgesic (pain-relieving) effects. If your mental health suffers due to chronic pain conditions, yoga may help alleviate discomfort.

It’s important to note that individual responses to exercise can vary, but as a general trend, yoga may improve your mental health through the production of endorphins.

6. Me Time

Yoga can be a powerful tool for improving mental health by creating a safe space for self-expression and self-compassion

Furthermore, setting some time aside for yoga practice offers dedicated “me time”, particularly when you travel to a studio or gym. During this time, you get to embrace the practice without getting distracted by chores, family obligations, or work.

Even for individuals without mental health issues, dedicating time to a personal practice becomes an act of self-care. It allows us to recharge, focus on our needs, and foster a positive relationship with ourselves.

A man meditating in front of an orange sunrise.

In A Hole? Here’s How to Get Started

Find Your Comfort Level

There is more than one way to practice yoga. To experience the mental health benefits, it will take some time to discover what works best for you.

Whether it’s fast and vigorous Vinyasa or Hatha yoga or a beginners slow, mindful Yin practice, a group class or a quiet personal practice, there is no wrong answer. 

Find The Right Teacher 

If you have negative feelings in relation to your yoga teacher, the chances of you benefitting from the yoga classes are much slimmer. This could be a major component, such as their personality or teaching style, types of yoga taught, or something minor, like their voice or their choice of music.

Your teacher should make you feel at ease, as well as be able to guide you through the challenges of asana (postures) practice, yogic breathing (pranayama), and meditation.

Don’t be afraid to shop around! Look out for a yoga teacher who is:

  • Knowledgeable
  • Compassionate
  • Approachable
  • Focused on the students
  • Considerate of your mental health struggles

Give It Time

The greatest thing about yoga is that it’s a long-term practice. We all had to start somewhere.

It’s not about being perfect. It’s about showing up and honoring your progress. Try to find enjoyment, and the rest will follow.

A man meditating in front of a cloudy pink sunrise.

Risks and Contraindications

  • Please remember that yoga is best used for wellness or mental health maintenance or as a complementary treatment. It is not an appropriate substitute for medical treatment if you are suffering from a mental health condition or experiencing a crisis. Be sure to contact your healthcare professional if this sounds like you.
  • Just because yoga works for some people, does not mean it works for everyone. If the practice becomes a source of stress, perhaps it is not a constructive way for you to deal with mental health.
  • Be careful not to slip into coping mechanism territory. Incorporating yoga into your routine can be a great tool for stress management. Relying on yoga to get you through the day isn’t healthy. If you notice that you’re spending excessive time practicing, becoming irritable on days when you didn’t do yoga, or changing your personality, it may be time to reassess.
  • Mental health struggles can make you vulnerable to manipulation. Unfortunately, some people see yoga as an opportunity to take advantage for their personal gain (financial or otherwise). Steer clear of people who make promises that yoga is a cure-all fix-all.

Can Online Yoga Help With Mental Health?

The short answer is yes! Whether you follow a video tutorial, a live online class, or a yoga poses sequence from an app, you still benefit11 Woodyard, C. (2011). Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International Journal of Yoga4(2), 49–54. from mindful movement, breathing techniques, and introspection.

Additionally, for some practitioners, it removes such stress factors as social environment, commute, cost, etc.

The golden rule of practicing without supervision is to err on the side of caution. Even if you already have a steady yogic foundation, it is important to watch out for signs of discomfort and modify your practice accordingly.

In Conclusion

My goal with this article was to show you the various effects of yoga and “mechanisms” involved in utilizing yoga for mental health. If you find yourself struggling, I strongly encourage you to give it a go and let us know how yoga affected your life.

You can start with this 30-minute class with Jessica Richburg for all levels of ability!

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An avid yoga practitioner, Cat completed her training as a Hatha yoga teacher in 2016. She firmly believes that with the right guidance, yoga can benefit everyone, regardless of age, gender, size, or ability. With a background in journalism, Cat realized she could share her yoga experience with others, kickstarting her freelance writing career.

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