After teaching last week, a new student came up to me two days after class and said, “That yoga class… I felt muscles that I didn’t even know that I had turn on; my body was literally humming the next day. It was as if I had this calm, positive, internal energy uplifting me. It was amazing, and I can’t wait until our next class.” This is the ultimate response one can hope for as a teacher. And as a student? This opportunity to practice yoga and then walk away from our mats and keep the positive shifts we make during our practice? This is, in many ways, the heart of our practice.
When asked why we practice, both teachers and students alike tend to mention things like yoga being grounding, yoga is a tool to help them be ‘in their body,’ and yoga is the magic mood lifter. But have you ever paused to think about why this yoga practice, consisting of physical poses (asana), focused breath work (pranayama), and meditation, can have these profound effects on mood?
There is a growing body of research that lends credence to our own personal stories of yoga being a mood lifter. Researchers have recently shown preliminary evidence that yoga can ease depressive symptoms, particularly when life stressors are on the rise. Further, yoga and focused breath work can decrease depressive symptoms in individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder. In short, there is suggestive evidence that yoga, meditation, and pranayama can keep us, dare I say it, more content.
How does this happen? When we practice mind- body techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and focused intention tasks, we influence brain activity in regions that are involved in reducing psychological stress and increasing the parasym-pathetic response. These effects have downstream results of reducing heart rate, increasing immune function, and making digestion more efficient – all of which feed back to the brain to affect mood and behavior. Further, when we engage in the physical aspects of yoga or controlled breath work, both of which require us to use our musculoskeletal system and increase our cardiovascular output, we subsequently influence the body’s capability to fight illness, balance between the parasympathetic/ sympathetic nervous systems, and improve mood.
A yoga practice including mindfulness and focused intention in a non-competitive and non-judgmental atmosphere can change our cognitive response to stimuli. In other words, we have the capacity to retrain our brains and change what we choose to pay attention to. Yoga teaches us to be in the present moment and to accept ourselves and our experiences, just as they are. Meditation teaches us to become the internal observer of our thoughts and to learn to identify negative or irrational thoughts. Through these practices, we can, over time, adjust our frame of thinking.
The beautiful thing is that you need not be a well-seasoned yoga practitioner to reap the mood-enhancing benefits of yoga – although a consistent practice will indeed bring long-term benefits. Even those newer to the practice show positive mood responses to this practice. If you struggle with depressive symptoms, it’s worth some investigation of your local yoga studios to find an environment that suits you. Research suggests that knowledgeable and well-trained yoga teachers who promote positive ‘non-judgment zones,’ provide individualized attention, teach mindfulness and breathing, and provide guidance for translating studio class elements into a home practice are most effective for decreasing depressive symptoms. It’s worth the effort to seek out the right teacher.
The take-home message is simply to practice. Whether it’s every day or once a week, just practice. Whether it’s asana, pranayama, or meditation, just practice. And then, build to a consistent practice. The more you make time for yourself, the more consistent your practice. And the more you go inward and stay present through yoga, pranayama, and meditation, the more seasoned you become at recognizing the thoughts and patterns that don’t serve you or bring you joy. You’re worth it.
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Valerie Knopik is a Senior Research Scientist, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, and E-RYT in Providence, Rhode Island. Formally trained in classical ballet, as well as a former runner, Valerie has always been a believer in staying active but yoga is the perfect marriage of her work in mental health & her love of movement & anatomy.