Yoga For Mental Health
By Anne Gale
If you’re planning on doing some yoga teacher training in Nicaragua, it’s worth getting to know a bit about the clients you’re likely to work with. Once you’re a fully trained Ashtanga yoga instructor, and offering yoga sessions of your own, it’s more than likely that many of those attending your sessions will be suffering from stress, depression, and other mental health issues. Yoga is well renowned worldwide for its mental healing properties, and plenty of people are sorely in need of its curative effects. Whether they simply wish to relax and rid themselves of stress, or are looking for a deeper ‘cure’, yoga is seen by many as a chance to improve mental health and general wellbeing. For very good reason!
Yoga For Stress Management
Plenty of people turn to yoga because they’re suffering from stress. Stress is a dangerous phenomenon, associated not only with discomfort in the moment, but with a number of dangerous mental health conditions, including major depression, and substance abuse disorders. Yoga is known to help with the reduction of stress, and thus to help people struggling with stress-related (or exacerbated) conditions. It does this through a variety of mechanisms, one of which involves the parasympathetic nervous system.
Yogic Breathing Controls The Parasympathetic Nervous System
One of the first things you’ll learn when you commence your Ashtanga yoga training is how to correctly control your breathing. This is not simply an exercise in self control – or even a means of improving your yogic postures (although it is both these things as well!). Yogic breathing is a vital step towards activating your parasympathetic nervous system. What is that? Well, your parasympathetic nervous system is otherwise known as the ‘rest and digest’ system. It’s the system you’re supposed to run on 90% of the time. Its alternative – the ‘fight or flight’ system – is only supposed to be activated for short bursts of time (as long as it takes to escape or fight off a danger).
Unfortunately, we can’t really flee or fight things like work stress, so many modern people end up in ‘fight or flight’ for prolonged periods of time. Which is very, very bad for us – both mentally and physically!
However, just as you can bring on a physical ‘fight or flight’ reaction (racing heart-rate, muscle tension etc) by thinking about stressors, so you can bring on mental relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Yoga, you see, effectively mimics the physical ‘symptoms’ of calm and relaxation. When you breathe in a deep, calm manner, and move with the kind of slow, controlled smooth manner demanded by yoga, you convince your body that everything is calm. Which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system. As your yoga session progresses, you switch from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest and digest’.
A Regular Yoga Practice Is Your Best Stress Management Tool
Once in ‘rest and digest’, you not only feel calmer, but you give your brain some essential ‘downtime’ in which to get on with the deeper business of processing emotions and experiences. When you’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode, your brain is far too preoccupied with whatever is stressing you out to properly deal with these things, meaning that they hang around, unresolved, in your psyche – often making the stress far worse than it would otherwise have been. When it’s more relaxed, however, your brain can get to work sorting through and clearing out this psychic clutter. Which improves your psychological hygiene no end!
Yoga cannot get rid of the things which are stressing you out. But it can cancel the stress reaction, giving you a better chance of overcoming whatever the problem is. The ability to calm down, and good mental health are excellent qualities for anyone who has a problem to solve. Once you’ve finished your yoga teacher training here in Nicaragua, you can pass these skills on to your own students, thus doing your bit to reduce the world’s increasing burden of stress!