The Benefits of Yoga and Relaxation (by India Ringuet Clinical Psychologist)
Yoga represents a body of practices with an ancient history originally derived from the Indus – Sarasvati civilisation in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. In Sanskrit, the word yoga derives from yug meaning to yoke, referring to the discipline of aligning the mind and body for spiritual goals. Yoga has been practiced historically for its health benefits, with an increased attention in popular culture aimed at using yoga to prevent illness and treat disease. Yoga encompasses a variety of practices including postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation, mantras, lifestyle changes (e.g. diet, sleep, hygiene), spiritual beliefs, and rituals. Different yoga styles utilise and emphasise different practices reflecting the varied practice of yoga worldwide.
I enjoy practising yoga in my personal life. There are various kinds of yoga, which range from beginner to advanced levels and can even be practised in a heated room or hanging from a ribbon in the air (antigravity yoga). I commenced practising yoga by engaging in the most traditional and widely used variety – hatha yoga. Initially, like starting out anything new I found it challenging to breathe in a certain way (Ujjayi breath) and hold seemingly unnatural poses for prolonged periods of time. But like any new skill, once continued, you see the benefits and it becomes a more automatic and natural process. I noticed positive changes in my daily functioning from continued yoga and relaxation practice. Of these changes, the most significant was my mood. I found that I could switch into ‘relaxation’ mode during stressful times.
I am not the only one who has enjoyed the benefits of practising yoga. Studies comparing the effects of yoga and exercise seem to indicate that in both healthy and diseased populations, yoga may be as effective or better than exercise at improving a variety of health-related outcome measures. Benefits of yoga after prolonged use (6 months, practising twice a week for an hour) include improved brain function, lower stress levels, increased flexibility, lower blood pressure, improved lung capacity, anxiety relief, steady blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, reduced chronic neck pain, stronger bones and lower risk of heart disease.
The primary benefit yoga had on me was increasing my mood and allowing me to relax even during the most stressful times. Since stress is often a big factor in depression and anxiety, part of yoga’s effectiveness comes from its proven ability to release tension and lower cortisol levels (people who are depressed tend to have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol). Studies have shown that simply improving your posture through practising yoga can improve your mood and lower depression levels. A growing body of evidence supports the belief that yoga benefits physical and mental health via down-regulation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). In layman’s terms; yoga makes you feel more positive.
Questions remain about exactly how yoga works to improve mood, but preliminary evidence suggests its benefit is like that of exercise, relaxation and mindfulness techniques. Yoga classes can also be very activating because they are vigorous, can occur early in the morning and are done in group settings with other like minded people. This may make persons who accomplish a difficult pose in their practice experience enhanced feelings of mastery and pleasure and be ready to tackle the day ahead.
So why not give it a go? Get your asanas moving, channel your inner chakra and pledge your bhakti to the practice of yoga, to help clear your mind, relax your soul and be at peace with yourself. Namaste!