Yoga for a Healthy Mind | Brain Benefits of Yoga

Jessica Lewis
October 14, 2016

Stress is a major problem in today’s society. Kids are pressured to obtain the highest grades and be on top of the class, teenagers struggle when in college, while many adults do jobs they pretty much despise. There is indeed an entire industry behind pharmaceuticals with incomes of billions of dollars annually. Who are their clients? Generally, stressed people who would do anything for a little peace of mind. But what if there is an easier and safer way to solve the problem? What if you could enjoy life to the fullest and not pay so much attention to even the most trivial of things without taking medication? We might have the answer to all your questions: yoga. With a millennial history, this physical and spiritual practice was offered to the Western world by Indians who regard it as the most useful activity for the spirit.

What is Yoga?

Yoga is a set of physical practices that have an area of action which includes the mind and soul as well. First developed by the Indian people, yoga reached the West, where Americans and Europeans fully embraced it and integrated into their daily routine. Its origins are still under debate, with some specialists stating that it’s traced back thousands of years and was first developed by the pre-Vedic population. Other researchers consider yoga to have appeared during the Vedic period, as many of the known yoga postures were first described in the Vedas.

Even for today’s Indians, be they Hindus, Buddhists or followers of Jainism, yoga is more than a way to promote body strength and flexibility, as the system is usually understood in the Western world. Rather, it represents the connection between body, mind and spirit, one that is hardly achieved through any other physical exercise, but which yogis promote wholeheartedly.

Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, was the one to promote yoga in the west in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While aware of the differences between Europeans and Southern Asians, he has maintained the practice’s spiritual core, subsequently gaining more and more followers from all over the world.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, specialists have started conducting an increasing number of studies on the benefits of integrating yoga postures in the daily rituals. Research shows that yoga improves physical condition and respiratory functioning, promotes relaxation for a better state of mind and a general feeling of well-being, and releases tension. Often times, yoga goes hand in hand with meditation, because many postures require time and concentration to be correctly performed, so the mind should remain present and aware of every single breath. In addition, there is information, albeit insufficient, that indicates toward yoga’s possible role in helping patients with cancer, heart problems or psychological issues to better cope with the disease and respond to the treatment.

Currently, both yoga practitioners and physical therapists try to introduce yoga in schools to familiarize children with it from young ages.

Yoga Schools

Four leading Indian religious traditions include yoga in their teachings, practitioners stating that its goal is to help them attain Samadhi which is the highest state of consciousness.

Hinduism has four different yoga styles that include:

  1. Classical yoga which is based on the system of eight limbs described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
  2. Ashtanga or Raja yoga that translates as “yoga of the kings” and which includes constant movements that easily flow one after the other; followers respect 2 ethical precepts, namely the yamas and niyamas, that are a set of rules through which one can lead a moral life.
  3. Hatha yoga is probably the system’s most practiced form among Westerners; practitioners of Hatha yoga focus more on building physical strength and improving flexibility; it is the most popular style for Europeans and Americans
  4. Shaivism’s practitioners are mainly the ascetic monks who wander throughout India, Tiber or Nepal; Saivists’ aim is to unite with the God inside them as they worship Shiva, one of the most important Hindu deities

In Buddhism, yoga is firmly connected with meditation. Buddhists, be they monks or regular people, often time practice compassion and mindfulness without which the yoga system would be less relevant for the human spirit. Numerous Buddhist texts offer people an insight into the right way of living, which is one characterized by tranquility, kindness and awareness. Mantras and mudras are performed during meditation to either enhance the following yoga practice or maintain peace of mind.

Jainism has about two million followers in India, which makes it a less popular religion, probably due to its strictness. Practitioners of Jainism regard the system as the unity of body, mind and speech, and consider bhakti yoga(the love for God) as the highest form of devotion. Their goal is to remain pure and release themselves from every kind of worldly attachment.

Tantra yoga is as controversial as it is interesting. Its first practitioners were either Buddhists or Hindus who reinterpreted the religious texts and attributed them more meaning. Tantra yoga followers focus on the importance of the five senses. Mandalas, chakras, mantras or deity worship are just a few of its individual elements. Recently, tantra has gained another reputation, especially among westerners, who regard it as more of a sexual practice and less like a religious one.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Yoga is a holistic system of mental and physical practices that dates back to the sixth century BCE. Most of what we currently know of yoga is based on the writings of Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutras. According to this ancient Indian text, yoga has eight main components, each with a particular role in helping the human being attain Self-realization. They are:

  1. The five Yamas (ethical rules):
  • Ahimsa (non-violence)
  • Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (chastity or marital fidelity)
  • Satya (truthfulness).
  1. The five Niyamas (virtuous behavior and observances):
  • Isvarapranidhana (contemplation of God)
  • Santosha (acceptance of life as it is)
  • Sauca (purity of mind and body)
  • Svadhyaya (study of self and the Vedas)
  • Tapas (perseverance)
  1. Asanas: the seated position used in meditation( physical yoga positions that can easily be maintained and provide the practitioner with a deep state of relaxation)
  1. Dharana: fixing the mind on particular elements which include mantras, one’s breath or a certain body area(usually the navel or tip of the tongue), an external object or an idea
  1. Dhyana: intense concentration on the element Dharana focused on; strongly related to the anterior concept, Dhyana implies an unrestrained flow of consciousness, with thoughts rapidly following one another without being judged by the observer
  1. Pranayama: consciously restrained breath during the practice of yoga or meditation for certain periods, with changes in time and length of breath
  1. Pratyahara: conscious withdrawal of one’s thoughts from external elements and complete focus on the Self
  1. Samadhi: unity with the subject of meditation, Samadhi represents the highest state of consciousness every yogi wishes to attain during his lifetime[1]

How does Yoga Benefit your Health?

Researchers have conducted numerous studies on the potential benefits of practicing yoga in people with different medical conditions. There is evidence that yoga improves physical strength and mobility, promotes relaxation, enhances focus and concentration, reduces stress or general fatigue and can alleviate PMS symptoms. Some specialists state that yoga is as effective as any other practice for people who require therapy, as it acts both on a physical and mental level. Recent studies suggest yoga can drastically reduce signs of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder in patients with a history of psychological issues. Moreover, it can increase energy levels, promote well-being and a general state of relaxation if performed on a regular basis and combined with meditation.

However, the information provided in regards to yoga’s real benefits on the human body is insufficient, in spite of a high degree of satisfaction among practitioners. In 2015, researchers from the Australian Government’s Department of Health had made public a report in which they reviewed seventeen alternative therapy practices, including yoga. The results were inconclusive because, while yoga did show effectiveness, it was not a high-degree one. Even so, specialists affirm that practicing yoga might be as good as performing any other workout, and salute the initiative of people who intensely promote it as a way of living and maintain excellent health.

We have listed a few of the most popular benefits of yoga below, some of which might make you want to give it a try in the near future:

  1. Increased strength and flexibility

Like any other type of physical exercise, yoga too strengthens the body and makes us more mobile while at the same time raising our energy levels. The postures of Hatha yoga in particular are some of the most renowned among practitioners who hit yoga studios on a regular basis. Most of them require extended periods of time in which the body is maintained in a particular position. This way, the muscles become stronger and more resistant. In a 1986 study, researchers have shown that the general condition of middle-aged men was better after six months of frequent yoga practice, whereas other workout types had little to no effect. Some poses such as the downward-facing dog, cobra or half-frog improve flexibility and release tension accumulated either in the hips or lower back.

  1. Pain relief

Evidence suggests that yoga has an impact on the way our bodies respond to oxidative stress and inflammation which are two of pain’s root causes. Combine yoga poses with meditation and you obtain one safe and efficient way of dealing with it. This way, the body enjoys better oxygenation which is essential for the cells to function properly. In addition, mindfulness which was previously associated with lower stress levels might be efficient in people who suffer from muscle pain.

  1. Weight management

Yoga was initially designed to strengthen the bond between mind, body and spirit. However, the social image is of utmost importance in the Western world. For this reason, both Americans and Europeans chose to approach it in a different manner and regard it less as a spiritual practice and more like a way to either maintain or lose weight. Scientists state that even the slowest of movements will burn at least one calorie. Yoga, with its numerous poses which require patience and time to be performed is sure to offer much more benefits. Frequent practice will slowly shape your muscles, one of the body parts that need a lot of energy to function. Moreover, there is information according to which yoga improves the body mass index(BMI) of patients who show signs of obesity.[2]

How does Does Yoga Lead to a Healthy Mindset?

The answer is yes. Aside from reducing stress levels in adults and decreasing anxiety in children, the regular practice also improves mood and promotes well-being. Yoga is also useful in alleviating depression symptoms. One study which involved seventy elderly women indicated that after only ten sessions many of them registered an amelioration of the general condition, in comparison to a control group. Another project, this time with alcohol depended on male participants, showed a significant reduction in cortisol levels which in turn led to fewer depression symptoms than in the case of men receiving routine inpatient care.

Yoga might as well be beneficial for patients with schizophrenia. One study comprised a number of 18 adults suffering either from schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. The participants were split into two groups, with the first being offered routine inpatient care, and the second being asked to perform a yoga routine on a daily basis for as long as the study took place. At the end of the project, people from the second group saw a decrease in the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale as well as in the General psychopathology sub-scores.

Most of the yoga’s benefits are associated with its tension and stress-relieving properties. The majority of studies conducted on its mechanism of action point toward its positive impact on the nervous system and how the body reacts when exposed to higher levels of cortisol, a hormone released when people face stressful situations. Evidence suggests that our bodies feel best when a lower amount of cortisol is registered and indicate toward yoga’s potential benefits in decreasing it. One research project conducted on hospitalized children showed lower hormone levels in those who used yoga as an alternative therapy. However, another research whose participants were women with fibromyalgia had a more adverse outcome, with many of them noticing an increase after several sessions.

Nonetheless, one cannot argue that, when compared with similar systems, yoga might easily be superior to many of them as it acts on a psychological level as well.

An increasing number of schools, especially those in the United States, have started introducing yoga as a usual practice in their gyms. If adults face stress, children are more prone to attention deficit and lack of focus either during the classes or at home. As of 2016, researchers have conducted a number of twelve preliminary studies in schools and their results rather promising. Many of the children who participated saw numerous benefits in regards to attentional control, mood, concentration, self-esteem or cognitive efficiency. Furthermore, they registered less anxiety and a decreased negative behavior.[3][4][5]

Should you turn the yoga practice into one of your favorite daily rituals? Researchers, practitioners and physical therapists say you should as you will definitely benefit from it. Chances are, there is at least one studio in your area, because the number of people interested in alternative medicines and techniques is growing. The fact that yoga is becoming more popular by the day is proved by the existence of an International Yoga Day which is celebrated annually on June 21st.