“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are” ~Carl Jung
Yoga is often celebrated for its physical benefits: greater flexibility, increased strength, improved circulation, and so on. But nothing could have prepared me for the transformational effect that yoga has had on my mental health and well-being.
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression when I was fourteen, and I have struggled with both for most of my life. My mind was my worst enemy, constantly worrying and criticizing to the point where it became hard to do anything. Even the things I really wanted to do became too overwhelming.
I knew about the positive impact of exercise and healthy living on mental health, and I had dabbled in yoga classes at the gym for years in an attempt to drag myself out of this hole I was in.
I did notice some small changes in my mood and energy levels. I couldn’t explain it, but I would always feel a certain buzz after a great yoga class.
So, in 2022, I decided to take this yoga thing seriously. I began practicing daily and even studied for a yoga teacher training qualification.
Since then, I have noticed significant changes in not only my physical body and well-being but in my mental health too. Most notably, my anxiety levels have significantly decreased. Of course, I still have moments of anxiety, but I feel better equipped to cope with them and less likely to allow them to pull me into a downward spiral.
Disclaimer: This is not medical health advice; it is simply my own experience. If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek a medical health professional.
How Yoga Can Help with Anxiety
Yoga helps you recognize your emotions and triggers.
The first thing to know about yoga is that it is not a series of complicated poses used to make you look a certain way or increase your flexibility.
Instead, it is an inner practice where we unite our body, mind, and spirit and become one with the universal life force energy that sustains all of life.
Meditation and breathwork are just as important parts of yoga as the poses (known as asana).
With this knowledge, yoga has the power to transform your mental state from a place of stress and anxiety to complete peace with yourself and the world around you.
It allows you to notice how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking without judging yourself. It allows you to understand your body, how it works, and what messages it’s trying to communicate to you about your health and your needs.
By learning to recognize when I felt anxious and why, yoga provided a safe space to release those triggers and emotions that I would ordinarily suppress.
Yoga regulates your nervous system.
When we experience high levels of anxiety, we are constantly living in fight-or-flight mode. The fight-or-flight response is designed to switch on in moments of danger and stress to protect you and then return to homeostasis once the threat has gone.
However, in this day and age, many people are experiencing an overactive fight-or-flight response due to an increasingly stressful lifestyle. And many live in a constant state of hypervigilance as a result of trauma or abuse.
Living in fight-or-flight mode takes up an enormous amount of energy, and our bodies cannot keep up with the demands long term. Over time, the body and mind begin to shut down and we get illness and disease as a result.
This is what happened to me. My body could not cope with the pressure I was putting it under daily, so my mental health suffered.
Practicing yoga allows you to calm your nervous system and creates a space where the mind and body feel safe to exit fight-or-flight mode and actually relax.
One way to do this is through practicing breathwork, also known as pranayama.
Yogic philosophy believes that the breath is how we can harness our energy and the energy of the universe. We can alter our emotions, energy levels, and even physiological responses, such as the fight-or-flight response, with just the breath.
When I notice I am starting to feel anxious, I breathe deeply into my stomach for the count of four, hold it for four, and then slowly exhale for the count of four, also known as belly breathing.
While this may sound trivial, it really helps me to feel calm in moments of stress and anxiety.
Breathing slowly and deeply activates our parasympathetic nervous system. This sends signals to the brain that there is no danger here and the fight-or-flight response does not need to be activated.
Yoga teaches you new coping mechanisms.
Yoga taught me different techniques to cope with my anxiety and panic attacks.
Firstly, yoga teaches that you are not your mind. You are not your thoughts, your beliefs, or even your body.
When we study the five koshas (layers of the self) we can see our physical being is just a vehicle to navigate this world in; it is not who we are as a whole. For example, the koshas teach us that our essence cannot be entirely in our physical body because physical bodies are subject to change, yet who we are remains.
This mindset applies to our thoughts too. Once I started acknowledging that my thoughts did not always come from me, they began to hold less weight. Most of our thoughts are just ‘re-runs’ of things we are told as a child or things we repeatedly hear from society that get internalized. They are not necessarily representative of who we truly are.
This knowledge allowed me to distance myself from my anxious thoughts instead of letting them consume me.
Secondly, through pranayama and meditation, both essential aspects of yoga, I learned to recognize how I was feeling and allow those feelings to exist within me, without trying to change them or distract myself from them.
When we don’t allow our emotions space to be there, we are instead rejecting that aspect of ourselves. We push these feelings deeper and deeper down as a way to avoid dealing with them, without realizing we are actually ingraining them deeper into our psyche.
By giving our emotions space to be felt, we can release them from our mind and body so we don’t have to carry them with us through our life.
Yoga helps you be more present.
To practice yoga, you need to be focused and in the present moment. To hold balance poses like tree pose or to get into the correct alignment of warrior 1, you need to be paying attention to what is happening around you right now.
If your mind drifts while you’re holding a balance pose, you can bet your body will lose all balance too.
Yoga forces you to be in the present moment, to be fully engaged in what you are doing, and doesn’t allow room to think about anything else.
For me, this is exactly what I needed to get out of my anxiety-ridden head. One of my main struggles with anxiety was that I could not stop myself from thinking. The incessant noise of my own mind was exhausting to live with.
However, when I am in a yoga flow, the noise stops. The mind chatter about future scenarios that will probably never happen is no longer there, as I am using all my focus to get into the proper alignment of the pose.
The more you practice focusing, the easier it is to apply this in your daily life. I can now notice when my mind is overactive and instead re-direct it to the task at hand. By giving our full attention to the thing we are doing, we can quieten that anxious voice within and begin to enjoy the present moment.
Yoga has so many incredible benefits physically, mentally, and spiritually. Since sticking to a consistent yoga practice, I have noticed my anxiety decrease dramatically and I am able to live a full and happy life without my mind controlling me.