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The Psychological Benefits of Yoga

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“Come with me to a yoga class!” said my friend Caroline to me sometime last year. “Why on earth would I want to go to a stretch class with strangers that I don’t know in a blazing hot room?” I thought to myself. “No thanks,” I quickly replied. Despite my reluctance and skepticism about the practice that I have heard so many of my friends and Hollywood celebrities rave about, I ended up attending my first yoga class just a few weeks later. Admittedly, my first experience was not as “zen” as I thought it was going to be. In fact, I was awkward and some of the poses just felt silly. I mean, who is this downward dog, anyway? But, admits my struggles to follow along with the instructor and do my best not to fall on my neighbor, something about the experienced made an impression with me. It might have been the intention that the instructor set at the beginning of the class, or maybe the fact that I devoted an entire hour to focus on my body movements and my breath – a practice that I am not typically accustomed to. So, I went back. And, I went back again. I wouldn’t call myself an avid yogie, by any means, but I have come to enjoy a weekly class and have found it to be a nice compliment to my typical workout routine.

When people talk about yoga, they often reference the physiological benefits of the practice such as increased strength, flexibility and relaxation. In fact, yoga has been known to lower blood pressure and slow your heart rate. Some studies have even suggested that yoga is good for weight loss and improved balance and coordination. However, not enough is mentioned about the mental, psychological, and cognitive benefits of a yoga practice. According to a review in Harvard Mental Health (April, 2009), yoga has been shown to be helpful in reducing anxiety and depression as well as some forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In addition, several recent studies suggest that yoga may help strengthen social attachments, reduce stress and relieve insomnia.

Some of the psychological benefits to a consistent yoga practice are:

  • Relaxation: Yoga usually involves paying attention to your breath and teaches a technique of deep abdominal breathing, which has been shown to reduce the levels of stress hormone in your blood stream. Thus, yoga can help you relax and reduce stress so you can think more clearly.
  • Help calm the mind: Focusing on your body movements and your breath can aid in minimizing excess “noise” in your mind and help you achieve clarity over what is truly troubling you.
  • Put you in touch with your body: Increasing your awareness on your physical self can sometimes clue you in to emotions that you might not have recognized otherwise.
  • Mindfulness principles: Worries are either future focused or based in the past. Yoga teaches us how to be present in the moment and focus entirely on the here and now. Practicing mindfulness can help us in our daily lives by focusing on the now and asking ourselves: what is within my power and control at this moment?
  • Distress Tolerance: Whether it’s enduring the heat in a Bikram yoga class, or holding a difficult posture, yoga principles teach us to lean into the discomfort. Yoga practice shows us how not to be afraid of discomfort and helps us gain confidence within ourselves that we can tolerate the distress by breathing, maintaining balance and being present in the moment at hand.

How to practice yoga principles in your daily life:

  1. Find Your Practice: Just about everyone can do yoga – it’s not just for people who can touch their toes or want to meditate. Research the types of yoga to find what you are looking for. Is it relaxation, flexibility, strength?
  2. Start off Slow: If you are new to yoga, take your time and ease your way into a practice. Be patient with yourself and honor what your body is telling you.
  3. Practice at Home: If getting to a yoga studio is proving itself difficult, you might want to practice yoga in the comfort of your own home. There are several books and online resources to help you get started such as www.Yogaglo.com

With a growing body of research supporting yoga’s mental health benefits, Psychologists are weaving the practice into their work with clients. Several recent studies suggest that yoga may help strengthen social attachments, reduce stress and relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia. Yoga can be a nice compliment to therapy, and can be a valuable tool to use outside of the office to cope with stress and anxieties, and heal emotional wounds.

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