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Yoga and Mental Health - the Benefits of Yoga on Stress and Anxiety in Adults

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Yoga and Mental Health:

The Benefits of Yoga on Stress and Anxiety in adults

B. Iskender

Southern New Hampshire University

GLS 470 / Section: G1470

Prof. Kathleen Tran

January 2, 2016

Yoga History and Practice

“Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind,” said Patanjali, the father of Yoga (P., & Johnston, C.,1975). This practice came from Northern India over 5,000 years ago but only recently did it become popular in the United States (exhibit 1 – timeline).  The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “Yuj” which means “to unite” or “to join.”  According to a study by Yoga Journal, in 2016, there are currently around 36.7 million of American adults who practice yoga in the Unites States, a 16.3 million increase since 2012.  More importantly, they are not just practicing, they are benefiting from yoga.  The focus of yoga is to bring harmony between mind and body. For some, it is a way to live a healthy lifestyle and to have an overall well being.  The point is that to really be healthy, you must not just be physically fit but also be emotionally and mentally strong and balanced.  And as Sri Sri Shankar, a well-known Guru said: “Health is not a mere absence of disease (Iyengar, B. K., 2005). It is a dynamic expression of life – in terms of how joyful, loving and enthusiastic you are.”  Since we live in a world full of disturbances, worries, conflicts and distresses, our minds are constantly filled with information that influences our mental state on daily basis. No wonder more adults now deal with stress and anxiety than ever before.  In fact, according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 1.5 percent (or 3.3 million of American adults) suffer from anxiety yearly.  Additionally, anxiety usually co-occurs with a physical illness which is why many believe that mental and physical states intertwine. Yoga seems to be a popular answer of providing stronger mental health, especially as researchers find more and more factual benefits of the practice.  The yoga practice has been applied to improve both physical and mental health for many centuries and now it’s finally being recognized in the Western society.  More and more health providers such as doctors recommend yoga as an alternative therapy.  The focus of this paper is to prove that yoga has a strong positive effect on mental health for adults suffering from anxiety and stress by transforming the brain and mind through its three major components: yoga postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation.

Asanas

The physical practice of yoga includes various postures, which are called asanas. The Sanskrit word for “asana” means “seat” which makes sense because by tradition, the yoga postures were used to relax the body and make it more comfortable in preparation for the breathing exercises and meditation.  What makes asanas different from a stretch or other physical exercises is that the focus is more on the mind as it relates to the body.  The mind learns how to be in the body instead of on the body.  We become the body. The mental state of a person becomes more balanced and less stressed out when the mind listens to the body and is aware of its current status.  We learn what is wrong, when we need to let go, what needs our attention through the body.  The point is that it is difficult to be focused and well when our bodies are hurting and need our attention.  As we become stressed and anxious, our bodies react and most of the time it is my gaining weight which are main factors for heart disease.  According to some studies from Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, (Ely, D. L. 1995) it has been proven that stress increases cravings for sugar and overall appetite in adults due to cortisol hormone which makes people gain weight.  Overweight adults are at a strong risk for heart disease and hypertension and yoga has been found to be an effective way to battle the weight gain and manage it continuously.  A randomized study found in Indian J Physiol Pharmacol (Rajapurkar, Bera TK., 1993) concluded that practicing yoga consistently for at least 6 months lowered the body weight, stress level and increased energy.  Furthermore, it improved the “serum lipid profile” in the participants who have a heart disease and those that do not.  Another controlled study found in Complementary Therapies in Medicine (Smith, C., Hancock, H., Blake-Mortimer, J., & Eckert, K., 2007) concluded that adults who suffer from anxiety disorders and those who do not, when practicing yoga for one year, both groups had decreased symptoms of anxiety and stress.   Out of a total of 82 subjects, half of them being diagnosed with anxiety and half being healthy, 92% confirmed their improvement in mood, emotional stability and mental clarity.  Furthermore, 67% said that dealing with stressful situations became easier especially after the practice of yoga.  Many similar studies have been contacted to prove that yoga practice decreases stress by using the yoga flow to relax the body and calm the mind.  Yoga Journal, a company that has been devoted to yoga since 1975 found that there are 5 poses (asanas) that are best to deal with stress and anxiety.  These poses include: paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), adho mukha svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), balasana (Child’s Pose), salamba sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), halasana (Plow Pose) and shavasana (Corpse Pose).  The poses sound pretty complicated only because of the Snskrit language but they are not, they are useful and helpful to combat stress.  Body awareness through physical yoga postures is the first step to better mental health.

Pranayama

“A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years” said Swami Sivananda (Broad, W. J. 2012).  They say the speed and the amount of breaths you take per minute will dictate the length of your life.  The longer your breaths are, the less breaths you take per minute, the longer the life.  Perhaps this is why dogs don’t live as long as humans.  Pranayama is a word composed from two Sanskrit words: prana means the breath and yama is the control of the breath.  There are numerous special breathing techniques but the most that have been studies are: bhramari, anulom-vilom, kapalbhathi and ujjayi pranayama.  According to studies completed at the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (Kabat-Zinn, J. and Chapman-Waldrop, A., 1988), these breathing exercises improve memory, calm the mind, normalizes blood pressure, improves focus and concentration, relieve tension and refresh the mind and so much more.  It is a yogic discipline that goes hand in hand with the asanas.  Focusing on the breath during the physical yoga practice is very important because the control of the breath transfers from the brain stem (medulla oblongata in the medical terms) to the cerebral cortex because of the awareness of the breath. This is the time when the mind becomes calmer and quieter and the awareness appears.  Consequently, any emotional stress, “the monkey brain” and thoughts start to settle and are less intrusive. This is also the time that the whole system gets a break from continuous work. The breath begins to flow easier through the physical and then emotional obstructions, which results in both the body and the mind achieving a balance and relaxation after a yoga practice.  Similar to a “runner’s high” but longer lasting.  The meaning of these asanas and paranayamas is that it provides a tool with which the structures of the mental and emotional worlds can be discovered. And this is when the true and long lasting benefits of yoga begin.  It is easy to tell that something is going on in your mind when your breath changes.  When you get scared of a thought, your breath will change to be more rapid.  Again, being mindful and paying attention to your body and your breath is what will allow you to read the “truth” and begin receiving the benefits of yoga. We already discussed that body and mind are connected and now we know how, through breath.  According to study at the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine (Kabat-Zinn, J. and Chapman-Waldrop, A. 1988), out of 172 participants, 87% felt calmer after just one session of using various breathing techniques.  Furthermore, 71% of these participants continues to practice the breathing techniques for 2 months and noticed a significant decrease in their stress level (exhibit 2 – deep breathing).  Additionally, these participants never tried yoga or any breathing techniques in the past. Mindfulness and awareness of breathing will guide you into the nature of your mind, which might need some assistance in balance, calmness and understanding of issues. This knowledge of the mind will eventually lead to freedom of negative thoughts, emotions and low energy.

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