If we were to list all the ways yoga is good for us, we’d have a text of epic proportions because the benefits of this ancient discipline are infinite. Many of the ways that yoga benefits the physical body impact us psychologically. For example, yoga can be an antidote for lower back pain, addiction, fatigue, and lethargy––conditions that affect our perspective of the world and our ability to cope or thrive within it. It can help detoxify the internal organs and improve the health of fascia (see Six Surprising Physical Benefits of Yoga. It can prevent physical and mental illness.
While our physical body is the vehicle we use to move through the world, our mental body is responsible for our awareness of it. It is through our minds that we conceive the beauty of our existence and enjoy the world we live in. It is also the vehicle through which we experience psychological distress such as depression or anxiety. Such conditions are prolific within our modern day culture, leading us toward drug dependency, failed relationships, chronic mental distress, and difficulties managing our everyday lives.
The Journey Within
More psychotherapists are employing yoga as a means toward a healthier mind, as both a method of prevention and therapy for managing mental health. Just as the first four limbs of yoga represent the outer, more physical experience, the fifth, sixth, and seventh limbs lead us on an inward journey in which we begin to observe the inner workings of our minds more closely.
Through pratyahara, we learn to control and withdraw from our senses, understanding that our knowledge about the world goes much deeper than what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. This limb can be considered the gateway into a deeper practice. In dharana, the sixth limb of yoga, we begin to steady our minds through focused concentration. This is a necessary prerequisite for the next stage of dhyana, in which we discover meditative absorption, the final stage before samadhi, or in Buddhism, enlightenment.
But, as with any endeavor, yoga starts with ourselves.
Every day we have a decision to make: Do we want to live in a state of worry, stress, anxiety, depression, impulse, and excess? Or, is a peaceful existence where mind, body, and spirit are in harmony a better attainment? A life in which we can not just manage our responsibilities and relationships, but embrace them in optimal health and happiness.
How Does Yoga Support Mental Wellbeing?
It is also through the mind that we become a rambling, discursive mess of thoughts and worries. Monkeys swinging from one branch to another––the past, the future, the thing that happened yesterday, and the thing that might happen tomorrow. The mind is the mechanism that tells us what we’re capable of, what we’re not good enough at, what we should or shouldn’t be doing–eating–feeling–wanting, who’s watching, and who doesn’t care. The list of what the mind can devise is as long as the benefits of yoga itself.
One of the primary ways yoga helps the mind is by observing the ego (ahamkara). This mediator between the conscious and unconscious self is a natural and necessary part of ourselves, but we tend to engorge it by identifying ourselves through external means––what we do, where we live, who we associate with, our goals and possessions, our thoughts and tendencies. It is in constant pursuit of a goal.
So, how does yoga help the mind?
For starters, it is important to realize that yoga is much more than a set of physical postures. It is a process by which we unite with nature and all her seasons. One of the primary Vedic texts of yoga, the Upanishads, summarizes yoga as the following:
“When the five perceptions are stilled, together with the mind,
And not even reason bestirs itself; they call it the highest state.
When senses are firmly reined in, that is Yoga, so people think.
From distractions a man is then free, for Yoga is the coming-into-being, as well as the ceasing-to-be.”
(Katha Upanisad 6.10).
The Three Gunas
According to Vedic sages, there are three gunas, or mental states that we are in at any given time: tamas, rajas, or sattva.
Tamas is a heaviness that slows us down, makes us want to sleep, and extinguishes any modicum of motivation. A tamasic mind may be described as destructive and chaotic. Rajas is a state of restlessness and excess energy that agitates us and makes us prone to a ‘monkey mind’. We can describe a rajasic mind as active and confused. Sattva is a state of balance and peace, where goodness, clarity, and constructive thought prevails.
Yoga can bring us closer to a state of sattva, in which we quietly observe and accept our thoughts without attachment and then continue on with our lives. But we must start with the underlying idea that opposites attract if we seek to restore equanimity to an unbalanced mind. For example, more invigorating styles of yoga can energize a tamasic mind, giving us the gusto to move our bodies and shake off the heaviness of negative thought patterns. A practice that calms rajas can improve concentration and relieve anxiety.
Yoga Helps Us Tune Into Our Inner Dialogue
Studies of neuroplasticity have revealed that engaging in a certain behavior repeatedly programs the brain so that the behavior becomes automatic, almost natural. Harmful behaviors, such as addiction and overthinking––yes, overthinking!––are harder to stop because we can’t actually ‘see’ their destructive qualities. Consider the soles of your shoes––over time and with use they wear down but you don’t notice it happen. In yoga, these thought patterns are called samskaras.
Before we can change these patterns of mental behavior, we must first be able to see them clearly. This is where yoga comes in. Like a sustained meditation practice, yoga can help still the mind, delivering it from the incessant chatter that prevents our expansion.
For example, some asanas may ignite a degree of fear within us, and we tell ourselves that we can’t attempt a particular movement. When we continually avoid it, we recondition our fear response and are less likely to try to overcome it. Similarly, comparing our practice or physical fitness to the person next to us feeds competitiveness and our feelings of insecurity or righteousness.
This mental activity occurs within our own practice too––we wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. We may compare our present self and capability with what we could do five years or five days ago. If our current practice is more advanced or easier to move through than last week, we may pride ourselves. Conversely, a harder practice than last year may inspire self-doubt or inadequacy. A goal to meet the full expression of a pose or being concerned with what it looks like hinders our ability to feel our way through the movement. It is more beneficial to explore our limits and construct necessary boundaries. Once we make this realization, it translates to almost every area of life.
It is a natural human tendency to judge; it’s how we make sense of the world. The danger lies in what we do with those evaluations on a psychological level. Pushing unwanted thoughts away makes them stronger. Instead, we can use these observations as opportunities to become more aware of our thought patterns and detach ourselves from them. Paradoxically, detachment inspires greater harmony. Through yoga, we begin to observe our mental habits and realize they are mere tendencies, not a life sentence.
The Way Home
In the most traditional sense, yoga is a discipline by which we gain wisdom and understanding about ourselves and the nature of reality. Indeed, a life devoted to asceticism will indeed lead us toward greater personal freedom. But in a modern context with all our responsibilities, we don’t all have the time or ambition to live with such discipline. That’s okay. Yoga is an evolving practice that can help us achieve presence and equanimity in our day to day lives.
Perhaps we’re not searching for the ultimate truth or enlightenment. Maybe we just want to be in closer touch with ourselves. Whether your objective is to elevate yourself toward a higher goal for life, to become a better person, to become wiser, to understand yourself better, to reduce anxiety or sleep better, yoga paves the way.