So much has been written about yoga and mental health that we all know there are benefits. But what exactly does yoga do? How does it help? Most of us know we'd be more flexible and less stressed if we practiced yoga, but yoga offers us so much more than that.
At first when we practice yoga, we begin to see changes in our physical bodies. It doesn't take long to be able to touch our toes or twist our torsos a bit farther as muscles lengthen and learn to contract and relax. We then start to notice we feel more relaxed after class and that our minds seem less hectic. Eventually we start feeling better about ourselves and seeing solutions to problems we hadn't seen before. Why does this happen?
Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us exist as if we are just a body with a mind on top. In fact, many mental health treatments seem to believe this as well. But we are much more complex and beautiful than that. We have a physical body (our bones, skin, organs), an energetic or subtle body (our breath, energy field, chi or pranic body), a mind or mental body (what we think and perceive) and an intuitive body (our internal knowing, Higher Self). So many layers! At the core of all this is what we all have in common - our true nature or our bliss body or pure love.
Practicing yoga affects all the layers of ourselves. We might just notice the physical changes first. ("Hey I can touch my toes now!") Then, since we pay a lot of attention to our thinking, we might notice the changes in our mind or mental body. ("My mind isn't racing like it was when I came in.") After some time, we begin to notice we "feel better" or are more relaxed or energized after practice. This is tuning in to our energetic bodies. And if we are really paying attention, we'll begin to notice that we are having insights or clarity about things we have not had before. Our awareness expands. We begin to see ourselves and others differently. We begin to act versus react. We begin to see we are the creators of our lives and our experiences.
These changes directly affect our mental health - whether its depression, anxiety or mood swings we deal with. When practicing yoga, we also begin to care for our bodies in a more nourishing way. We manage our energy levels with more care. We observe our thoughts versus being dragged through the emotional mud by them. We look for and listen to our inside voice, our intuition to help us make healthy decisions. We begin to sense that we may be so much more than we realized, that our lives hold more possibility than we thought. Yoga provides a pathway to change and gives us hope.