Struggling with yoga? This is what it can do for your mental health
By Prudence Wade
Self-care isn’t always easy, and can easily slip in times of increased stress.
Like many of us, actor Gillian Anderson knows she could do more to take care of herself, but that doesn’t mean it always happens.
When InStyle asked her how she takes care of her mental health, she said: “I have increased my meditation, which always helps. The next thing to do is to not just talk about doing yoga, but actually do yoga.”
“The benefits of yoga are well documented; whether it’s helping to maintain suppleness, flexibility, strength or core,” says psychologist Dr Maryhan Baker (drmaryhan.com). “Many celebrities hail their youthfulness to its powerful qualities. Yet very few people know the incredible power yoga can have in supporting mental wellbeing, and in the period of uncertainty we find ourselves in now, never has it been more worth a try.”
Here’s why you might want to make yoga a regular part of your routine…
It can help you focus on yourself
“We feel better if we look after ourselves, and even one yoga class can leave you feeling incredible,” says yoga and spiritual teacher Scott Hutchison-McDade (positivechangeyoga.com). “When we feel good, we tend to look after ourselves a little bit more.”
He refers to yoga as a practice of “self-compassion and self-kindness” – one that can help you send a signal to yourself that you’re worth taking care of. After just one session Hutchison-McDade says it’s possible to “feel so good” that you’ll find yourself wanting to make “more positive choices in your life”.
It can help reduce stress
In 2020 the ONS found over a third of UK adults said Covid-19 had affected their wellbeing. If you’re concerned about your mental health, always speak to your GP, but outside of that, yoga can be used to help manage and relieve stress levels.
Hutchison-McDade says yoga can help “reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone in our blood,” and notes breathwork is key to this. “It doesn’t have to be complicated, and anyone can practice breathwork at home,” he explains.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, Hutchison-McDade recommends practicing a simple box-breathing technique: inhaling for three counts, holding your breath for three, exhaling for three and holding for three – all through the nose.
“That can really help reduce the stress response, it’s great for anxiety – it really steadies everything that we are,” he says.
Baker agrees. She says: “Yoga as a practice is all about connecting to your breath and coordinating movements with the inbreath and outbreath. The focus on the movements allows people to disengage from the internal dialogue which perpetuates a sense of overwhelm, criticism, and stress. All of this can be lost as you turn inwards with your practice.”
She is also keen to point out yoga is for “anyone who wants to find moments of calm and connection. Stress levels are almost instantly reduced and people report a huge sense of calm afterwards.”
It can foster positive body image
Hutchison-McDade says yoga can encourage a more positive relationship with your body. “It doesn’t take long for you to practice yoga to start feeling better about how you look and how you feel,” he explains. “It’s not about losing weight, it’s about that confidence – and that can really affect your mental health.”
It can help you feel in control
With Covid-related restrictions continuing for who knows how long, it’s easy to feel out of control. Adopting a yoga routine could help, as a way to take charge of a small – but meaningful – part of your life.
Hutchison-McDade notes the hardest thing about yoga is often, “getting off the sofa to do it, especially in lockdown.” However, it’s worth it he says: “Routine is like getting a bit of control back, and it’s setting up for when we do return to a new normal – so that routine’s fantastic. After a month of practice you really will notice the benefits.”
If you, like Anderson, struggle with getting into a routine, Hutchison-McDade says: “Start small and gentle, go on YouTube and do a small five-10 minute gentle sequence. It doesn’t have to be this amazing yoga class that you’re jumping about or standing on your head, it just has to be something.”
“The practice doesn’t have to be a long one,” Bake agrees, “15 minutes is enough to benefit and for many feels easier to engage with and practice than meditation alone.”