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Heather Main Discusses The Connection Between Yoga & Mental Health

03/15/2016 02:39PM ● By Ryan Frisch

Every time I learn more about yoga, I am more impressed – truly, deeply impressed – by what it offers to us.  Early in my adult life I practiced yoga mainly for flexibility, and later for strength and stress management; all the calming focus that an hour of practice offers.  Sometimes I’d joke that yoga class was better than therapy because I got a great stretch, core strengthening, and felt energized and calm at the end. That’s exactly what I want in life, energy plus calm. In January I spent a week at the Kripalu Yoga School in Massachusetts studying “Yoga, the Brain, and Mental Health” and came home more convinced that yoga may be the single most and important mode of exercise available to us. The benefits can hardly be overstated. 

The course focused heavily on neurology in far greater depth and detail than most of us want or need, the end result being greater appreciation for the complexity of the brain and understanding of how yoga practices work with the nervous system to elevate mood and calm anxiety. The research on yoga and mental health is compelling, and increasing numbers of researchers are developing well-designed quantitative studies finding empirical data pointing to reduced depression and anxiety in people who practice yoga. We looked at the conclusions of dozens of studies examining neurological shifts with yoga and practiced specific strategies aimed at reducing depression and anxiety.  

Neurology and research somewhat aside – because I hope to offer concrete messages rooted in science – yoga can be used to effectively improve emotional wellbeing. I am most compelled by how yoga reduces anxiety. The research on how exercise in general mitigates depression is beyond question. One needs only to go for a walk when they’re feeling low to experience  improvement in affect. Physical activity increases heart rate and blood flow to muscles, respiration rates, and blood pressure (temporarily). It is invigorating, energizing, promotes better sleep, and lifts mood. Anxiety (clinical or not) is ameliorated through yoga specifically because of the unique combinations of movement, breathing, and mental focus inherent to yoga practice.  Let me explain a bit more. 

When we are anxious, stress levels are higher and the sympathetic nervous system (remember “fight or flight”?) is at the helm. This means heart rate and blood pressure are increased, muscle tension increases, higher thinking is reduced, digestion stops, and the body prepares for a short-term burst of physical power to fight or flee the danger. Sugar is released to the bloodstream, making chronic stress and anxiety a risk factor for diabetes. During stress, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is shut down. Conversely, when the PNS is in charge, the body is at rest and is building and restoring. Cells are repairing, heart rate and blood pressure are relaxed, muscles are relaxed, digestion resumes, and immune function is stronger. This should be our default mode; at rest until we need the survival-oriented power of the sympathetic nervous system. With chronic stress and anxiety, the PNS is subdued by its sympathetic counterpart and that is physically (and mentally) deteriorating across time, creating a bit of a “vicious cycle,” as ill health itself is more stressful.

In yoga, one of the core skills to practice is to synchronize breath with movement and slow the exhale. We work on mental focus, and (this may sound a bit contradictory) practice not thinking; allow thoughts to drift away rather than focus on them, thereby reaching deeper levels of mental and physical calm. This is where yoga connects with “mindfulness” and could even be called “mindful movement,” which may be edifying. (For a great 13-minute accessible and fascinating explanation of mindfulness see www.cbsnews.com/news/mindfulness-anderson-cooper-60-minutes). With slower breath and relief from mental chatter, the PNS resumes its healing, restorative work and physical and mental health are improved. Slower breath alters brain waves; neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine shift; and mood improves. It is the combination of the physical, breath, and mindful approaches of yoga that make it effective. 

For the person who experiences anxiety, again, clinical or otherwise, learning and practicing these strategies would be an enormous benefit.  Some of these strategies can be done sitting at a desk in the office; we do not need to trot off to yoga class to reap the benefit. We can learn them in classes and practice on our own. To be clear, these techniques are not simple and they may not be intuitive. In my own experience getting away from mental chatter is particularly challenging and sometimes wholly elusive. Each practice is different, and some are better than others. In some practices (sessions)  there may be mere seconds linked together when I’ve reached  true  mental quiet – and though brief, they provide the “ah ha!” understanding of greater potential, and a taste of the calm that is powerfully restorative. Like learning a new language, practice cultivates fluency, and greater control of the mind-body connections that positively shift mood. When it comes to health and overall quality of life, I cannot think of anything better.


Main Wellness Works brings health promotion workshops and fitness classes to the workplace to help people build the skills and motivation to take good care of themselves in all areas of behavioral health. We work with Workplace Stress Management, Exercise Motivation, Strategies for Successful Behavior Change, Eating for Health and Weight Management, Midlife Fitness for Women, and Achieving Success with Fitness.  In addition to bringing programs to  the workplace, Main Wellness Works has a private fitness studio in South Burlington where individuals and small groups gather for strength training, Yoga and Pilates.  Heather Main, M.Ed, owner of Main Wellness Works, has worked in health and fitness education since 1989 and loves helping people cultivate good relationships with exercise and healthy eating. We work with personal goals, lifestyle factors and personality theory to develop effective, enjoyable healthy strategies for everyone.

Heather can be reached at 802.865.9899 or heather@mainwellness.com.