The Neuroscience of Yoga: Why It's Great for Mental Health (& PMDD!)
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Over the last few weeks, we have been mostly discussing premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). You might have been wondering, "so where does yoga fit into all of this?" Well, now is the time for us to discuss what yoga is and why yoga is the perfect practice for mental health, especially for those with chronic illnesses like PMDD. In this post, I'll answer questions about what yoga is, how it changes the brain, and how it can help to transform lives.
So, What is Yoga All About?
Yoga is an ancient practice that comes from Eastern traditions. The word yoga means "to yolk together" or "to unite". Most practitioners believe this is in reference to uniting the mind, body, and spirit, but this can also be understood as to uniting oneself with their community, with nature, and the wonder of life itself.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a written document that outlines the basis of yogic philosophy. The very first yoga sutra is "yogas chitta vritti nirodha " which translates to: "yoga is the the calming of the fluctuations of the mind". So from the outset, we understand that yoga is really about mental health. It is about becoming less identified with the "mind stuff" and connecting with what is happening in the present moment. It's about uniting mind and body (and spirit, but I find that this third part is very subjective to the practitioner).
Many people are first introduced to yoga as a fitness activity and tend to believe that it is simply repeating a series of poses to improve flexibility.
It's not so much about physical flexibility as it is about mental flexibility. It's not about self-improvement, it's about self-acceptance. It's less about feeling out of control or fighting against your circumstances, and more about going with the flow and accepting what is. Conversely, It is not about exercising power over your mind and body, but discovering the power you have in working with them.
I know this sounds a bit out-there at first, but these ideas are the basis of yoga, and once you begin to practice more regularly and learn about yoga philosophy, the more these types of things begin to make sense.
Okay, let's go back to the common idea that yoga is about the physical body. While it is true that yoga does include physical postures, this is just one small part of a greater whole. The "Eight Limbs" of ashtanga yoga are said to be different branches of one tree. These include:
Yamas (guidance regarding our relationship with ourselves)
Niyamas (guidance regarding our interactions with the outer world)
Asana (the physical practice of yoga postures)
Pranayama (the practice of the breath and energy)
Pratyahara (turning the senses inward)
Dharana (practicing focus & concentration)
Dhyana (surrendering and letting go through meditation)
Samadhi (experiencing a state of bliss/harmony)
The only one that directly relates to the physical body is asana. The purpose of practicing asana is to unite the body with the mind, and to keep the body healthy so that we are able to focus the mind. As you can see, only one of the eight limbs relates to the physical body, one relates to the breath, two relate to our choices or behaviors, and the other four are all about meditation.
Another ancient yogic text, the Bhagavad Gita, states that "yoga is journey of the Self, through the Self, to the Self". By accepting your mind and body as it is (and actively working to heal it through practice) you can begin to full understand that you are more than your physical body, and that life is much bigger than your mind or body, yet you are an integral part of this much bigger picture.