Yoga for mental health and wellbeing


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Yoga for mental health and wellbeing

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Part 1. What is yoga?

Yoga is a gentle form of exercise, which can improve both physical and mental wellbeing. It originated in ancient India as a mind, body and soul practice, although in modern-day Western practice there is often less focus on the spiritual element. Yogis follow a series of poses and postures, designed to build strength and flexibility, while moving in time with their breath, to encourage relaxation and a sense of wellbeing.

There are various different forms of yoga, with Hatha yoga being the type most commonly offered in mixed ability gym and sports centre classes. Other popular types include Kundalini yoga, which is a more spiritual practice; Ashtanga yoga, which is more physically demanding than Hatha; Bikram yoga – also known as 'hot yoga', which is performed in a hot, humid room; and Yin yoga, which is slow-paced, relaxed and meditative.

More unusual, trendy forms of yoga have also emerged in recent years, including Beer Yoga, Naked Yoga, Laughter Yoga, and yoga with animals such as goats or dogs (the latter being known as 'doga').

What are its benefits?

As well as improving physical strength, muscle tone and flexibility, yoga can have a number of mental health benefits. In fact, 2000 years ago in India, the 'grandfather of modern yoga' Patanjali defined the practice as "the control of the fluctuations of the mind."

With its meditative style and focus on relaxation, breathing, and slow gentle movements, yoga can reduce and modulate your body's stress response, and may be helpful as a form of self-soothing – particularly important during those more stressful days in the office. Several studies have shown that practising yoga decreases the secretion of cortisol, more commonly known as 'the stress hormone', which can in turn boost levels of serotonin – the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and wellbeing.

Through the practice of breathing deeply, yoga helps calm down your nervous system and reduce your fight-or-flight reflex. As a result, it also decreases those unpleasant physical signs of stress and anxiety, reducing your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and helping to regulate your breathing. A lunchtime yoga class after a stressful morning meeting could be just what you need to get you back on form for the rest of the day.

Besides stress management, a number of studies have also looked into yoga's potential as a treatment for clinical mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A 2017 study published in Psychological Medicine found that more than 50 per cent of people suffering from depression saw an improvement in their symptoms after six months of taking weekly yoga classes, while other studies have seen reductions in symptoms of anxiety and PTSD among women who practised yoga once a week.

Of course, it's important never to rely on yoga alone as a mental health treatment, and you should always seek professional help through your GP when you need it, but yoga may prove useful as a complementary treatment.

Finally, we know there are strong links between mental and physical wellbeing, and many of us – particularly busy, sedentary office workers – tend to carry stress in our necks, shoulders, backs and hips. Getting out of your chair once in a while and practising a few quick yoga poses is a great way to stretch out these under-used muscles and release some of that tension. There's also evidence that yoga can improve physical pain, and reduce inflammation caused by chronic stress.

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Who is it suitable for?

While it might sometimes feel like yoga is only designed for those super flexible gym bunnies doing head stands in skimpy leisurewear, this couldn't be further from the truth. As a gentle, low impact exercise, many forms of yoga can be practised by absolutely anyone, and you certainly don't need to already look like an Instagram yogi to reap the mental and physical benefits of this mind-body practice.

Do be aware that some forms of yoga are more strenuous or physically demanding than others, but hatha or yin yoga should offer a more gentle introduction. Most gyms or yoga studios – as well as online streaming services like Yoogaia– offer beginners or mixed ability classes, and all you'll need is comfortable clothing that you can move freely in.

Part 2. Avoiding stress and burnout

For too many people, stress and burnout at work feel like facts of life – the inevitable price to be paid for business success. And for small business owners and their teams, the pressure can feel all the more acute. But it shouldn't be this way.

Stress and mental illness now account for half of all workplace sick days, according to figures published in 2018 by the Health and Safety Executive. Even for employees who are in the office, too much stress can have a seriously detrimental effect on both their personal wellbeing and their workplace productivity. For employers who care about their staff, and want them to perform their best, avoiding stress and burnout is an absolute must.

What is stress?

First up, what is stress? Stress is a set of emotional, physical and cognitive responses to a challenge or threat. In moderate levels, stress is a normal – maybe even essential – part of dealing with life's challenges. That feeling of mental or emotional pressure can serve as a warning sign that you've taken on a bit too much, or be a great motivator to help you meet your goals.

Usually stress is short-lived and caused by big but normal events in our work or personal lives, like moving house, job interviews, planning a wedding, or an important work deadline or presentation. Most of us can cope with these short-term stresses, which often come with their fair share of excitement as well. This type of pressure typically boosts your performance by making you more alert and motivating you to give your best – so it can actually be quite useful.

But when stress becomes chronic – long-term – then it can start to become a serious problem, putting you at risk of burnout and illness, as well as hampering your performance and impacting on life both at home and at work.

Spotting signs of burnout

Burnout typically creeps up on you slowly over a prolonged period of chronic stress. Symptoms include fatigue and exhaustion; feelings of depression, anxiety and helplessness; recurrent and lingering colds and infections; chronic back pain; frequent headaches and/or gastrointestinal problems; a loss of morale and job satisfaction; feeling overwhelmed; raised blood pressure and cholesterol; changes to your appetite; and may even include thoughts of suicide.

You might also find yourself turning more and more to unhelpful coping mechanisms – such as eating or drinking much more than normal, abusing drugs, or self-harming. These are all signs that you're not coping with the level of stress you're currently under, so it's time to take a step back and seek some help.


Keeping stress at bay

While it can often sound easier said than done, managing stress and ensuring a more positive work-life balance is essential for avoiding burnout and keeping you in great mental and physical shape to enjoy and perform your best both at work and in other areas of your life.

Taking care of your physical wellbeing is one way of keeping stress levels under control, and can be easily neglected if you're spending long days sat at a desk. Try to eat a balanced diet that fuels you throughout the day, and avoid sugary snacks or drinks, which send your energy levels and your emotions on a rollercoaster ride.

If work stresses tend to creep into family or social time out of hours, implement techniques for a better work-life balance. Setting boundaries around when you will or won't check your work emails, or reply to Slack notifications, is a great first step.

Commit to doing things you enjoy, like self-care and keeping up regular social contact or hobbies, and then make them non-negotiable by scheduling time for yourself into your diary – in the same way you would a meeting or appointment.

For both physical and mental wellbeing, we all need to make sure we incorporate some form of exercise into our day – whether it's adding a bit more walking into your commute time, fitting in a lunch break jog or gym class, or even taking 10 minutes out a few times a day to practise a few simple seated yoga stretches at your desk.

As well as making time for a physical stress release, ensure you have time in each day to check in with your mind. This might mean practising mindfulness for 15 minutes, jotting down your thoughts and feelings in a journal, or taking a few deep breaths to ground yourself before that stressful meeting that's been hanging over you.

It's also worth thinking about the practical causes of stress in your workplace. Is there an unresolved conflict with an employee? Opening up positive lines of communication with colleagues can help to address some of these issues and make adjustments to the way you work. There may also be training courses you could attend, looking at things like stress management or conflict resolution.

Remember that we all feel some stress, it's normal and avoidable. Don't sweat it if you feel your stress levels creeping up now and then – but do try to keep an eye on it. Burnout is much easier to prevent and avoid than to fix once it's already kicked in.

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Article updated on:
January 20, 2020

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