Recently, I watched a video on the effects of an ancient Indian practice: yoga. The video talked about the physical health benefits of yoga, such as improved flexibility and muscle strength. Yoga is widely known for its positive effects on physical health, but did you know that it also has an incredible impact on mental well-being?
The History of Yoga
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word root for “unite” or “union”, and it was first written in the Vedas. The Vedas are ancient Indian scripts that cover topics anywhere from religion to science to math, and they are over 1,000 years old. According to the Vedas, yoga unites the mind and the body, hence the name.
Yoga is around 5,000 years old, and it originated in the Indus-Saraswati region (Northwest India). Many seals of people performing yoga were discovered in that area, proving the existence of yoga in ancient times.
You might have heard of the sage Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, a religious text, in 2 C.E. In this text, the sage explained one type of yoga, which I will talk about in more detail later in this article. Sage Patanjali is known for his work in the field of yoga and is often referred to as the father of yoga.
The Types of Yoga
You might think that yoga is just doing different poses, but it isn’t. Yoga is often described as “self-discipline” because yoga is not only physical exercise; there are four types of yogas, each focusing on a different aspect of life.
The four main types of yoga are as follows:
1. Bhakti yoga-
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of worshipping and establishing a “personal relationship with God” (Yoga Journal). While yoga originated as a Hindu practice, nowadays people who perform Bhakti yoga focus on getting closer to their God. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a “God”; it could even be their “Self” that they are trying to connect with.
One of the reasons why yoga is so ubiquitous is that many yogic practices align with other religions’ beliefs. For example, according to Yoga International, one of the stages of Bhakti yoga is accepting every part of yourself, rather than avoiding your negative emotions. To emphasize their point, Yoga International quotes Jesus in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
2. Karma yoga-
Karma yoga also relates to unity; it is becoming one with your community and the world through selfless service. This service doesn’t have to be something big; it could be watering your neighbor’s plants, helping a friend study for a test, or simply doing chores for your parents.
3. Jnana yoga-
“Jnana” is Sanskrit for “knowledge”. Jnana yoga concentrates on understanding that the body and the soul are separate and being able to differentiate permanent from temporary. This comes from the Hindu belief that the body is temporary while the soul is the one that is reincarnated.
4. Raja yoga-
In his Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali explained Raja yoga using steps known as the eight limbs. The first four of these steps involve exercises like postures and controlled breathing.
The third step is called “asana”, meaning posture. There are primarily two types: sitting postures (meditation) and physical postures—the ones that most people associate with yoga.
Yoga’s Effects on Mental Health
Studies have shown that yoga reduces stress, relaxes the mind, and improves your mood, among many other things. It is also good for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
Yoga increases the level of Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your body. GABA is an acid that keeps nerve activity in check. Some people have low levels of GABA, so their nerve activity is higher, resulting in more stress and anxiety. Therefore, yoga keeps your mind relaxed and stress-free.
An important part of yoga is meditation, which is a huge stress-reliever. Meditation requires a person to relieve themselves of stressful thoughts or events and focus on something that is their idea of relaxing. This improves one’s ability to concentrate and cope with stress.
If you are someone who finds meditation hard, no need to worry! As stated by psychologist Belisa Vranich, “[Breathing is] meditation for people who can’t meditate” (The New York Times). Studies have affirmed that the controlled breathing involved in yoga reduces symptoms of many mental illnesses/disorders, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now you know what to do if you are stressed, anxious, have trouble concentrating, or have pretty much any other mental health issue. Wow, yoga sure has a ton of benefits! I’ll be sure to try it out myself.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and remember: You are never alone.