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The Benefits of Yoga: How It Boosts Your Mental Health

Sep. 14, 2021 - Patti Muck

For more than a decade, Houston Methodist's medical director of psychiatry and telepsychiatry has relied on yoga and its healing powers to help maintain her own mental and physical fitness. As one who deals daily with patients suffering mental health crises, Dr. Corinna Keenmon's profession demands that she maintain focus, clarity, compassion and sound judgment — even on the worst days.

"Yoga seems to have this powerful combination of the physical movement combined with the deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness aspect," Dr. Keenmon explains. "This total package helps us physically by increasing flexibility, along with heart and brain health. Plus, the cognitive and emotional improvements that happen over time are priceless."

Yoga's mind-body practice dates back thousands of years and has dozens of different types. But its basic premise seeks relaxation through breathing and meditation combined with stretching and strengthening poses. Regular practitioners tout yoga's ability to help them with everything from mood and emotions to muscle tone, endurance and strength.

And science backs these claims.

Yoga's physical benefits to the brain and body

As a form of low-impact exercise, yoga has been shown to lower stress hormones in our bodies while simultaneously increasing beneficial brain chemicals like endorphins and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). These feel-good chemicals help decrease anxiety and improve mood.

Over time, yoga's effects also are believed to slow the natural aging process — there is less brain shrinkage in the areas of the brain that process information and store memories, Dr. Keenmon says. "Making yoga a part of our lives can help protect against the effects of aging on our memory and cognition."

Researchers compared brain imaging and chemical measurements in people who do yoga for 45 minutes to others who practiced a sedentary form of relaxation like listening to music or reading. The levels of good brain chemicals are higher in those who practiced yoga, Dr. Keenmon says.

"Yoga can help lower our fight, flight or freeze response by activating our parasympathetic nervous system and lowering negative emotions like depression, anxiety and anger," she says.

Even the inflexible can practice yoga

What about those of us who believe we aren't limber enough to twist into a body pretzel on a yoga mat?

"For people who are starting out, the first step is learning how to focus on just the feeling of breath going in and out of the body," Dr. Keenmon says. "If you're 100% in tune and focused on that, you're not worried about anybody else's opinions, judgments or other stressors and pressures."

Unlike so many physical activities that become more difficult with age, yoga is a lifelong, non-competitive form of exercise that allows people to connect with a supportive community — even a virtual one. It can also be a solo practice, part of a dedicated time to step away from the stress of the day and focus on yourself.

Dr. Keenmon says don't worry about flexibility. "One of the wonderful things about yoga is accepting yourself and your body just as you are today," she encourages. "This is the mindfulness aspect of yoga — simply appreciating your body for the things that it can do right now in the present moment."

How to start yoga and ways to continue

COVID-19 brought with it nearly two years of increased isolation and social distancing. In-person yoga became difficult, sometimes impossible to schedule. Yoga, however, creates synergy even when practicing virtually, with friends, strangers or a solo instructor.

Dr. Keenmon's favorite YouTube yoga — "Yoga With Adriene" — includes videos for all levels. Beginners, seasoned yoga fans and athletes of all kinds can find a short session that interests them. Just a few of the latest sessions: "Morning Yoga Flow," "Yoga For Forgiveness," "Stress Melt" and "Head & Heart Reset."

For those looking for something more high-energy and interactive, the subscription app Obé Fitness (Obefitness.com) includes various types of yoga classes. Obé Fitness also has a social media component that lets members take a live class virtually with friends and family by inviting them to an online yoga party.

Starting a yoga habit is a journey toward improvement. It begins with accepting yourself at all levels — and then experiencing the physical and mental benefits that naturally follow. Even 10 minutes a day can help improve mood, lower anxiety and cut down on emotional reactivity — something all of us going through COVID, round 4, can truly appreciate.

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