What can yoga do for your mind?

The physical benefits of yoga are well-known; a regular practice increases strength, fitness and flexibility, but is that really why millions of people across the world get on the mat every day? A 2016 poll by Yoga Alliance (US) revealed that 56% of respondents stated ‘stress relief’ as the main reason why they practised yoga (the second most popular reason after flexibility). As a mind-body practice, yoga involves far more than just a bunch of physical benefits.

According to the Mayo Clinic, yoga helps reduce stress, lower blood pressure and lower heart rate and in an article published in 2015 said that it “might also help alleviate chronic conditions, such as depression, pain, anxiety and insomnia.”

In 2013, Harvard psychiatrist John Denniger began a five year study into the benefits of meditation, to see how “ancient practices affect genes and brain activity in the chronically stressed”, this follows on from a previous study linked to stress and immune function. He found out that yoga and its sister sciences aren’t just good for your mind, they’re good for your genes. The study that Denniger and his colleagues conducted in 2013 showed positive changes in gene expression, after training participants for six weeks on mindfulness and yogic breathing – they concluded that meditation can turn genes on or off, “Specifically, genes linked to energy metabolism, mitochondria function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance were activated, while genes associated with stress and inflammation were deactivated.”

In 2007 there was a study on gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels in yoga practitioners, GABA is a key neuro transmitter for stress relief, with low levels of it being linked to anxiety, depression and mood disorders. The study concluded that “there was a 27% increase in GABA levels in the yoga practitioner group after the yoga session”.

Another study also in 2007 by Adelaide University confirmed that just ten sessions of Hatha yoga led to lower stress and anxiety and a better quality of life.

The list goes on, and as an avid reader of all things yoga, I could throw studies at you all day. What I really want to say is this:

Ask any yogi (someone who has taken yoga on as a lifestyle) and they’ll most likely tell you they came to yoga through injury, physical or otherwise – especially those who later felt inspired to become yoga teachers themselves. And let’s face it if you’ve been living in Egypt over the last five years, you’ve probably been through a lot of emotional turmoil, ups and downs and a whole load of instability. So, if you’re feeling a little down, a bit overwhelmed and extremely stressed, you are not alone but you’re also not helpless - from personal experience I know that you can help yourself and if you’re considering getting into yoga, you are taking a step in the right direction.

You may have heard people talking about self-care, and it’s a concept that many people find difficult to swallow, especially people with busy lives, crazy work schedules and families to take care of. But you know what? If you’re one of those people, then it’s even more important for you to set aside time for yourself. Contrary to popular belief, self-care is not a selfish act, but helps you take care of yourself so you can be better for you and for those around you.

Things to do for well-being:

If you don’t have a self-care routine in place, it’s a good idea to start one. Try to incorporate a few, or all, of these simple ideas into your daily routine:

  • Good quality sleep. Nothing beats it, make it a priority.

  • A 3-minute guided meditation whilst you’re still in bed. Yes, you can meditate in bed.

  • A 10-minute yoga sequence before breakfast. Don’t have a yoga mat? Use a towel or kleem.

  • Find a nearby studio for to lead a consistent practice. You can view the directory here.

  • A highly nutritious breakfast when possible. Food quality has a direct effect on how you’ll feel the rest of the day.

  • Breathing exercises when you’re stuck on the bridge :) See Nadhi Shodan mentioned below.

  • Choose herbal teas in the evening instead of caffeine. Cinnamon, chamomile, fennel and jasmine have calming properties.

  • Fill your bath tub with warm water, add a cup of Epsom salt and 4-6 drops of your favourite essential oil to the water, get in and stay put for 20 minutes. The magnesium in the salts promotes good health & general well-being.

What can you do right now?

  • Try a guided meditation by downloading a free app such as Calm, Headspace or Mindbody.

  • Teach yourself the basics of yoga by learning the sun salutation sequence in this video.

  • Learn a simple yogic breathing technique known as Nadhi Shodan or alternate nostril breathing.

  • If you have trouble sleeping hack your brain with an app like Atmosphere, you can create the perfect soundtrack for relaxation and drift off into your happy place.