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Mental health benefits of yoga, including better sleep and memory




Just 20 minutes of yoga per day can improve your sleep and lead to a better memory, a new study has found.

The specific form of yoga – yoga nidra – can have positive impacts even on beginners, scientists say, as it is designed to guide people into a state of conscious relaxation while lying down.

After participants spent two weeks practicing yoga nidra for just 20 minutes per day, the researchers from the Armed Forces Medical College in India said there was an increase in sleep efficiency and a higher percentage of delta waves in sleep, which indicate the deepest and most restorative level of sleep.

Yet, it’s not just this type of yoga that can aid cognitive functions, but all types of yoga can be incredibly beneficial to your mental health as well.

"Yoga offers numerous benefits for mental health. Its practices – which combine postures, breathing, and mindfulness – effectively relieve anxiety, lower depression, promote better sleep, combat fatigue, reduce stress, and improve focus," Grace McGeehan, trained Yoga Teacher and Rapid Transformational Therapist at MYNDUP, says.

 

"These benefits are attributed to yoga's ability to induce relaxation, boost the happy hormone serotonin, lower cortisol level, and enhance overall mental resilience. It moves you from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and into the parasympathetic nervous system (true rest and digest)."

 

Benefits of yoga

Along with mental health, sleep, and memory benefits, McGeehan says some other benefits include:

  • Increased flexibility

  • Core strength

  • Enhanced stamina

  • Better balance

  • Better circulatory health

  • Physical awareness

  • Relief from physical aches and pains

 

How often to do yoga to see benefits

While the new study suggests 20 minutes per day is the sweet spot to be able to see benefits of yoga – McGeehan says that even just 15 minutes per day can lead to results – how often you practice yoga is more important.

"To experience the mental health benefits of yoga, such as reduced stress, anxiety, or depression, the frequency of your practice is key," she explains.

"While some people notice a mental shift, feeling less stressed or anxious, after their very first yoga session, others may take longer to realise these benefits. This variation will completely depend from person to person, several factors could include your ability to stay present during practice and your initial levels of stress or anxiety. There really is no right or wrong, so try not to judge yourself as you embark on a yoga practice."

She adds that the more you practice, the more benefits you will see, including increased mindfulness.

"By practicing focusing and staying present on your mat, during your yoga practice, one can then bring this practice into their day to day lives, for example during a busy working day," she adds.

"For those aiming to use yoga as a tool for improving mental health, a daily practice is recommended. However, this may not be possible for everyone. Practicing one to three times a week can still offer significant benefits. A little a lot will go a long way. So, even if you can only manage 15 minutes one day, that is certainly better than nothing, and will still have a profound impact on your mental health, in time."

 

Ultimately, there is no ‘right’ amount when it comes to practicing yoga. Instead, McGeehan says you need to find a consistent routine that works for you.

"It's always important to listen to your body, be intuitive, and find a balance and routine that works for you and only you, practicing enough to enjoy the benefits whilst trying not to overextend yourself," she says.

"Remember, yoga is not just physical exercise; it's a meditative practice that requires focus on physical postures and breathing. The more regularly you practice, the more used to the physical practice you will become and therefore more easily you will be able to tune into its mental health benefits, such as increased relaxation and decreased anxiety."

 

How to start practicing yoga

If you’re a yoga novice, seeing all the poses that more experienced yogis make can seem daunting, so it’s best to start with classes that feel like the right fit for you.

Below, McGeehan reveals her top tips for beginners who want to start learning the art of yoga but might feel a little overwhelmed by it all.

 

Choose the right class

"Opt for classes specifically labelled as 'beginners' or 'introductory'," she says. "These classes are designed to introduce you to the basics of yoga postures, breathing techniques, and meditation at a comfortable pace."

Learn basic poses

McGeehan recommends starting by familiarising yourself with fundamental yoga poses, such as downward facing dog.

"Understanding the basics of poses like Mountain Pose, Downward Facing Dog, and Child’s Pose will give you a strong foundation for your practice," she says.

Use online resources

"There are many online platforms and YouTube channels that offer beginner-friendly yoga sessions. These resources can be very helpful, especially if attending a physical class isn't possible," she advises.

Start with gentle yoga styles

McGeehan recommends beginning with slower paced yoga styles such as Hatha or Iyengar yoga.

"These styles focus more on alignment and technique, which is ideal for beginners," she explains. "Yin and Restorative yoga is also a great place to start, being much slower, softer practices it may be easier to keep up."

Listen to your body

"Pay close attention to how your body feels during your practice. Avoid pushing yourself into poses that are uncomfortable, and remember that it's okay to modify poses to suit your current level of flexibility and strength," she suggests.

Don’t compare yourself to anyone else

"Everybody’s body is different and everybody’s yoga journey is different," McGeehan explains. "So, if you notice someone in the class as much more flexible than you, try not to let that get you down. Practice connecting back to yourself."

Remember, yoga is not about touching your toes

"Many people say ‘I can’t practice yoga, I can’t even touch my toes.’" McGeehan says. "But that really is not the essence of yoga, try to come away from this thought or belief, and bring it back to the many holistic benefits you will receive from yoga."

 

Source: Laura Hampson, Yahoo Life UK

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