Why Practicing Yoga Can Help Us Face Future Challenges
Over the last year, we have all been impacted by the rapid changes that COVID-10 has brought to our lives. Against a backdrop of political upheaval and ever-evolving news stories that flicker past us in a succession of troubling headlines, many people have found that their mental health has deteriorated, with one study suggesting that depression is surging amongst young adults.
The tangible effects of climate change (already seen in the Australian and Californian wildfires) are set to accelerate over the coming years, and it appears that the normal ups and downs of life will be increasingly accompanied by larger disruption – much in the way 2020 has been. This growing uncertainty is likely to make it harder for us, on an individual level, to maintain the mental wellbeing and adaptability needed to face challenges both large and small.
Increasing our resilience through the practice of yoga might not be the whole solution to issues which extend far beyond ourselves, but it can make a huge difference to our personal experience of life and our ability to cope. In order to move towards a better future, we have to come together with both energy and fortitude, and yoga can be a fantastic tool for cultivating both.
What Is Resilience?
Resilience is a word that appears often in discussions regarding mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, resilience can be defined as “the process of adapting well in the face of trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.”
No one, no matter how lucky or privileged, can escape from difficulties in life, but by building resilience we can learn to navigate these difficulties without becoming overwhelmed by them. While some people demonstrate greater resilience and grit than others, it would be a mistake to believe this is purely a personality trait – instead, it’s something we can learn to develop.
Nor is resilience a practice in pushing down our feelings or engaging in toxic positivity. Rather than becoming inured to or simply avoiding emotional pain, resilience is about being able to come through to the other side – perhaps even having found that the experience has resulted in personal growth.
This isn’t to say, of course, that if we do become overwhelmed by our circumstances and need extra support that we are somehow at fault, or that it is the individual’s responsibility to mitigate systemic injustices by learning how to bear them without complaint. Resilience is something we can try to cultivate simply to protect our mental health as much as possible and get the most out of our lives, even at the times where it feels as if the tides have turned against us.
How Yoga Makes Us More Resilient
Yoga can help us to learn how to cope better in pressured situations because it balances our mood and regulates our stress response in a way which requires little conscious effort. Rather than trying to think ourselves calmer and change the habits of a lifetime by attempting to bend our thought process, yoga works with our body to create a sense of calm at a deeper, more instinctive level.
We all face stress in our daily lives, and some of us also live with trauma, mental health challenges and periods of acute distress. These challenges aren’t only felt in our minds, but also within our bodies – with our endocrine and nervous systems particularly linked to our mental state. When we become stressed, we experience heightened levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, increased heart rate and a variety of other physical symptoms.
Studies suggest that, as a mind-body practice, yoga has a profound effect on our neurobiology which makes us less reactive (and therefore more resilient) to stress. While we could always benefit from more research, existing evidence is extremely promising, with researchers having observed that a daily yoga practice can improve our cortisol awakening response, increase our levels of GABA (a hormone linked to feelings of contentment) and lessen feelings of anxiety.
These findings, alongside others which link mindfulness to positive brain changes and which demonstrate the profoundly calming qualities of coherent breathing, suggest that yoga’s breathwork, meditation and poses combine to help us tackle stress. This is important because, by becoming less reactive and cooler under pressure, we learn how to be more adaptable to change – which is a key coping skill for everyone as they journey through life.
This adaptability is also a key aspect of protecting our wellbeing in adverse circumstances, and can be likened to how we learn how to breathe deeply and regularly when holding a pose we find challenging. Through yoga, we build neural pathways in our brain which make us more mentally flexible and emotionally balanced, while also working through any difficult feelings we may be experiencing.
While yoga won’t necessarily solve our problems directly, it is an accessible and sustainable way to increase our mental toolkit – providing us with the balance, energy and motivation to make our world a better place, both for ourselves and others.
Heather Mason is a yoga therapy expert and founder of The Minded Institute, a leading yoga therapy training organization known for its focus on mental health and empowering yoga and health professionals to integrate yoga therapy into healthcare.