The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on our mental health, with many Americans facing symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders.
36% of adults reported anxiety symptoms and 28% reported symptoms of a depressive disorder during the beginning of the pandemic, according to a 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation study.
While teletherapy boomed during the pandemic, at-home fitness routines also provided a mental and physical boost for people stuck at home, often balancing work and home life inside the same four walls.
Sales of exercise gear, like cycling bikes and kettlebells, skyrocketed during the pandemic — yoga equipment, included.
More than just exercise: The mental benefits of yoga
The physical health benefits of yoga are well-known among practitioners, but more and more Americans are reaping the benefits of yoga for their mental health and emotional wellbeing as well.
Yoga promotes breathing, meditation and mindfulness
“Yoga begins with the asana or physical practices, which are meant to prepare the body for mindful practices,” Ira Trivedi, a yoga teacher and bestselling author, said. “When you learn how to control your body and breathe, they become pillars to learning to control your mind.”
In yoga, you are taking the exercises of the body and breathing into the world of mind control,” Trivedi said.
When it comes to rising mental health concerns during the pandemic, Trivedi believes meditation has the ability to help individuals feel more balanced and mentally stronger.
“Meditation takes a lot of preparation. You are working with your energies when you do postures in yoga, which in return aid you in creating a mental state for meditation,” Trivedi said, explaining that the calm, meditative state can help you stay happier.
"Yoga is not merely physical exercise. It follows the principle that with a healthy mind, there comes a healthy lifestyle."
Sri M, Founder Of the Satsang Foundation
Yoga is not just a practice, but a lifestyle
Yoga’s significance isn't just limited to the physical and mental realm — for many practitioners, yoga is a way of life.
“I credit my yoga practices for my interest in being a more compassionate, empathetic, and sincere human being,” explained Tejal Patel, a yoga teacher and co-host for the podcast, "Yoga is Dead."
“Through yoga I’ve developed my skill of discernment so that I’m not questioning as much or worrying about the past and that has helped to decrease my anxiety and increase my overall quality of life.”
Sri M, yogi and founder of the Satsang Foundation, agreed: "Yoga is not merely physical exercise. It follows the principle that with a healthy mind, there comes a healthy lifestyle."
Sri M explained that when serotonin is released from the endocrine gland, one feels happier and calmer. When one consistently performs the breathing exercises and meditation in yoga, more serotonin is released, he explained.
“Certain asanas or physical postures in yoga allow the mind to stay calm and relaxed."
Sri M explained that the concept of bhakti yoga, or devotion, is also very important for the wellness and mental stability of an individual during difficult times like the pandemic, “when we look for something to cling to in a desperate state.”
Yoga culture traditionally speaks of yamas and niyamas — or moral disciplines and regulations — these practices include nonviolence, self-control, truthfulness, cleanliness, contentment and self-study.
During a time of record-breaking natural disasters nationwide, climate change has been a central issue, both socially and politically.
Yoga culture’s ahimsa — or nonviolent approach to caring and nurturing the environment — stresses a oneness with nature and taking an empathetic approach to it.
Yoga teaches compassion for yourself and others
“One of yoga’s most important aspects is ahimsa, or compassion towards all creations,” Edwin Bryant, a practitioner of yoga for over 45 years and a professor who teaches about yoga and philosophy at Rutgers University, said. “Yogic practice pushes the individual to not only get closer with their own self but also with the nature, space, environment and creations around them. You want to slowly feel a union with everything.”
Practitioners say that the yoga experience has been helpful during the pandemic, especially when dealing with the loneliness and stress associated with the lockdown and uncertainty.
“Yogic philosophy can help us to change our outlook, another extremely important factor when it comes to mental health,” Jesal Parikh, a yoga teacher and the co-founder of the "Yoga is Dead" podcast, explained. “For example, practicing gratitude can help us perceive difficult situations more positively and help us to navigate these situations with more ease.”