Yoga for Mental Health

Does a sweaty Ashtanga yoga practice contribute to long-term wellbeing?

 

You’ve probably heard that yoga is good for reducing stress.

But what do you picture when you see a ‘stress reducing’ class?

You probably DON’T picture a person sweating and breathing loudly in lots of plank poses, Upwards Dogs and Downward Dogs… (aka. Ashtanga yoga!)

Well, this week I’m reviewing a recent scientific study that compared the mental wellbeing of long-term Ashtanga yogis (colloquially called ‘Ashtangi’s’), with people from the general population.

This topic is near and dear to my heart because a regular Ashtanga yoga practice has saved my sanity a few times in my life already. I’ll elaborate a bit more on at the end of this blog!

 

How is Ashtanga different?

If you think yoga is chilled out… then Ashtanga yoga will come as a shock to you.

It is a dynamic flow of movement and breath that puts you into poses which heat you up and build strength in your whole body.

When in an Ashtanga class, you always start with Sun Salutations. This is a warm-up routine that flows through forward folds, (sometimes a handstand), plank poses, Upwards Dogs and Downward Dogs. By the end of this warm-up….. you are WARM!

 

No room for worries!

Ashtanga yoga synchronises each inhale and exhale with a movement, and creates a state where your WHOLE mind’s bandwidth is taken up with the yoga practice. This means that there is no more space for your mind to think about worries and other thoughts. So, it is like a moving meditation, or also called being in a ‘flow state’.

Traditionally, Ashtanga yoga is practiced on 6 mornings a week, and the remaining day is the well-earned rest day.

It is quite a demanding schedule! And requires people who have a normal job to get up at 5am to do their practice.

(Of course, you can still benefit from Ashtanga in a slightly less intense and rigid way – more on this later!)

 

Biggest Ashtanga study yet…

The study by Morris et al. (2023) is the first of it’s kind that has used such a large sample of long-term Ashtangi’s. There has been a lot of research on ‘yoga’ in general and on Ayengar yoga (another type of yoga which focuses more on stretching and less on building heat), but not so much specifically on Ashtanga yoga.

As Ashtanga yoga generates a real exercise effect (heat, sweat, muscle ache etc.), it needs to be studied separately from the more relaxing forms of yoga.

 

What did the researchers do?

Morris et al. (2023) recruited ‘Ashtangi’s’ who had practiced this style of yoga for at least 5 days a week, over least 12 months. They ended up with 213 long-term Ashtangi’s, of whom 20% had actually practiced for more than 10 years!!

The researchers asked this group to complete a special questionnaire called the PERMA scale which gains an understanding of 8 aspects of wellbeing:

  1. Positive emotions
  2. Engagement
  3. Relationships
  4. Meaning
  5. Accomplishment
  6. Overall wellbeing
  7. Physical health
  8. Negative emotions

The PERMA questionnaire had previously been used on a very large group of 31,966 representative of the general population of adults, and this data was used as a comparison.

 

How did the Ashtangi’s perform?

The results were pretty clear!

The long-term Ashtangi’s scored higher on ALL positive aspects of wellbeing (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishment, overall wellbeing and physical health). And they scored significantly lower on the one negative aspect: negative emotion.

For the nerds out there; all these differences were statistically significant (p<0.001)!

 

The longer, the better

The researchers also investigated whether these positive wellbeing effects were stronger when Ashtanga yoga had been practiced for more years.

And, you guessed it, this was the case! The more years that someone had dedicated to the Ashtanga practice, the more positive they scored on the PERMA wellbeing scale. Specifically for the aspects: positive motions, relationships, meaning, accomplishment, overall well-being and physical health.

Well, I’d like some of that please!!

 

What is it about the Ashtanga lifestyle?

The question that begs to be asked is:

“WHAT is is about Ashtanga that led to these high scores on the wellbeing scale?”

As this study was not a controlled experiment, we can’t say with confidence that it is the movements in the Ashtanga yoga style that cause this upward shift in wellbeing.

In fact, there are a multitude of factors at play in an Ashtanga yoga lifestyle which could each contribute a little to the higher scores.

Here are just a few things that may have increased their wellbeing:

  • Dedication to a physical / spiritual practice. I mean, just think if YOU dedicated 90 minutes each day on something that helped you quiet your mind and made you fit. (No housework, no kids, no work during that time).  That ‘me time’ alone would probably make you calmer, happier and more collected!
  • Waking up early consistently (and thus going to bed early consistently). It’s nooooo secret that sleep is important for our mental and physical health. Have you ever been long-term sleep deprived? (I have!) And it definitely dragged down my mental state.
  • Exercising for 6 days a week. Perhaps it was simply the physical and mental benefits of getting sweaty 6 days a week! Ashtanga yoga builds a lot of strength and tones the body. So dedicated Ashtangi’s definitely notice a difference in their body.
  • The mental focus/meditation invoked by the Astanga practice. The ‘flow state’ or meditative state achieved in Ashtanga yoga may have altered their brain chemistry. There is research showing that long-term mediation does have measurable effects the brain! (Steeter et al. 2007)

 

How is this relevant to me?

“But I don’t have the time for this!?!?” I can already hear you say.

And nor do I! I can’t see how, with a job and a young family, someone could do 90 minutes of yoga early in the morning 6 days a week. (Well, it WOULD be possible if I went to bed at 8pm and woke up at 4am…)

Buuuuuuuut as that will NOT be happening anytime soon, let’s see how we CAN make it work for a more realistic lifestyle…

 

Making it REALISTIC

I personally think that these well-being benefits came from the long-term dedication to a mind-body practice which gets you into a ‘flow-state’. Nowhere in the study did they prove that it was necessarily the 6 days a week part, or the part about the yoga taking 90 minutes!

So, we can distil the essence of this Ashtanga lifestyle into a more realistic one for the every-day person.

To me, this looks like a 20 or 30 minute Ashtanga yoga practice 3-5 times a week. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the morning (but it COULD be if that works for you). It could be before lunch or before dinner. As long as you can find that 30 minutes of quiet time to get into a ‘flow state’ while you’re getting sweaty!

 

My personal story

To finish this blog (which has got a little longer than I planned!)… I’d like to add a personal account of how a regular Ashtanga practice saved my sanity.

On two occasions in my life I have felt very emotionally low, you can even say depressed. One was when I had a very hard time after I almost failed my PhD exam. The way this manifested was a downwards spiral almost into alcoholism.

At this time in my life I found Ashtanga! And it helped get my focus back into my body, and not just locked up in my head. This was the start of a very positive change for me.

The second time was when I had post-natal depression, which spiralled into suicidal ideation at times… Only when I managed to get my baby to sleep in his cot for naps, and fitted in a short, daily Ashtanga yoga practice, did I start to feel like myself again.

At both these difficult times, the dedication to daily Ashtanga yoga gave me the ‘excuse’ I needed to spend some time on myself. The excuse I needed to allow myself to breathe deeply and slow down the monkey brain for just a little while!

Yoga homework

I don’t expect anyone to practice yoga for 90 minutes, 6 days a week!

But I dooooo recommend planning-in a SHORT yoga session, 3-5 times a week.


Start small

So, I invite you to look at your diary and start small. Can you do 15 minutes, 3 times a week? Let’s start there!


Open your diary

Block out three 15 minute clocks in your diary, at times when it is realistic for you.


And if you need a little help getting started with Ashtanga yoga, go along an have a look at my classes!

Happy sweating!

Learn more about BendyLife yoga!

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


References

Morris, B., Jackson, J., & Roberts III, A. (2023). Effects of long-term Ashtanga Yoga practice on psychological well-being. Mental Health and Social Inclusion.

Streeter, C.C., Jensen, J.E., Perlmutter, R.M., Cabral, H.J., Tian, H., Terhune, D.B. and Renshaw, P.F. (2007), “Yoga asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: a pilot study”, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol. 13 No. 4, pp. 419-426.

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