Yoga: A Path to Psychological Well-Being
Positive Self Help

Yoga: A Path to Psychological Well-Being


When thinking of “good” mental health, various synonymous words like emotional stability, strength, balance elated mood etc, come to mind. Thinking of mental health only in terms of psychological and emotional wellness creates a vacuum approach to mental health, leading to neglect of potential factors influencing one’s health. When approached holistically, mental health can become a more complete and stable factor. Various practices help one approach mental healing and one such practice, originated in the Eastern culture about 5000 years ago, is yoga.

Yoga and Psychology

It has been derived from the word ‘Yuj’, which means to join or to unite. The practice has been defined as a spiritual discipline that attempts to synchronize the mind and the body. The ultimate aim of yoga has been defined to achieve mukti, nirvana or moksha, which signifies liberation from cycles of rebirth, recognition of one’s true nature of existence, transcending the ego and forming a union with universal consciousness.

This concept of moksha is similar to the dimension of Transcendence, which was added later by Abraham Maslow to his theory of hierarchy of needs. The need to transcend goes beyond the need to self-actualize and is defined as a connection with something greater than self, involving a deeper sense of purpose, experiences, profound joy, meaning and connection with a higher entity.


Both the concepts of Moksha and Transcendence, although from different cultural backgrounds, emphasize upon union with ultimate reality, a sense of deep self-realization and altruistic behaviour of individuals having achieved this stage.

Read More: Yoga & Psychology: Bridging Ancient & Modern Wisdom

Types of Yoga

Yoga, for many years now, has been misunderstood by people who equate the practice of yoga directly to doing Asanas, which is only a branch or practice of yoga, also known as hatha yoga. Various people throughout history have written elaborately about yoga and its branches but it has been Maharishi Patanjali’s work on yoga, also known as Patanjali Yoga Sutras, that is still looked up to. He gave the concept of Ashtanga Yoga- the eight limbs of yoga-

  • Yama (moral conduct)
  • Niyama(personal discipline)
  • Asana (yogic postures)
  • Pranayama (breathing)
  • Pratyahara (detachment from sensory surroundings)
  • Dharana (focus)
  • Dhyana (meditation)
  • Samadhi (moksha)

The Bhagavad Gita too has emphasized on 4 types of yoga including- bhakti yoga (devotion), gyan yoga (intelligence), Karma yoga (physical action) and kriya yoga (internal action).

Read More: The Depths of Indian Psychology: Traditions and Modern Insights

Mental Health and Yoga

Knowing various branches of it can help us utilize them all to our advantage. The various practices can bring alterations to one’s perspectives of life, increase self-awareness and a sense of enjoying life fully and genuine enjoyment.

The practice of it can bring alterations to the physiology of fight and flight stress response by imposing a sense of calmness on the nervous system. The yogic practices attempt to sync the mind and the body by using techniques of both pranayama and hatha yoga. It usually involves getting into yogic postures, which creates a sense of discomfort and uses breathing techniques to focus on and thereby gradually reduce that sense of discomfort bringing the body and mind in sync and develop mental and physical strength and resilience.

According to Patanjali, the first five branches- yama, niyama, asana, pranayama and pratyahara create a foundational base for the other three branches of yoga. Hence, yoga can help separate one from their ego and material world and focus on higher mental capacities.

  • Effect on mental health problems: It is beneficial for mental health problems like depression, anxiety and insomnia, as it can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system induce relaxation and inhibit the sympathetic nervous system responsible for stress responses. Regular practice of yoga leads to inhibition of the posterior portion of the hypothalamus, which is responsible for sympathetic nervous system activation (Woodyard, 2011). This inhibition alters the body’s response to stressful stimuli by restoring autonomic regulatory reflex mechanisms associated with stress (Woodyard, 2011).
  • Dealing with daily stress: Today people are bombarded with information impinging on their senses leading to overstimulation. This is the reality of today’s hectic modern world which can be extremely taxing for the nervous system leading to feelings of tiredness, lack of concentration and even burnout, it leads to too much focus on the world due to cognitive overload that it can prevent us from accessing our higher mental capacities and head towards something more meaningful. Hence, restorative yogic postures, pranayama, dharana and dhyana or meditation can be extremely beneficial to cut off from the outer world and its sensory inputs that can allow for a break for the nervous system to calm down and even induce a sense of pratyahara, i.e.- a sense of detachment from one’s sensory world.
  • Emotional Regulation: Emotional regulation is a process by which a person can acknowledge an emotion, experience it and modify its expression on a behavioural, experiential and psychophysiological level. Yogic practices help inculcate mindfulness and focus in the present, which can help notice emotions being felt. Once an emotion is acknowledged, breathing techniques can be used to first help process an emotion and react accordingly.
  • Cognitive Function: It improves cognitive function is it has a down regulatory effect on the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, it increases oxygen flow to the brain, enhances neurotransmitter activity and is also associated with greater cortical thickness and grey matter volume. According to the polyvagal theory, which stresses the roles of the vagus nerve and its control of the Autonomic nervous system, which further controls various other bodily functions. It can improve brain and physiological connections, leading to better control over them and control physiological responses. This can help better manage stress and lead to better cognitive performance.
  • Improved mood and sleep: All exercise contributes to a better mood but yoga promotes the release of Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that has an inhibiting effect on the nervous system. It helps decrease anxiety and nervous system over-regulation and leads to better mood and sleep
  • Improved Self-Image: Regular practice of yoga increases mindfulness. An increase in mindfulness has been associated with trait mindfulness (long-term characteristic of being mindful) and increased body appreciation. It has also been associated with reduced self-objectification and intrinsic or internal motivation to exercise. Hence, it can generate a sense of self-compassion, and enhance confidence and self-acceptance. Apart from these physiological changes, other branches of yoga like Karma yoga, which is the path of action and gyan yoga, which is the path of intelligence or wisdom are utterly important for one’s sense of self.
  • Yoga and self-actualization: A sense of passion, meaning, accomplishment and engagement in activities is utterly important for our sense of worth and self-esteem. Having surpassed one’s survival needs and a need for a calm nervous system, it also emphasizes on finding a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life, which is extremely important for a person to self-actualize and become a fully- functioning individual.

Read More: Accepting Death in Old age the inevitable truth

It is a holistic approach to mental health, focusing on various aspects of one’s being that can impact them. Human beings have various kinds of needs not just survival or primary needs that need to be fulfilled. It provides for a path that attempts to attain and satisfy these various needs and help an individual self-actualize and thereby transcend.

Yogic practices realize the importance of fulfilment of basic needs a calm nervous system and a healthy body for the attainment of higher states of being and incorporate techniques that strengthen the mind and body then once this foundation is formed helps create and enhance one’s sense of self. Hence, It is a holistic approach of good mental health.

References +
  • Woodyard C. Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. Int J Yoga. 2011 Jul;4(2):49-54. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.85485
  • Arora S, Bhattacharjee J. Modulation of immune response in stress by yoga. Int J Yoga. 2008;1:45–55.
  • Kobylińska, D., Lewczuk, K., Marchlewska, M., & Pietraszek, A. (2018). For body and mind: practicing yoga and emotion regulation. Social Psychological Bulletin, 13(1), Article e25502.
  • Bhattacharyya, K. K., Andel, R., & Small, B. J. (2021). Effects of yoga-related mind-body therapies on cognitive function in older adults: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 93, 104319.
  • Cox, A. E., Ullrich-French, S., Cole, A. N., & D’Hondt-Taylor, M. (2016). The role of state mindfulness during yoga in predicting self-objectification and reasons for exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 22, 321–327.
  • Cox, A. E., & McMahon, A. K. (2019). Exploring changes in mindfulness and body appreciation during yoga participation. Body Image, 29, 118-121.

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