Intentional Living

Understanding Mental Health: Yoga’s Role

Understanding Mental Health globally. This is a map of the world highlighting stakeholder participation in the Yoga Alliance global survey gathering insight into yoga participation and practices across various audiences. Yoga Alliance Action Plan 2024-2030 is to work towards a bolder, more compassionate, equitable, and inclusive world, grounded in the principles of yoga.

________________ Author: Frederike Leclerc

Understanding Mental Health is an Ongoing Process

Mental health, an integral part of our overall well-being, is a complex construct that includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It influences how we think, feel, and act, playing a crucial role in how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Understanding mental health on a global scale is vital to ensuring the continued flourishing of humankind and our planet.

The Spectrum of Psychological Well-being

Psychological well-being is not just the absence of mental illness but includes positive aspects of a person’s life, such as positive emotions, life satisfaction, personal growth, and resilience. The World Health Organization (WHO) views it as a set of conditions in which an individual realizes their own abilities, copes with the normal stresses of life, works productively, and is able to make a contribution to their community.

The importance of mental health cannot be overstated—it affects not only personal happiness and fulfillment but also physical health, productivity, and societal cohesion. Despite our growing understanding of mental health, mental health issues are widespread, with varying global statistics highlighting the need for comprehensive mental health strategies.

Understanding Mental Health in relation to Physical Activity

Recent research underscores the positive impact of physical activity on mental health. Studies by Babyak et al. (2000) and others have shown that regular exercise improves mood, reduces stress, and enhances self-esteem, offering significant benefits for psychological well-being. This aligns with broader findings suggesting that a healthy lifestyle, which includes physical activity, contributes to better mental health outcomes.

Global Trends in Physical Activity

The global state of physical activity raises concerns, with over a quarter of the world’s population leading sedentary lifestyles. WHO statistics reveal significant disparities in physical activity levels, influenced by factors such as gender, income, and geographic location. High-income countries show a trend towards increased inactivity, which correlates with rising health issues, including those related to mental health.

Global Inactivity: Most societies do not foster physical activity as an intrinsic facet of wellness and longevity. With the exception of countries like Japan and Switzerland healthcare provision generally, is predicated on treatment rather than prevention. Over a quarter of the world’s adult population, approximately 1.4 billion adults, are insufficiently active. (A snapshot of earth’s population puts it at about 8,101,628,600. Ref. source Making 1.4 billion approximately 17.28% of the total population. Parallel to this approximately 16.67% of our total population dies globally due to coronary heart disease – around 1 in 6.

Gender Disparity:

Around 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men globally do not engage in enough physical activity to maintain their health. (An interesting correlation, though not necessarily causation: these estimates match the prevalence of mental health challenges globally).

Income Disparity:

Levels of inactivity are twice as high in high-income countries compared to low-income countries. (Modern life-styles introduce higher levels of comfort, sedentary jobs, long commutes using passive modes of transportation and inactivity during leisure time).

Increase in Inactivity in High-Income Countries:

Insufficient activity increased by 5% (from 31.6% to 36.8%) in high-income countries between 2001 and 2016. In high-income countries, 26% of men and 35% of women were insufficiently physically active, compared to 12% of men and 24% of women in low-income countries. 

Adolescent Inactivity:

Globally, 81% of adolescents aged 11-17 years were insufficiently physically active in 2016, with 85% of girls and 78% of boys not meeting WHO recommendations of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity per day.

Global Recommendations:

28% of adults aged 18 and over globally were not active enough in 2016, not meeting the global recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week.  Ref. source

Understanding Mental Health: Innovative Approaches

Global and local initiatives are underway to address the challenges of mental health and physical inactivity. The Hong Kong SAR, China, case study exemplifies how sports-based youth development programs can promote physical well-being alongside social and emotional development. Such initiatives highlight the importance of holistic approaches to mental health, integrating physical activity with strategies to enhance psychological well-being.

The Hong Kong Study in detail:

This innovative program engages participants in weekly after-school sports mentoring and adopts a positive youth development framework. It focuses on amplifying adolescents’ inherent strengths rather than addressing problematic behaviors.

Participants, through these sessions, embarked on a journey of personal growth, learning to establish objectives, enhance their abilities, and introspect on their emotional responses to various sports activities. 

Unlike traditional educational setups, this program did not rely on teachers or predetermined syllabi. Instead, mentors adopted the role of facilitators, encouraging students to navigate their own learning experiences through open communication. These mentors equipped the adolescents with problem-solving tools and strategies relevant to the sporting context, alongside opportunities to apply these skills in scenarios designed to bolster resilience.

The Hong Kong Study Conclusions:

A thorough assessment of the program revealed multifaceted benefits. Beyond just physical fitness and activity enhancements, it significantly boosted the mental well-being, self-efficacy, and resilience of the participating students. This work is a considerable contribution to our understanding of mental health generally and the necessity of managing human well-being locally. Ref. source

Under the umbrella of global mental health action countries around the world have improved mental health services in line with WHO recommendations. While such improvements are largely mental health service and diagnosis based, some provide practical interventions and actions. For example the Australian mental health act provides the following guidelines:


  • Do something to keep physically, socially, spiritually and cognitively active (Act). 
  • Do something with someone to keep connected to friends, family and community (Belong). 
  • Do something meaningful, important and valuable to provide a sense of purpose (Commit). 

Understanding Mental Health: A Holistic Approach

Understanding Mental Health requires a multifaceted approach, this challenges us to devise a holistic solution. Given the varied geopolitical and economic landscape of our global species it is vital to provide accessible frameworks and non discriminatory platforms which simultaneously foster autonomy and support communal flourishing. Adopting a comprehensive strategy towards mental and emotional health enables individuals to improve their overall quality of life and achieve a state of fulfillment. This holistic perspective on mental health promotion is underscored by findings published in the International Journal of Advanced Research in Science, Communication, and Technology (IJARSCT), Volume 3, Issue 1, February 2023. 

Yogic Tradition: Art and Science

The concept of “Yoga” is deeply rooted in ancient traditions and philosophy. It originates from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which means “to join,” “to yoke,” or “to unite.” This ancient practice aims at achieving the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness. Highlighting a spiritual journey towards the realization of oneness in existence. This concept of unity is also mirrored in our modern understanding of the universe. A manifestation of a single quantum reality, suggesting a convergence between ancient wisdom and contemporary science.

Yoga transcends physical exercise, representing an inner science aimed at harmonizing the body and mind to achieve self-realization. The ultimate goal of Yoga practice, or sādhana, is to overcome sufferings and attain a state of freedom (mukti, nirvāna, kaivalya, or moksha). Which we know to be holistic health, happiness, and harmony in life. As such Yoga represents a comprehensive contribution to the global elevation of mental health challenges.

Yogic Tradition: Origins

The origins of Yoga trace back to thousands of years before the advent of the first religions or belief systems. According to Yogic lore, Shiva is revered as the first yogi or ādiyogi. Said to have imparted his profound knowledge to the legendary saptarishis or “seven sages.” These sages disseminated Yoga’s science globally, influencing various ancient cultures. However, it was in India that Yoga found its most comprehensive expression. Sage Agastya, one of the saptarishis, played a significant role in shaping the Yogic culture in India. Archaeological findings from the Indus Saraswati Valley Civilization, suggesting its deep roots in the region’s spiritual and cultural heritage.

The codification of Yogic practices and philosophy are attributed to the sage Maharishi Patanjali. His seminal work, the Yoga Sutras laid the foundation for the structured practice of Yoga disseminated worldwide. Patanjali’s systematic compilation integrates its philosophical and practical aspects.

Today, Yoga has gained global recognition for its health benefits, including disease prevention and health promotion. Its universal appeal lies in its ability to balance the spiritual and material needs of humanity. As such, Yoga has the potential to transcend the cultural and geographical boundaries of our world.

Understanding Mental Health and the Role of Yoga

Yoga offers numerous benefits for mental health, with research supporting its positive effects on anxiety, depression, and overall mood. It enhances cognitive functions and provides a therapeutic complement to traditional treatments for various mental health conditions. This foundational practice hints at understanding mental health as an innate process of continual nurturing and improvement.

Scientific Insights into Yoga’s Impact on the Brain

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other neuroimaging tools have revealed that consistent yoga practitioners exhibit a denser cerebral cortex (critical for processing information) and hippocampus (central to learning and memory) compared to those who don’t practice yoga. These brain areas typically diminish in size with age. Notably, older individuals who practice yoga exhibit less reduction, suggesting yoga’s potential to mitigate cognitive decline associated with aging. Investigations also suggest yoga and meditation enhance executive functions, including problem-solving, decision-making, and the accuracy and speed of cognitive processing.

Mood Enhancement through Yoga

All forms of exercise can elevate mood by decreasing stress hormone levels, increasing endorphin production, and enhancing cerebral oxygenation. Yoga, however, offers unique benefits by raising levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter linked to improved mood and reduced anxiety, and reducing activity in the limbic system, which governs emotions, thus moderating emotional responses to stress.

Yoga as a Complementary Therapy

Although medications and psychotherapy are standard treatments for depression and anxiety, yoga emerges as a potent complementary strategy. A comprehensive review in the Aging and Mental Health journal analyzed 15 studies on various relaxation techniques for managing depression and anxiety. in older adults. Findings indicated that, while several techniques had positive effects, yoga and music therapy stood out for their efficacy, with yoga showing the most durable benefits.

Yoga’s Role in Managing PTSD

Several studies highlight yoga’s effectiveness as an adjunct treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has been found to reduce intrusive thoughts and emotional intensity while promoting steadier, more relaxed breathing. This effect is attributed to yoga’s ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, associated with relaxation and calmness.

Understanding Mental Health is an ongoing process

The interconnection between mental health, physical activity, and overall well-being is undeniable. With a growing body of research supporting these links, it is clear that a comprehensive approach to mental health, incorporating physical activity and practices like yoga, is essential for individual and societal health. The ongoing challenge lies in extending these insights into actionable strategies that enhance the psychological well-being of populations worldwide. By integrating yoga into mental healthcare, individuals may find a holistic approach to enhancing both mental and physical well-being. Underscoring the interconnectedness of mind and body health is the key so providing an overall framework of health.

In 2022, Yoga Alliance commissioned a global survey and national focus groups aimed at gathering insight into yoga participation and practices across various audiences. Based on this extensive study a strategic plan has now been put into action for 2024-2030.Ref. source Yoga Alliance is the largest nonprofit association representing the yoga community, with over 7,000 Registered Yoga Schools (RYS) and more than 100,000 Registered Yoga Teachers (RYT) as of April 2020. Through organisations such as Yoga Alliance our understanding mental health as a pilar of general health becomes ever more transparent. By embracing these practices, we can work towards a more compassionate and inclusive world, grounded in the principles of yoga.

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