The Science Behind Yoga & Meditation & Their Benefits for Mental Health in Ireland

The Reluctant Enlightenment of a Nation


Yoga and meditation are slowly becoming more and more popular and ‘acceptable’ to talk about in Ireland. This is a fact. With an increasing number of businesses, schools, and public figures jumping on the band wagon (or brightly coloured mat) and openly engaging in and speaking about the benefits of having a regular practice, it’s almost fashionable now to engage in some brief introspection…Almost. Following on from the ‘I never thought I’d tell anyone this’ mantra of recent personal-story-exposing trends on social media and the general increase in open discussions of mental health issues in Irish culture (an amazing thing in itself which should not ever be ridiculed), yoga and meditation seem to have graduated past the boundaries of speculatory ‘indie’, ‘hippie’, and ‘NFATR’ (fans of OMGWACA on Facebook will understand) kinds of ideologies and slowly but surely tiptoed quietly into the realm of ‘things-which-are-ok-to-do-now’, in our restricted and resistant-to-change Irish frame of mind.

Regardless of public opinion, my own personal practice of yoga and meditation has helped me overcome several run-ins with Illnesses Which Must Not Be Named and have benefited me far more than any visits to Doctors Who Help With The Nerves ever have, and having recently returned from a stint abroad where I qualified as a yoga teacher, this is something I now wish to share.

“But What Do The Instructions Say?!”

The need for scientific fact and validation when discussing yoga and meditation with peers and ‘non-believers’, as various advanced yogis have lightheartedly described them, is ultimately an obstacle we as yoga practitioners and teachers have already and regularly face everyday in the world around us, not just in Ireland – and that’s ok too. Knowing how closed off and resistant to change older generations and Irish society as a whole has been over the years, it makes sense that people need Solid Facts, followed by A Radio Discussion and That Ad With The Lad in the Hoodie before openly entertaining anything remotely personal as a real and pressing issue or concept. But this is how we are, and part of the teachings of yoga enable us to acknowledge this unfortunate tendency and use it to progress forwards, instead of hindering our path.

“Ah. Right, ok. I see. Mmm.”

For what it’s worth, researchers in Harvard University (yep, the really famous, really prestigious one in America) conducted a three-month experiment a few years ago with participants who had been experiencing particularly high levels of emotional distress (me nerves!) to determine the effects of a regular yoga and meditation practice. A control group continued their normal daily routine, while another group were required to participate in group yoga and meditation classes three times weekly.
Easy community service, you’re thinking? Maybe, but let’s continue.
From improved mood and physical functioning to increased awareness and concentration, the group of yoga-attendees noted numerous positive effects of the experiment, with depression scores reducing by 50%, anxiety by 30%, and overall wellbeing by 65% (I promise I won’t mention Those Words again). Another Harvard study references yoga’s ability to ‘regulate the stress response system’, decreasing levels of cortisol in the bloodstream while increasing oxygen levels and bringing the often invisible effects of yoga and meditation to the physical body. By learning to recognise and acknowledge thoughts, emotions and sensations as they occur and slowing down long enough to really process their significance, meditation when combined with yoga can enhance our ability to exercise an element of control over our minds and bodies. After all, they do say that ‘meditation is for the mind what exercise is for the body’. Combining it with yoga then surely is a win-win??

“The Young Ones Would Never Sit Still”

This school in America’s genius move to replace detention with meditation is also a testament to just how far along we’ve come in terms of accepting it as a conventional and almost required element of our lives, I mean, if they’re letting the kids do it now it must be alright, surely?!

After all, it’s just basic neuroscience really. (‘Neurowhat??”)
Noticing the tendencies and pathways our thoughts take and over time building up the strength and resilience to alter them and repeatedly steer them away from the negative ones, in favour of positive and beneficial habits is in simple terms what these practices help us to achieve. It’s been noted that yoga and meditation strengthen our ability to form these neural pathways, and while modern neuroscientists and
psychologists agree, still we’re met with scoffing and raised eyebrows when we announce we’re off for a quick meditation before the family dinner to mentally prepare our carefully balanced and cared for psyches for the onslaught of dubious questioning and ridiculous weather discussions about to occur.

“But Sure, Can You Not Just Go For a Walk?

Having already encountered those who challenge my new interest and choice of career-path, not with outright contradictory comments but with dubious speculation of where, how, and in what frame of mind I’ve spent the past year of my life, I wrote this article out of amused frustration that we as a nation still seem embarrassed to entertain the idea that meditation and yoga can actually drastically improve lives.
Are drastically improving lives, present tense.
By clearing out the space previously reserved in our minds for anxiety and The Things We Don’t Tell Anyone and god forbid What Would Happen If The Neighbours Found Out, a kind of spaciousness and lightness becomes available to us. It’s this space and lightness that we as Irish people have been shunted from one claustrophobic classroom to another overcrowded and overpopulated living room for generations not knowing. It simply wasn’t there to be experienced. So naturally, we shy away from it – from anything unfamiliar. It has become part of society.

“That Bressie Fella Is Very Handsome, Anyway”

We’ve only just started to talk about mental health issues, and so it follows that solutions to these issues will presumably (hopefully) follow the naturally delayed and reluctant Irish inclination to face them. The enlightenment of a nation takes time.

Those of us who’ve given it a shot already will just be here meditating til it gets there.


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