Yoga's Impact on Mental and Emotional Health
It is quite common for yoga practitioners to comment on the less physical benefits of yoga- greater calm, reduced feelings of stress, and so on- as welcome side effects of their physical practice. Individuals often come to yoga looking for a more holistic approach to self-care, and while the practice is often taught in a way that focuses on the physical, it is intended to have a positive impact on our overall well-being.
We can also turn to yoga with the a main intention of influencing our mental and emotional states, with the understanding that the connection between mind and body dictates that anytime we move the body, we will see an impact our thoughts and emotions (if we’re paying attention, that is). If you’ve ever been in a yoga class and started crying while in a hip opener, couldn’t stop the giggles or had a sleepless night after a backbend-focused class, or felt strangely irritable (or calm!) after trying a new breathing exercise, you already know this quite well.
The problem is, most yoga sessions are sequenced for individuals who come into the class already feeling more or less balanced, at the most a little stressed or tired. You come to class, take maybe your first few deep breaths of the day, and begin to feel a bit better. Then you move through a challenging yet manageable sequence of postures, try a few poses you’ve been working on but haven’t quite yet mastered, end with some slow stretches and a few minutes of rest, and then leave feeling rejuvenated, ‘worked out,’ and relaxed.
Or not. Because what if you come into class feeling a little off balance, dealing an episode of anxiety , or working through a loss or trauma? What if you just barely overcame your depression or that critical voice in the back of your head in order to make it to class, and the tears are ready to flow before you’ve even sat down on your mat? Well, the class could make you feel better. The teacher’s voice might drown out your inner critic for an hour, and you leave with a bit more energy than when you came in. But then later that night, the next day, or the next week, you’re right back where you started. The inner critic is back and loud as ever. Your mood has sunk or your mind and body are ringing panic alarms again. And now you’re aware that yoga can help you feel better, but you’re not quite sure which part of that class was actually helpful for you, or where to start, or how to get your mind focused enough to get through a whole practice by yourself.
It’s also possible that the class doesn’t make you feel better at all! Your mind is racing the whole time, or your body is going through the motions while your mind checks out. The emotions you came in with get more intense, or you end up feeling like you’ve just tipped things too far over in the other direction.
That’s enough to make anyone say ‘no thanks’ and never try yoga again.
Which is a shame, because if you’re currently dealing with depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder; are finding challenges with emotional regulation or interpersonal relationships; or are working through grief and/or trauma, yoga therapy can be a huge support for your treatment program. The answer doesn’t lie in avoiding yoga or forcing yourself to attend classes that don’t feel right for you. Instead, consider finding a yoga therapist or teacher who has specifically trained in yoga for mental and emotional health, or even the specific condition that you’re dealing with. A yoga therapist will also be able to work alongside the rest of your healthcare team and can connect with your doctor(s), mental health provider, nutritionist, etc., to ensure that the work you do together is aligned with your overall treatment plan.
Together, you’ll explore different aspects of yoga (movement, breathing, and meditation) and how each influences your state of being. They’ll support you in constructing a yoga practice that helps you feel more grounded and in your body, connected with the present moment, and able to flow with the ebbs and flows of ever-changing thoughts and feelings. Eventually, you’ll find specific practices and techniques that positively impact your state of being: focusing scattered thoughts, shifting your mood, and anchoring you during episodes of intense emotions. Before you know it, you’ll be feeling like ‘you’ again, or possibly for the first time ever! Most importantly, you’ll be left with tools for healing and finding balance that you can turn to anytime you need them.
Change won’t happen overnight. I won’t promise that you’ll never again feel tired, stressed, sad, angry, scared, hurt, or lonely. You will- it’s the human condition. But when you do come upon those moments, my hope is that you’ll be able to stay aware of the present; seek equanimity through the challenge; and move more quickly back towards vitality, balance, confidence, love, and joy.