Yoga and mental health are inextricably intertwined. Yoga helps promote mindfulness, healing from trauma, and boosts creativity.
Yoga has been thoroughly studied for its mental health benefits and has been proven to help with anxiety, depression, and many other mental health disorders. Even without a specific diagnosis, yoga is an excellent tool to keep our moods level and our stress manageable.
Sometimes in yoga classes you can get a lot of super optimistic messaging, including an insistence on gratitude. For some people, this works great, but when there are real mental health struggles going on it can be invalidating. It’s hard to be grateful when you can barely get out of bed in the morning.
The heart of a compassionate yoga and mindfulness practice is being able to hold all of our emotions, even and especially the difficult ones. The right yoga practice can help us breathe with our grief, heartbreak, and anxiety.
Yoga and Mental Health and Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a practice of compassionately noticing what’s happening in the moment, and being kind to what that is. Approaching a yoga practice as an opportunity to feel without self-judgment can be incredibly healing.
Mindfulness meditation can be done in many ways, but the simplest one is to sit quietly and observe the breath moving in and out of the body. Observe any thoughts, images, sensations, or emotions that arise, but the key here is to not get involved with them. There’s no need to judge, analyze, or try to fix any of these thoughts or emotions. Simply observe that they are happening with an attitude of curiosity, no more.
A mindful yoga practice is similar: As you move through the postures, observe your experience. What does a posture feel like? Is it comfortable or uncomfortable? When there is discomfort, can you stay with that discomfort and get curious about what it feels like without immediately jumping out of the pose? Of course, be careful that you’re not experiencing pain, which might indicate danger. Part of the practice may be learning to discern between pain and discomfort.
As we learn to rest in the discomfort of a certain posture, we learn that we can tolerate discomfort, that we don’t have to run away from it. This is also true about our inner states—we all experience sadness, anger, and frustration from time to time. They are simply uncomfortable feelings that we can indeed tolerate—and when we do, we can observe them as they pass.
Yoga and Trauma
We haven’t all gone through major natural disasters or life-changing accidents, to be sure, but life often comes with some sort of physical or emotional experience that we struggle to fully process. One instructive definition of trauma is “any unhealed wound.”
When we have an unhealed wound, it bothers us day to day, and we don’t know quite what to do with it or how to move on. The experience settles in our bodies in a way that makes it present even when we’re not thinking about it. Notoriously, trauma lives in the nervous system, causing us to feel on edge, experience phantom pain in the body, or get chronic illnesses as our immune systems struggle with the extra load.
Yoga can help with trauma in several ways. One is connecting to the body and exploring its sensations with mindfulness—with presence and nonjudgment. It can also provide an opportunity to move the experience through the body. As we stretch and open certain areas of the body where the trauma might be sitting like an echo, certain emotions or thoughts can be released. Because yoga practices are often tailored to the practitioner without any end goal of, for example, weight loss, yoga can also provide an opportunity for experiencing agency in the body, an opportunity to come back to choice and self-empowerment, which is, for many trauma survivors, a major key to healing.
The right teacher, class, and environment can make a big difference when working with trauma, as trust is often a lynchpin of the healing process. It’s best to find a teacher with some experience in trauma work and to ensure the teaching environment feels safe and comfortable.
Types of Yoga
Many people with mental health struggles appreciate a slow and gentle yoga class. Hatha yoga classes tend to be the broadest type, with postures that are accessible to the largest amount of bodies. Yin and Restorative yoga are designed to calm the nervous system, but the postures are held for a very long period of time. This restful experience can be magical for healing the mind and the nervous system, but for some people the long periods of silence can be stressful in and of themselves.
Power or Vinyasa yoga tends to include dynamic, flowing movements that are linked with a flowing breath. Linking breath and movement is known to have a calming effect, and these classes also include an athletic component that some people might find very useful. Anxiety and anger tend to need to move, while sadness and depression benefit more from rest and stillness. Classes that are a little faster and more creative can also be really effective at taking the mind off whatever has been going on.
Kundalini yoga is another style that some people swear by to help them manage emotions. These classes are, of course, all different, but they often include physical meditations—repetitive movements done for minutes at a time. You might, for example, be twisting your body side to side with your arms up in a cactus shape for three minutes. For some people, this is a much more powerful meditation than sitting in stillness, and has the effect of moving emotional states through the body.
Breath is one of the few functions in our bodies that is both unconscious and under our conscious control—we can take a deep breath when we choose, but we keep breathing when we’re not thinking about it. Breathing more deeply or in a certain rhythm is one of the fastest ways to calm ourselves down. When we are calm and relaxed, the exhale is naturally longer than the inhale. We can create that effect in the body, thus causing a calmer state of mind. Here are two breath practices that can be done anytime, anywhere, to help with stress and anxiety:
Square breath: Inhale for four counts, pause for four counts, exhale for four counts, pause for four, and so on.
Stretching breath: Some people find that holding the breath induces anxiety. A gentler breath practice is stretching: Notice the moment when you would naturally switch from an inhale to an exhale, and inhale just a little bit longer than that. Notice where your exhale would naturally become an inhale, and stretch there, just within a range that is comfortable for you. Over time, the breath may get deeper, and the system will likely begin to calm.
Yoga and Creativity
When we practice yoga, especially when we are flowing with our breath, our brains shift from a beta brain wave pattern to the alpha state. In beta, we are moving through our daily lives, multitasking, thinking about a range of things. The alpha state is a kind of deep focus, such as when a dancer is dancing, a painter is painting, or a writer is writing. We can actually manufacture a more creative state by moving our bodies. For some people, mental health is greatly supported by some kind of creative expression, be that movement, music, writing, or so on. Yoga can help kickstart the creative brain, allowing us a new opportunity to express ourselves when our mental state is feeling less than ideal.
For more on yoga and mental health, read: “Yoga Boosts Brain Health.”