The following are some thoughts I recently shared with a journalist who asked about the benefits of yoga.
1. What are the benefits of yoga for mental health?
Yoga gives us agency in our well-being through tools that promote our physical health, energetic balance, emotional regulation, and mental focus.
Yoga is, in fact, quite a vast and varied system for living that can address a broad bandwidth of human experience, conditions, and circumstances. But it is crucial to know which of the multitudes of yogic practices is appropriate for a given situation.
If we work with a teacher who chooses and guides us through practices that for us serve as appropriate doorways into relationship with our body and mind, it is possible to feel whole despite ailments or illnesses. “Wholeness,” after all, is a state of well-being that is based not on external measures of health, but on how we relate to ourselves as we are.
The bonus is that in addition, not only can we feel whole as we are, but studies show we can experience measurable physiological improvements in focus, sleep, blood pressure, and more.
2. What are the best ways to practice?
There is no one best way to practice, and if you wish to address a particular condition or set of symptoms, it is important to work directly with a teacher. It will not do to only watch videos of choreographed routines that may or may not address your state and needs.
Think about how someone experiencing depression can have spells of low energy, lack of interest and motivation, and sleep more than usual. On the other hand, someone with an anxiety disorder might suffer from restlessness that prevents focus and productivity due to the frequent triggering or chronic state of over-alertness from which their nervous system cannot come down.
These states are in some ways opposite, and do not call for the same interventions.
A person with depression might benefit from various styles of practice on different days, but generally they should not always practice a style that is down-regulating to the nervous system, as it will only reinforce their low energy. A person with an anxiety disorder should not practice active and enlivening styles of yoga to stimulate their body-heart-mind system, as they are already suffering from over-stimulation and excitation.
Knowing this, we can purposefully choose a practice that will antidote rather than exacerbate our condition. Still, without consulting a teacher, we are likely to miss out on the more subtle and potent methods (and their adaptations), which are rarely taught in group or pre-recorded sessions, and that will best address our conditions.
Put simply, yoga should be tailored to your physical, emotional, and mental state. A knowledgeable teacher will be able to craft a yoga practice that is responsive to your conditions and circumstances, encouraging balance, wholeness, and health for you.
3. Any specific tips?
When practicing yoga for mental health, we might do well to go beyond the overly emphasized physical aspects of yoga practice, and spend more time with the inner methods — working with energy, breath, and mind — in order to promote self-awareness and a sense of wholeness.
Even if a sense of wholeness is elusive when we are in our most disrupted states, we can expand self-awareness, giving us a better sense of just what is happening.
For example, we can notice how our energy is stagnant or our breath is uneven, and then learn a pranayama (breathwork) exercise to restore evenness and flow to the inner system. Or, we can notice a tendency toward overly critical thinking and bring the theme of our inner critic to a trained mental health professional, mentor, or teacher, who can support us in understanding and processing disruptive core beliefs.
A key benefit of the inner method of mindfulness is that it capacitates us to tolerate discomfort in our bodies or minds. It helps us relax away from the impulse to immediately escape from an uncomfortable experience, so that we can proceed with more awareness, slowly and deliberately.
After all, responding to anything with skill first requires we avoid a knee-jerk reaction, and mindfulness meditation is a great way to train this up.
Early last spring, how many of us thought that certainly by fall at the latest, life and work would return to normal?
Most of us.
However, with autumn around the corner, everything remains quite different, and it continues to change.
Life now requires near constant adaptation to shifting and uncertain circumstances. Families who are sending their children back to school and college are preparing for the possibility of their students’ return home, should circumstances require. Similarly, people who worked in an office in the “before times” continue to work from home, with return dates pushed farther out, and some companies discussing the possibility of a permanent work-from-home model.
While working from home is a dream come true for some folks — no commute, no draining social interactions, and you can get the laundry done by dinner time — for others, it is a real struggle. The social ties we develop with our colleagues contribute to a sense of belonging, which is crucial to our well-being. So especially for people who enjoyed a large part of life’s social interactions at the workplace, the shift to working from home can impact a sense of connectedness and contribute to a sense of isolation.
Isolation and its relative loneliness are implicated in several things we want to avoid: burnout, depression, and earlier death. How can we recognize the signs that we may be struggling with working from home?
Reduced ability to focus is the canary in the coal mine for many problems. Coupled with waning interest and productivity — or worse...disillusionment, exhaustion, and frustration — you have a clear indication there is a significant disruption or imbalance in your body-heart-mind system.
1. Monitor yourself.
As a mindfulness teacher, I help my clients learn to regularly connect with the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of their being so they are aware of how they are doing before it's too late. Sustained mindfulness practice builds self-awareness and can reveal changes and trends that need course correction.
In this way, mindfulness practice is a monitoring tool for our well-being. Without it, we might not catch or understand the signals our own bodies, hearts, and minds are sending us.
While mindfulness is an inherent psychological faculty we all possess, I recommend learning mindfulness meditation from a trained teacher who can provide the methods and support necessary for establishing and maintaining a regular practice. Only 10 minutes a day can make a big difference in how readily we can attune to ourselves and the life around us.
While getting started with a practice can feel like a hurdle, once you’re over it, the only thing you need to do is continue. That’s it. And the motivation to do so will arise naturally as you notice improvements in focus, relationships, and your ability to manage stress.
But what if, using mindfulness, you notice that against the backdrop of these troubled times you feel increasingly out of sorts, unable to focus, frustrated in your relationships?
2. Seek outside help.
This may be from a doctor, therapist, or coach. We can’t always feel well on our own, and a trained professional will be able to support your journey toward wellness with evidence-based and time-tested methods.
If you have a meditation practice, check in with a teacher as well. It may make sense to adjust something about your practice, perhaps even the method you are using. When difficulties in our bodies, hearts, or minds plague us, mindfulness might be contraindicated, and a different type of meditation could be useful.
3. Practice lovingkindness meditation.
This sister practice to mindfulness meditation in which we stimulate a sense of goodwill, is a great way of antidoting a sense of disconnection.
While the formal practice involves repeatedly inwardly reciting phrases to help cultivate a sense of friendliness and ease toward yourself and others, you can use this practice informally, at any time. Simply pause in your day and silently wish yourself and your co-workers — those you like and those you have a difficult time with — safety, health, happiness, and peace.
Say “May we be safe, healthy, happy, and peaceful.”
Say it again.
Then a third time.
May it be so!
is a mindfulness educator, Insight Yoga mentor, and end-of-life doula who cares about individual and collective well-being at every stage of life.