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.
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.