Yoga has long been one of my favorite mental health "treatments". Many people think that yoga is simply about stretching. But yoga is much, much more than that. It's about strength, flexibility, balance and breathing. One of my favorite instructors once told the class, "If you're breathing, you're doing yoga". What's so great about it and why prescribe it for mental health? Which mental health issues is it most appropriate for?
Yoga is marvelous for anxiety. When anxious our breath often become rapid and shallow. Our minds reel with worrisome and/or racing thoughts. When practicing yoga you have to remain present in your body and focus on making your breath smooth and rhythmic. This is especially true in the balance poses or some of the more difficult poses. If you don't stay focused on your body and keep your breath smooth and rhythmic you may tip over! Yoga also uses all the muscles in the body for strength and stretching. Working the muscles out keeps them from tensing up. I have found that after an hour of yoga my mind and body are in a totally different place. My mind is calm and slightly euphoric. My body is tired, but in a good way. As a result of the physical workout I sleep soundly.
People with depression tend to isolate and avoid activity which only exacerbates the depression further. Getting up and doing something productive not only makes you feel better physically, it lifts the mood. Since yoga is not a high intensity cardio work, which can be daunting when you are depressed, one is more likely to take a stab at it. Even seemingly passive poses like the Child pose are helpful when depressed. It requires you to relax and breathe, stretches your muscles and circulates the blood. If you take a class with other people you are also socializing instead of isolating. The calm, serene environment of a yoga class also smooths ruffled feathers and eases the irritability often seen with depressive episodes.
Childhood Abuse, especially Sexual Abuse
People who have been sexually abused or molested, especially as children, often cut themselves off from their bodies. Their bodies harbor memories which are painful and hard to experience. Blocking off those sensations is sometimes easier, even necessary in order for one to hold things together. Also, one of the coping mechanisms typically utilized by people who were sexually abused is dissociation, the separating of the mind from the body. Restoring the connection between mind and body is necessary in order to heal. Yoga can help bring this about in a calm and gentle fashion. The practice of yoga encourages you to be aware of your body and to concentrate on how it feels and the rate and depth of your breathing. The more weight bearing poses such as the Tree Pose (pictured below) can help you feel grounded and connected to the Earth instead of floating away.
Self Esteem Development
Self esteem is developing when we conquer something which scares us or tackle something challenging and succeed. Yoga is excellent for this purpose because it contains poses which are relatively uncomplicated so you can feel successful from the beginning, but also contains poses like those below which require total concentration of your mind and a lot of work to get your body to that level.
What Kind of Yoga?
I'm no expert in yoga, but I will share what I know. If you're an expert in yoga and you're reading this, please feel free to enlighten me!
There are many different forms of yoga and they all have their own appeal. Whichever type feels comfortable and the best fit for you personally is the one to choose. There is no right or wrong choice. Don't let someone talk you into going to class with them if it doesn't feel right for you. Ask to observe a few classes of the different types and see what fits best. Some people prefer Hatha Yoga, a fairly generalized form of yoga incorporating poses, meditation and breathing. Some people prefer Iyengar Yoga because it focuses on the proper placement of body in the pose. This attention to precision and detail can be very comforting and allow the student to feel more in control. Some prefer the warmth of the hot room used in Bikram Yoga. The heat sinks into their bones and warms their soul and melts their tension. Some people prefer Vinyasa Yoga because the constant movement forces them to keep up with the instructor and focus on the tasks at hand, leaving little room for the mind to wander to unpleasant things. Try them all if you can and find the best fit for you. For mental health purposes I do not think the type of yoga is as important as the instructor and the environment.
The classroom should be clean and feel safe to you. It doesn't matter if your friend or partner likes it if you don't. You have to honor what you feel. If one wall of the classroom is actually a glass window opening up into the mall or a sidewalk with lots of people walking by, this may feel too exposed or busy to you. If the classroom is crowded and people are accidentally bumping into you it may not feel safe. If the classroom is loud, noisy, cluttered, crowded or disorganized it may not feel safe. If the instructor's voice is more like a drill sergeant that a yoga instructor it may not feel safe. The gender of the instructor should also be taken into consideration, especially if you want them to put their hands on you to help you get into a proper position.
The feel of the classroom is also important. You should feel comfortable and accepted. You should not be worried about what people around you are doing. The entire point of yoga is for you to get in touch with your body and honor it. I've found that the instructor influences this greatly. A good instructor keeps you thinking about what your body is doing, not whether you are wearing the proper yoga outfit, or whether you are as limber as that guy over there or as balanced as that gal behind you. You should feel comfortable in the class. It should not feel like a competition. You should not feel judged. You should feel safe and free to tune into your own body without worrying about what other people are doing with theirs. There should be a calm, serene feel to the class.
This brings up the topic of touching and the instructor. If being touched is a problem for you, tell the instructor before the class. If he or she doesn't understand or will not honor your request not to be touched, go to another class. A good instructor wants you to feel safe in his or her class. The instructor should focus on breathing. A good instructor will remind you throughout the class to honor your own body and not to push it beyond what is comfortable for it. If the instructor is urging you to push your body farther than you feel comfortable or to "go for the burn" or any such nonsense as this, find another instructor. Yoga is about honoring your body where it is, not punishing it. Yet it can be very challenging for both mind and body. This is why it is so healing.