There is a reason you keep hearing about yoga. There is also a reason you keep hearing about yoga during conversations about mental health. There is a direct correlation between the practice of yoga and improvements in overall mood as well as decreases in symptoms of both anxiety and depression. As a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, I don’t prescribe medication. But I do prescribe yoga to each and every person that walks into my office. Here’s why:
Can yoga really help with anxiety and depression?
1). It’s good for your physical body. There are now thousands of pieces of research linking exercise to improved mood. Yoga may not be the most vigorous of options when it comes to work-outs, but it’s a way to create movement, flexibility, agility, coordination, and balance. If you already have an exercise routine, anything from running to CrossFit, you probably don’t stretch enough. (And no, 60 seconds of stretching your quads right after you jump off the treadmill do not count). Yoga is a way for you to slow down and devote some time to giving your body the restorative poses it needs to offset that work. If you’re already a practicing yogi, you know that the asana (physical) practice of yoga can definitely be challenging and strenuous as you get into more advanced classes. You build strength and endurance in a completely different way than any other exercise. Taking care of your body is another way of saying, “I care about myself.” When we do things on purpose to take care of our overall well-being, it creates sought after improvements in self-esteem and self-worth.
2). It relieves stress. “Just take a deep breath.” Believe it or not, it works. Yoga first and foremost is about breathing. Oftentimes with a little mediation. (Side note: don’t be scared of meditation. In it’s simplest form, it is about sitting quietly and breathing. That’s it.) The scientific part is that when we allow our bodies to take deep breaths, it sends a signal to the nervous system that it’s OK to calm down. I heard a yoga teacher explain it like this once: “It doesn’t matter how upside down or twisted into a posture you can be. If you are not breathing, you are not ‘doing’ yoga. If we can learn to breath through challenging postures while we’re on our mat, our bodies become more conditioned to stay calm through real life challenges as they happen off of it. While any exercise can improve mood and decrease stress, most forms are aggressive. Running, cycling, boxing, etc. Even though you are blowing off steam, you can still be pretty wound up after those types of high intensity workouts. Yoga offers a more subtle approach to stress relief, allowing tension and anxiety to fall away in more calming way, similar to how you feel after a massage. Think yin/yang. You need them both.
3). Community. Brenѐ Brown says, “Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” A healthy support system is crucial to mental health. I usually hear a lot of hesitation and fear when I suggest yoga to someone who has never done it. If there was ever a place to let go of fear of judgement, it’s a yoga class. Everyone who practices yoga loves practicing yoga and thinks each and every person on the planet should practice yoga. So if you walk into a classroom and tell the person next to you that it’s your first time, you’ll probably have an instant new friend. There’s also the old saying, “it takes a village.” At the core of each of us is a desire to feel belonging and acceptance and like we’re part of something. Love and belonging are a core component to Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. Every time I show up to a class, there is a hug, a smile, or just a collective energy lifts me up. We all have little voices in our heads that unintentionally steer us towards judgements, prejudices, and stereotypes. Or the never-ending voice that is our own worst critic. Those are difficult thoughts to overcome. Does being around a bunch of “yogi’s” mean that they have it all figured out? Of course not. But they have the awareness that they don’t have it all figured out, and a courage to admit it. They have a desire to practice letting go of some of that negativity to allow for more love and acceptance. Of themselves and others. Which, you guessed it, leads to less anxiety, depression, and stress.
4). You can disconnect. Be honest - how many hours of your waking day are you away from technology? Your phone, computer, tablet, TV, iPad? I bet the answer is less than 1 hour. As much as yoga can help you connect with others, your higher power, and even yourself, it also forces you to disconnect from technology. While it does have it’s benefits, technology has turned us into a society of instant gratification. Everything needs to be done ‘right now,’ because it can be. From a therapeutic standpoint, we see clients impacted by bullying, cheating, comparing, judging, and stalking. It prompts feelings of not being good enough, attractive enough, or wealthy enough. It messes with our capacity to feel confident, secure, worthy, beautiful, or simply ‘enough’. But we can’t stop. We reach for our phone at every brief moment where we might feel bored or uncomfortable. Um, elevators? What happened to just being able to talk to the stranger next to you about the weather? (Did you just cringe at the thought? That’s my point). Giving yourself an hour to go to a yoga class is giving yourself time devoted to only you. Nothing and no one else. It’s a freedom we so desperately need, but have almost forgotten what it feels like to have.
5). It puts your ego in check. The first time I heard a teacher say “Virabhadrasana Two,” what went through my head was something like, “Huh? What did she say? I don’t know what that is. Should I even be here? Oh my gosh I’m going to look stupid.” What actually happened was: I looked at a few people around me and listened to the teacher’s cues and figured it out. And no one was looking at me. And even if they were, they all knew there was a time when they didn’t know what the fuck Virabhadrasana was either. Yoga isn’t (supposed to be) competitive. You learn very quickly how very different each human body is.
Not 100%? Learn to be really curious why that is. In yoga there are postures that the person next to you will do with ease, but your hips say will never happen for you. You learn acceptance and humility. The next posture may feel stable for you while the person in front of you has a hard time with balance. You learn limitations and appreciation. You become OK with the fact that some days your body is in the mood for Mandukasana and other days you just need to sit in Balasana. Yoga creates a connection between body, mind, and soul. It is often said that the mindset you have as you approach postures on your mat is also the mindset you have as an overall approach to your life. Noticing if you say things like, “I can’t do this,” or “I’m not good enough,” or if you speak to yourself with kindness and positivity. Yoga isn’t something you are “good at,” it is something good you do for yourself.
6). It promotes spirituality. We are afraid of that word because it has a correlation to religion. All spirituality means in the context of yoga is that when you find the connection of mind, body, and soul, you feel something powerful. It could be as simple as connecting with your innermost higher self. Creating and living a life that is in line with your own morals and values. Focusing on things like gratitude and kindness. Trying to keep your heart open despite the situations in life that make it want to curl up into a ball, sob hysterically, and build an impenetrable fortress around it. Books like The Secret and The Art of Happiness promote the positive psychology belief that our thoughts have a direct impact on our ability to feel “happy”. Yoga does have connections to Buddhism, but allows for people of all backgrounds and belief systems to focus (or not) on the higher power of their choosing. Teachers sometimes quote spiritual guru’s during classes, but I’ve never been offended by hearing reminders like,
Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. and
No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path. -Buddha Yoga has been teaching the basics of modern counseling and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy long before those words were even in our vocabulary.
7). With all of this newfound confidence and appreciation for your body, yoga might just improve your sex life. Bonus!