Guest blog post written by Angela Prior LCSW, RYT
I was first drawn to yoga in 2011 after a major move across the country. My baseline has a tendency to run a little bit more anxious and this move marked the beginning of some big life transitions. It marked a commitment to my relationship, a new job, life in a new and much larger city, and feelings of loneliness. I was trying to manage all of these life transitions while my boyfriend at the time traveled weekly for work, so much of it I was doing by myself. I was missing having a support network readily available to me at the time. I was also struggling with creating an identity outside of work. All in all, I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t feeling all that mentally well at that time.
It was right around then that a new friend asked me to go to yoga with her. She was currently completing her teacher training program and was enthusiastic to share the practice of yoga with me. I am rather introverted and can be perfectionistic and was worried about “not being good enough” or “drawing attention” to myself. Little did I know that one yoga class would be the beginning of a whole new world being opened to me. Yoga has time and time again has taught me so many lessons that I didn’t even know I needed to have. What first started as an experiment on trying something new and a good workout led to me to developing a deeper understanding of myself, an ability to cope with my anxiety and new life changes, and an ever-improving relationship with my body. Overall, it is the cornerstone of my self-care routine and mental health wellness.
In the Western world, many of us are more familiar with the term “yoga” meaning a workout that will make my body flexible and strong. You might even be thinking “I hope they don’t make me stand on my head or turn my body into the human pretzel.” Thankfully, that isn’t completely true. Yoga studios have become a norm in most cities, and with online classes, are even accessible to many in rural areas. What many may be less familiar with is that yoga poses (asanas) are only one of the many tools of healing that are part of the practice of yoga.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word that roughly translates “to yoke,” or to a build a connection. That connection can be between both the mind and the body. Yoga is an ancient practice that dates back about 5,000 years. Yoga is still showing us that even though it is an ancient practice it still serves a modern purpose that supports us in healing.
With so many reports from Yogis about the overall improvement in health and well-being, modern medicine has begun to quantify and qualify through evidenced-based research that supports what many Yogis have known for years. The research is showing that there are many wonderful benefits yoga can provide for mental health.
First and foremost, I think it is important to mention that everyone has mental health very much how everyone has physical health.
As with many things, mental health is on a continuum. Just as some are severely physically ill there are some who are severely mentally ill. Just as there are times we all may swing a little less physically well on the continuum, there are also times we swing less mentally well. Thinking about mental health this way allows us to see the benefits of yoga for everyone and how it too can help support us emotionally.
5 Ways That Yoga Affects Mental Health
- Anxiety and Stress–Yoga encourages one to relax through slowing the breath and shifting focus to the present moment which has a large effect on our fight and flight response. This encourages our relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system) to be activated which in return creates a calming effect, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, lowers heart rate, and increases blood flow to the vital organs.
- Depression-Consistent yoga practice can lead to significant increases in the neurotransmitter serotonin levels which improves mood.
- Sleep-With the encouragement of the relaxation response, decreased heart rate, increased serotonin levels, and mindful breathing, yoga has been shown to support better sleep.
- Trauma-Yoga has been shown to have a significant impact in the functioning of those working to overcome past traumas. Yoga is integral in connecting those who are disconnected from their bodies and emotions allowing them to literally feel things in their bodies. The breath (pranayama) allows for awareness building, centering, and grounding.
- Mindfulness- Yoga encourages and promotes a mindful awareness of the present moment and letting go of judgements and focusing on worry. Mindfulness allows for the ability to become comfortable in the uncomfortable by rooting us in the present moment and out of the worry of ‘what if’ thinking or rumination of the woulda, coulda, shouldas, promoting more flexibility in thinking.
The focus on breathing and movement can be a powerful tool for decreasing stress, increasing sleep, providing a grounding effect, and allowing for the processing of past traumas.
Overall the research indicates that the benefit of yoga for mental health wellness is far-reaching.
Below are examples of some of my favorite postures to be practiced for improved wellness!
Sitting comfortably with spine erect, crossing your ankles to sit (crisscross applesauce). If your ankles do not comfortably cross then allow one ankle to come in front of the other. Allow hands to rest in your lap. Find a soft gaze on the floor or gently flutter your eyelids closed. Taking 5 deep breaths.
Place either a sturdy pillow or bolster vertical on the mat. If you have sensitive knees, prop the bolster up with two blocks at an angle. Straddle the bolster on hands and knees, draw knees wide, and recline whole body over the bolster allowing your cheek to rest on the bolster.
Swing your legs up the wall with your bottom against the wall. Allow arms to come out at a T or rest on your belly. You can also swing your legs up the side of your bed/couch.
Place the bolster/pillow behind you running vertically on your mat. Recline your spine over the bolster. If your lower back is tight, either place your bottom up on the bolster, or roll a blanket underneath your bottom. Draw soles of the feet together and knees fall out wide. The further the heels are from your body, the less intense this stretch will be; the closer to your body the more intense. Place blocks underneath knees for support of your hips
Lie flat on your back. Legs spread apart and arms slightly away from your body with the back of your hands to the ground and your palms facing upwards. Fluttering your eye lids closed, draw your awareness to your breath, taking even length inhales and exhales. Lie here for 3 minutes. If your mind wanders add a count to your breath, inhale to 4 pause, exhale for 6-pause, repeat.
This is a brief overview of the benefits yoga has for mental health. Listed below are several articles for your reference in regards to mental health benefits:
-Angela Prior LCSW, RYT
Angela Prior LCSW, RYT is a clinical social worker in private practice located in Dallas, TX. Angela is a 200 hr. certified yoga teacher and has been teaching since 2016. She is originally from Ohio and is a graduate of The Ohio State University. Angela is passionate about sharing a message of radical self-acceptance and compassion. Through blending traditional talk therapy alongside mindfulness and yoga, she holds empathetic healing space for those moving away from perfectionism towards true belonging and healing. Angela is a Health at Every Size provider and focuses on healing relationships with food/body and anxiety. She not only provides individual therapy but also facilitates online workshops, seminars, and leads yoga retreats.
Isn’t Angela AWESOME!? I absolutely LOVED having Angela contribute to my blog, especially on a topic as important as this and I hope you all enjoyed reading this post as much as I did!
Want to continue to connect with Angela? Check out the links below to continue to connect and learn even more about Angela, her practice, and additional services provided!