Things You May Not Know About Yoga and Mental Health

(Trigger warning: I discuss trauma in this article, including some possible triggers that can occur during the practice of yoga. Please take good care of yourself and honor your own needs.)

Incorporating yoga into mental health treatment is not new. Many people who practice yoga find it relaxing, and find over time that it triggers a feeling of wellbeing when they are practicing. Yoga is a more accessible way to incorporate physical exercise into your life than some other approaches (although it’s not a good fit for everyone). While there is a ton of information online about how you can use yoga for mental health treatment and recovery, I thought I’d take some time to discuss some of the things you may not have heard about applying yoga this way.

Yoga Isn’t All Bliss All the Time

Depending on where you’re at in your personal practice of yoga, you may expect it to feel safe, comforting, relaxing and enjoyable basically every time. This is not how yoga works for most of us. Yoga loosens up places where we are holding things, and once those things are loose they can show up on the surface as uncomfortable emotions, uncomfortable sensations, memories, an urge to stop practicing, boredom, disconnection, flashes of rage, etc. Many of us will experience yoga as a positive thing most of the time, but don’t be thrown off if you have a practice that does not feel entirely positive.

This is encouraging. This means you are moving old, stuck patterns. If your goal in practicing yoga is to relax, or to get physically fit, then this is not necessarily what you want, but if you are doing yoga to grow emotionally and psychologically, these experiences are good for you. And more than likely, you’ll respond to these moments like you respond to everything else in your life. For some of us, that means using avoidance, minimizing, disconnecting from the thing that we don’t like. For others, that means feeling overwhelmed and drowning in it for a bit until we find our center again. And for still others, that means being present and witnessing the experience without identifying with it more than necessary. This last approach can be tricky. Meditation and the support of a therapist or coach can make this process easier.

Yoga Can Help Trauma but Can Also Activate It

Similar to what I said above, yoga has been studied extensively in the treatment of trauma and most of the results are promising. It is often helpful as a stabilizing treatment, in conjunction with trauma processing therapies (if resolution of the trauma is one’s goal). But yoga can trigger trauma also. Holding a particular position with your body, being instructed to do something, closing your eyes or feeling like you have to close them, opening up to internal movement of energy, these can all activate trauma. It is important for professionals facilitating yoga to do so in a trauma-informed manner, and it is also important for those practicing yoga to have a plan for what you will do if your practice is triggering.

One reason that yoga can be activating, is due to what we call “bottom up” treatment for trauma. Most people know therapy as a process where you do a lot of thinking and talking. That’s the “top down” approach. Bottom up approaches focus less on talking and thinking, and more on exploring physical sensations, emotions, posture, and felt sense, as these are linked to the lower part of the brain that is more activated by traumatic material, where we experience our “fight or flight response.”

So, when we do asana poses in yoga, we are positioning the body in various ways, and this can activate the same networks that hold traumatic memories. We also encourage attention to the physical body during asana practice. For many with trauma, they want to avoid feeling anything – their bodies, their emotions. Yoga brings us home into the body, and for some people that can feel risky or overwhelming.

Yoga Can Work for Every Body

Our culture in the West is becoming more inclusive, but we have a long way to go. Because of that, you may be used to seeing mostly thin white girls facilitating yoga. This may have led you to believe things about yoga, if you don’t look like a thin white girl. But yoga is for you, if you want to experience it. If you are not thin, not white, not a girl, or not into the perky persona that you have seen or expect with yoga, that is ok. You can find a practice that is more inclusive for your specific experiences. Please feel free to contact me if you want some support in doing so and I’ll do my best to help.

We Usually Need the Type of Medicine We Don’t Like

I was drawn to yoga through a hot power yoga class being offered in the middle of winter. Having spent 20 years doing ballet, I became fast friends with the physical aspects of the practice. I have attended a lot of power vinyasa classes, and enjoy them for their physical, mental and spiritual benefits. However, the medicine I really need, is usually a restorative yoga class or what we call a “slow flow” class. I enjoy the power class because it fits the ways I naturally use my energy. Most of us use our energy in one of three ways – rajasic, tamasic, or sattvic. Collectively, these are known as the three gunas. These really deserve a post of their own, but for now I’ll just say that rajasic energy is about movement, activity, passion, momentum, expansion. Tamasic energy is about slowing down, darkness, dullness, inertia, the material world, downward flow. and sattvic energy is the embodiment of balance, harmony, virtue, peace and upward flow.

I am an active person, so I already use a fair amount of rajasic energy. A power yoga class will often activate even more rajasic energy. When a person is embodying too much of this energy, it can cause issues. Raja in excess can cause an overactive mind, increased stress and anxiety, injury, restlessness. Tamasic energy brings raja into balance. So, that means seeking a practice that is slower, more gentle and grounding.

Yoga Isn’t Just Poses

There are many different elements to yoga, including breathing exercises, hand gestures, chanting, dietary considerations, philosophy and meditation. You can experience some psychological benefits of yoga without getting on a yoga mat. If you are curious to experience the benefits of yoga for mental wellbeing, I encourage you to find a class, find a practice online that speaks to you, or connect with me for a deeper dive.

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