Mind, body, and soul are connected – what affects one, affects each of the others. Try relaxing your shoulders and breathing more slowly and fully and notice what happens to your anxiety. Notice what happens when you tighten your shoulders and breathe quickly and shallowly.
This interconnectedness matters when we consider our mental health.
I am a psychologist who often works with people who are depressed or have a history of trauma. When I work with people who practice yoga, I ask them to return to their practice if they have misplaced it. If they are practicing yoga regularly, I ask them to take it off the mat. (When my clients don’t do yoga, we talk about change using words that are more consistent with their meaning system.)
In other words, I remind my clients that change does not only occur in the therapy room. Change happens as they intentionally consider how they are living, and approach life with gentleness, a nonjudgmental attitude, and a growth mindset – in other words, when they use the skills used during a yoga practice.
While there are many different kinds of yoga, most address the following five things that many types of psychotherapy also do – although different yoga styles may emphasize different things or use different language.
Breathwork (pranayama) is an important aspect of most yoga practices. This work controls the breath by changing its speed or origin, which can energize, focus, or calm yoga practitioners.
I frequently ask new clients to focus on the breath. Mindful breaths throughout the day – as few as three at a time throughout the course of the day – can slow the overactivity of the autonomic nervous system and insert a needed pause. That pause can be especially helpful to counter reactivity to stressors and can help people identify other options for responding to stressors.
2. Find Balance
Finding balance on or off the mat requires mindfulness and presence. On the mat, when you worry about things from earlier in the day, your Tree begins to wobble. Similarly, when you spill your coffee, or the printer jams, you may hold your breath, tighten up, demand that it be different than it is, and lose your balance. (Your “Tree” wobbles.)
What helps you stay balanced on the mat? I maintain my balance in Tree by breathing, staying in the present, and avoiding self-critical judgments. Consider how you can take this nonjudgmental, present-focused and relaxed breath into the rest of your life.
Maybe something else helps you maintain your sense of balance. My partner helps me recognize when I try to do too much or when I am working too hard and not playing enough.
3. Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Not
Pain is a natural part of life. Bad things happen. But we don’t have to do things that make that pain worse. Notice when you judge yourself (or the situation). Notice the judgment, then move on. Try to see the world as it is, rather than adding suffering to the mix.
Spilling your milk is unpleasant, losing your job is unfortunate, but life goes on.
Notice when you get caught in the pain and add suffering: drop your extreme language (e.g., “always,” “never,” “terrible,” “awful”). The situation may be unpleasant, but not awful. It may be awful now (some things truly are awful), but it probably won’t always be awful.
4. Find Meaning
Many yoga practices help yogis connect to something larger. Your teacher may help you set an intention, for example, devoting your practice to a friend who is struggling. Your teacher may guide the class in a tonglen meditation – where you breathe in others’ pain and breathe out compassion. Similarly, bowing to your teacher and classmates at the end of a session and saying “Namaste” – “I bow to the divine in you” – connects you, your classmates and teacher, and the Divine.
As German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” How can you find your why and use it to enrich everything you do? When you wash your dishes, you aren’t just washing your dishes, but keeping your family safe from illness. When you soothe a crying child, you are blessing your child and helping her sleep well, so her tomorrow can be a good day.
How can you imbue meaning and purpose into everything you do?
5. Find Connection
People who have rich social support systems do better in most ways. In yoga, your teacher may ask you to chant an Ohm with your classmates at the beginning and end of class. As your Ohms meld into a single chord, you become a part of a larger community. This experience mirrors the connectedness you may feel as you move through a Warrior sequence together. Even your discussions before and after class can be community-forming and healing.
How can you build your sense of connectedness with the people around you? Try making eye contact and really seeing the barista at your favorite coffee shop, sharing updates from your day with your partner, doing things together, listening to your child’s concerns at night. Both giving and receiving can build a sense of connectedness.
There may be other things that you find healing in your yoga practice. Do you have any other ideas? If so, share them in the comment box below. How can you take these things off the mat and bring them into the rest of your life?