The confluence of Western psychology with Eastern mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation creates a ripe environment for working with emotional and psychological issues. As a result, the mental health field has witnessed an upsurge in these mind-body healing modalities to address issues ranging from mood and anxiety disorders to stress relief.
What is Yoga and Meditation?
Inherent in the philosophy of yoga and meditation is the reduction of suffering (emotional and physical) and the increase in one’s vitality and full potential in life. Yoga is a holistic practice that integrates three basic components: breath (pranayama), physical poses (asanas), and meditation (dhyana). According to Buddhist traditions, mindfulness meditation is defined as the ability to maintain attention on a specific object (e.g., the breath), with an emphasis on returning to beneficial (versus negative) thoughts. The practice of mindfulness meditation within a yoga class can facilitate increased awareness of present-moment experiences and focus, rather than resisting or trying to clear the mind of uncomfortable, negative thoughts. In this way, yoga and meditation practice in the context of a yoga class can support the process of learning how to disengage from evaluative thinking through cultivating an attitude of curiosity and attention to ongoing reactions to emotions, thoughts, and feelings.
Yoga for Anxiety and Depression
In the mental health field, mind-body therapies such as yoga and meditation are becoming increasingly popular for promoting psychological well-being. Science also tells us that mindfulness skills are associated with improvements in mood and anxiety.
How yoga helps with depression can include working with one’s tendency to dwell on particular thoughts, feelings or emotions (e.g., rumination) and dysfunctional thought patterns. Mindfulness skills practiced in the context of a yoga class can help with noticing shifts in mood and learning coping strategies that encourage observing, rather than judging, these changes in mood. These skills can also help with depression relapse by counteracting the tendency to engage in negative thought patterns. The physical aspect of yoga also may help to counteract the inactivity and agitation associated with both depression and anxiety, and to promote a sense of self-mastery, an important component of working with depression. For example, a yoga class can help to instill a sense of accomplishment and self-mastery of a skill as a student learns to maintain connection with breath while holding or transitioning through the poses, despite potential distractions such as losing balance or focus. Lastly, a regular yoga and meditation practice can foster a sense of active participation in working through one’s issues and providing a sense of control over the improvement in one’s emotional well-being.
The hyperarousal or discomfort of physical sensations such as sweaty palms, tightness in chest that are associated with anxiety can also be worked with during a yoga practice. The more aware of and engaged one is with breath and the process of paying close attention to the breath while in and during the transition from one pose to the next, one can allow for physical sensations and the thoughts about those sensations to exist, without the associated arousal or tension that occurs when emphasis is placed on these experiences. Over time, acceptance of an uncomfortable sensation or thought may occur and the individual can simultaneously live his/her life in a meaningful way with less distraction from the “anxiety.”
Yoga For Stress Relief
Stress is a major epidemic in our society that can create a “hypervigilance” in our mind and body. Stress is fueled by epinephrine and cortisol (stress hormones), impairs our ability to think clearly, and leads us to a path of reactivity. Unfortunately, the average person is flooded by stress responses everyday, whether it be due to a toxic relationship, stressful work environment, or unhealthy lifestyle. Yoga and meditation are optimal in counteracting the chronic stress response.
How yoga helps with stress is similar to a self-soothing technique in that it activates the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response), and creates a calm and relaxed mind. When the relaxation response is elicited, stress levels decrease and oxytocin (feel good hormone) is released to support mind relaxation. Yoga for stress and anxiety helps to release deep holding patterns in the body and generates a state of balance to support healing. Longer held poses characteristic of Yin and Restorative yoga, for example, function to dial down the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response, the place we react from when feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with the many demands of our lives. While the pose is being held, the breath allows us to create space between thought and action, and we can then move from the fight-flight-freeze response to relaxation.
Yoga and meditation are mindful and embodied approaches to healing, working synergistically to cultivate a calm, relaxed, and peaceful mind. Whether you practice at a studio or from the comfort of your own home, a consistent practice can lead to significant shifts in how and what you pay attention to from moment to moment.