NOURISHING THE HEART SPACE: Mental Health Benefits of Yoga
I recently had an experience in which I was confronted with toxic and negative communication that was directed towards me and my family. Being a human being, my initial reaction was to “fight back” and to partake in similar, unhealthy communication. Thankfully, though, my yoga and meditation practice (as well as my training as a clinical psychologist), has helped me to recognize that we always have a choice in how we respond in any given situation. We can “react”, which is all too often entrenched in emotion and lacks any reason or logic, OR we can come from a wise, centered and most likely objective place--this is our heart space where unconditional love can flow freely. Our yoga (and meditation) practice has the ability to nourish and support this heart space, which when done on a regular basis, can ultimately bring about a sense of freedom, inner peace, and overall emotional and physical well-being.
But... Why Yoga?
How could yoga, something so simple which on the face of it, is breathing and moving through poses (or asanas), be so powerful and transformative? Yoga is unique in that it incorporates physical movement with present-moment awareness via your breath. The use of breath as a focal point to guide and keep you grounded in your body is provocative, and can counter the omnipotent tendencies of the mind that want to wreak havoc on your present-moment awareness by offering up seductive and enticing thoughts and emotions. Yoga is instrumental in that it allows us to open up, both physically and emotionally, and creates a pathway to tap into the heart space that is all-knowing, free from mental chatter/reactivity, and guides us to a place where we can respond from our wise and intuitive self--bringing together the emotional and rational self. Here, we are not being driven by emotion-based tendencies, which can often run amok and leave us feeling drained and regretful.
The instrumental role of yoga in promoting emotional health and well-being has received increased attention, ranging from anecdotal stories put forth by yogis to the scientific literature, with yoga benefits for mental health cutting across various issues, including depression, anxiety, and stress management.
Depression and Anxiety
Yoga, with its emphasis on purposeful movements and the use of breath to move through the physical poses (asanas), can help with depression and anxiety. Yoga increases awareness of present-moment experience and attentional focus, and as a result, can help individuals become aware of negative moods and the dwelling (i.e., rumination) in negativity that is often characteristic of depression. Through these pathways, individuals can begin to disengage from judging/self-criticism, and the “mental chatter” that without awareness, can dominate our behaviors and move us toward a not so healthy place. The discomfort of physical sensations such as sweaty palms, tightness in chest, feeling “out of control” that are often 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 a pose, and during transition from one pose to the next, can provide a “neutral” (without criticism/judgement) space for physical sensations and the thoughts associated with these sensations to exist. And, over time, the arousal or tension that might occur 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”.
Stress is a major epidemic in our society that can create a “hypervigilance” in our mind and body, and impairs our ability to come from a less reactive place during times of increased stress. Yoga functions like a self-soothing technique in that it alters the stress response system, helping to “tame” and quiet down the nervous system. In this way, the mental health benefits of yoga are witnessed with the reduction of stress by way of decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels in our body. An overarching theme that weaves its way through all yoga poses is the “letting go” of deep holding patterns in the body and finding a state of balance to support healing. Longer held poses characteristic of Restorative yoga, for example, work to dial down the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-flight-freeze response, the place we tend to react from when feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to cope with the many demands of our fast-paced, technology driven lives. When space is created to allow us to move from overdrive to relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system (aka, the relaxation response) can thrive and function efficiently.
Whether it is a physically rigorous Power Yoga class, or a slow-paced restorative class you are interested in, it’s all yoga--again, breath and movement. When you create the space (even if only for 20-30 minutes) to step away from email, text messages...life and tune into your breath, you are giving yourself an amazing gift-time to get out of your head with all the mental chatter (emotions, thoughts, feelings), and drop into your heart space where that intuitive, wise self lives and thrives. And, with a consistent yoga practice, it’s inevitable that you will begin to experience the difference between living from a place of reactivity and healthy, heart-focused responses--regardless of the situation. So, the next time you are confronted with toxic and unhealthy communication, remember you always have a choice to either feed it through your own emotion-based reactivity, or to rise above and respond from your heart space. You decide...