Yogis (people who practice yoga) are generally considered to be laid-back, calm, and stress-free. This is not always the case, of course. But on the whole, yoga supports a healthy lifestyle by encouraging self-knowledge, meaningful activity, and compassion, all of which can promote improved mental health.
While yoga is not a cure for any specific mental health concerns, many people who practice yoga find that it does provide a framework for a more satisfying lifestyle. There are basic yoga practices that can help reduce anxiety, depression, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress. Yoga can also help reduce stress. Prolonged, severe stress can have physical and emotional consequences that can negatively impact quality of life, including both physical and emotional health.
Let’s look at how yoga can help with stress reduction. Notice I didn’t say yoga can eliminate stress. Some stress is a natural part of life, and it can actually help us grow. Weight lifting, for example, stresses the muscles. If we know the proper way to lift weights, we’ll grow strong muscles. But if we lift improperly, we risk injury. Similarly, with mental stress, we need to understand how we as individuals work best.
Below are nine simple ways to reduce stress. They’re simple, but not easy—I say this because people often don’t do things that are simple. Thus they may not give simple things, or themselves and their potential, enough credit. You also have to give things enough time. It may take a while to see results, even from simple changes. But people often run out of patience when they want immediate results.
1. Get to know yourself and your needs.
It can help to start by taking care of yourself. Yoga is a process that involves developing self-knowledge and learning how to take good care of yourself as well as the world around you. Another way to take care of yourself might be working with a psychotherapist and/or a psychiatrist, if you are taking medication.
2. Ask yourself how you can help others.
Think about what you can do to help not only yourself, but others around you. Yoga emphasizes the development of compassion for all sentient beings—yourself and others. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
3. Develop a sense of purpose.
To do this, it can help to find out more about your part or role in society and/or your community. Devote yourself to this. Turn your attention both inward and outward. Remember, we are all needed. Imagine the links that tie us all together.
4. Consider how tools might help you.
If you take yoga class, you know about props—blankets, pillows, bolsters, or blocks, for example. Props are tools. They can help you relax, reach further into yourself, or help you balance. How might other tools help you?
Think about what you can do to help not only yourself, but others around you. Yoga emphasizes the development of compassion for all sentient beings—yourself and others.
Imagine you are going through a hard patch in your life. A parent is dying, perhaps. Maybe you had to say goodbye to a sick and aging pet. Or the relationship you hoped would last your lifetime has just ended. Saying goodbye is hard, and healthy props are called for. Props might include talking with a therapist, spending time with loved ones, or doing activities like taking a walk or exploring the natural world.
5. Get enough sleep.
Restorative yoga before bed can often help people relax and sleep better. It also helps to avoid rushing around before bedtime. Try to to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. If you wake up in the middle of the night with worries or recriminations, or if you’re awake in bed at 3:00 AM or so, lie on your back, place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly, and take long, slow calming breaths. This can help relax you, even if you aren’t immediately able to fall back asleep.
6. Think about the effect mealtimes could have.
Eating nutritious food can be beneficial for overall wellness. But the time you eat may also be worth considering. Yogis believe that better digestion can occur when the belly is empty for about twelve hours. So if you have breakfast at 7:00 AM, aim to have dinner at 7:00 PM. This shouldn’t be too hard if you plan a little. You are more likely to sleep better that way, too.
7. Do your best and forget the rest.
Remember that it’s okay to be flexible—and be flexible. Begin and end things gradually. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you haven’t met your expectations this time. You will have another chance.
8. Experiment with different moves.
Some yoga moves, such as back bends, may help lessen feelings of depression. Other asanas, such as forward folds, can be very calming. Take the time to find out what moves are most beneficial for you.
Breathwork is powerful. Long, slow breaths can often help reduce feelings of anxiety. Be mindful of your breath, and spend some time paying attention to the effects different types of breathing can have on what you’re feeling.
Yoga is not the same as therapy. Psychotherapy, a union of talk and action, can help people address mental health issues and have a positive effect on physical and emotional health. Though yoga doesn’t treat mental health concerns in the same way, the American Psychological Association has found that yoga can be an important tool for people in therapy. If you’d like to learn more about incorporating yoga into your therapy or treatment plan, talk to your therapist or reach out to a compassionate counselor who can offer guidance and support.
Novotney, A. (2009). Yoga as a practice tool. Monitor on Psychology, 40(10). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/11/yoga.aspx
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