A Word on Wellness: The Case for Yoga Part I
I am definitely guilty of trying to sway everyone I know to at least try yoga. And yes, I'm aware how annoying that might be, but it has completely changed my life. I believe it to be one of the best anxiety reducing/stress managing tools out there. I often hear people say, "I know I should get into doing yoga, but..." It seems that everyone is familiar with the idea that yoga is beneficial, both for physical and mental health, but perhaps they aren't exactly sure why.
Here are the main reasons why yoga has such a positive impact on mental health:
1. We know the breath to be a very effective way to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest), when we're running around with our sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) activated. The actual physical practice of yoga centers around the connection to the breath and the focus on the breath throughout the practice. If a person is not connected to a strong, steady breath throughout the practice, then they aren't doing yoga - regardless of what shape their body is in. So, yoga itself is a great way to tell our bodies that we are safe. We engage the breath to allow ourselves to come out of hyper-drive.
2. We know the breath can invigorate us when we are feeling depressed. Since the breath is an integral part of yoga (see #1) we can do certain types of yoga to deepen the breath, increase energy and help our natural endorphins kick in. Back bends, arm balances and sun salutations are specifically great for this.
3. Yoga poses require what we call "dynamic tension" meaning you have to reach-hold-press-flex certain parts of the body in opposite directions creating lines of energy with tension. (i.e even sitting up straight with your legs straight out in front of you causes this tension. Your head is reaching up toward the ceiling while your feet are flexed, heels pressing toward the wall - the core will even need to engage to keep a lengthened spine.) "Achieving" the pose is not reaching a static shape, the effort is in the continued action of these opposing lines of energy. Therefore, the poses require a level of focus that releases the mind into an almost meditative state, taking attention away from worries and circular thinking. The practice of yoga is a meditation.
4. Many sports and physical activities have a similar effect on the mind/body in terms of #3, which is why being active in general is so good for us. And if you have a physical activity that you already do consistently then bravo! What I love about yoga is the emphasis on meeting yourself where you're at. This basically means not comparing to your neighbor, or even to what you were able to do yesterday or this morning. If your hip was open on the right side, but your left hip feels stiff, no need to force it or judge it. Basically, yoga provides competitive people, or anyone who is typical very hard on themselves, with mini-lessons on self-acceptance and compassion. If you can learn to love your tight hamstrings on the mat, what else can you learn to love about yourself off of the mat?
5. Yoga has the illusion of being simply an amazing physical work-out. While the byproduct of a yoga practice will most certainly be flexibility and strength, the benefits for the mind and mental health are foremost. The Western emphasis on working out and being fit, gets people exposed to yoga who might not normally seek out therapy or other methods of self-care. Yoga is able to make an impact in a more subtle way. It has become highly accessible - which is great! There are so many ways to get started: donation based yoga, specific classes for beginners, or private classes.
Next month I will explain further by using the example of anxious teenage girls and the yoga group I just started for them in February. [You can basically insert [you] instead of teenage girl, and [whatever issue you're struggling with] instead of the examples I'll use - that's how universal I believe the benefits of yoga to be.]
Something to Listen to:
Study finds drop in suicide rate linked to same sex marriage legalization - Listen Here
This organization is near and dear to my heart. La Casa de Las Madres helps women, teens and children find refuge from domestic violence. I have worked with many teens whose families have benefited from this organization - they are responsible for saving lives. There are a few ways to get involved: donate your time, money or supplies needed for families as they restart their new lives.
Expect quotes, observations, tips and reflections.