How Yoga Helps Mind, Body and Spirit

If you're like most therapy clients, you're likely experiencing two common problems. The first is a sense of being stuck in a mind that replays reruns of worries or past mistakes. The second is trouble dealing with emotions. Yoga offers an answer.

I’m not talking about pretzel yoga, in which beautiful and hyperflexible women balance on beaches in nearly impossible poses.  Research shows that yoga that pairs gentle movement with attention to breathing may help people dealing with a variety of common problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep problems, and anxiety.

Yoga is in essence a mindfulness practice. It teaches you how to pay attention to sensations in the body, often leading to a sense of calmness, focus and unity of mind and body. To practice moving in rhythm with the breath, it requires attention that takes you out of your mind and its worries.

At its best, yoga offers a sense of knowing who you really are in connection with a larger spirituality. One meaning of the word “yoga” is union of the individual self with the transcendental divine Self.

Research on Yoga is Promising for Emotional Well-Being

In the last 10 years, the mental health field has showed new interest in yoga as a treatment for a variety of common psychiatric problems. The evidence for yoga as a treatment for mental health is best for depression. A 2018 review of 15 randomized controlled trials showed meditative movement had "a significant benefit … on depression severity.” Yoga was the most frequently used of the meditative movement interventions.

Research also is encouraging for yoga for anxiety. A 2016 meta-analysis of 17 studies found that “hatha yoga is a promising method for treating anxiety.” People with the highest levels of anxiety benefited the most from yoga practice. (Hatha yoga is an umbrella term for many styles of yoga. It involves basic postures and breathing practices intended to calm the mind, body and spirit in readiness for meditation.)

Goddess pose embodies strength
Goddess pose embodies strength and helps to energize the body. Photo courtesy of You Call This Yoga.

Research in the past several years also shows that yoga is a “promising” treatment for trauma. For people with trauma, the experience of violence or abuse results in a chronic sense of fear and other intolerable feelings.

Trauma survivors often try to numb their feelings through various strategies. Unfortunately, many of these strategies are self-destructive (including alcohol and drug abuse, overeating, reckless sexual behavior, overworking, etc.)  Survivors feel unsafe in their bodies and have a nervous system that is chronically on alert for danger.

Ten weeks of yoga classes helped decrease trauma symptoms in 64 women with PTSD, according to Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist with the Trauma Center, a leading trauma research institute in Massachusetts. He theorizes that yoga may help with physiological awareness and feelings of safety in one’s body. At the same time, it builds skills to interpret and tolerate emotional and physical states.

How Yoga Affects the Mind and Body

Researchers are working to understand the mechanisms by which yoga helps with depression, anxiety and trauma. Yoga is thought to affect the mind by promoting attention to the present moment, which is necessary to stretch and move in rhythm with the breath. This trains the mind to more easily disengage from rumination and self-criticism and be present.

Practicing yoga has a “bottom-up” effect on self-regulation, as it starts with the body as a way to calm the mind. This contrasts with “top-down” styles of emotional regulation such as cognitive behavioral techniques.

On the biological level, yoga may help regulate the autonomic nervous system. People with anxiety, depression and PTSD tend to have dysregulated nervous systems.  People who struggle with overwhelming emotional states often have an overactive sympathetic nervous system, which is easily triggered and floods the body with a cascade of chemicals to prepare for fight or flight.

Some research suggests that yoga increases activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest” system. Yoga has a calming effect as it slows the heart rate and relaxes muscles in the gastrointestinal tract, among other things.  Yoga has also been shown to increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA. Researchers believe GABA improves mood and has a relaxing effect.

How I Incorporate Yoga in Therapy

Sun breaths have an energizing effect. The raised arms and open chest counter the collapsed posture common in depression.

I have practiced yoga and meditation regularly for more than five years and have found the practices essential to helping me feel balanced and grounded emotionally, physically and spiritually. I enjoy teaching movements, meditation, and breathing practices to clients to help decrease obsessive thinking and self-soothe when difficult emotions arise. The response from clients has been overwhelmingly positive.

Clients have found the practices helpful for anxiety, fatigue, panic attacks, dealing with stress at work, relaxing before bed, and discharging anger in a healthy manner. Some have even taught the practices they’ve learned to their children and students.

What is Subtle© Yoga?

I recently completed training in Subtle© Yoga, a style of yoga created for use in behavioral health. It creates resilience in the nervous system, develops the body-mind connection, and improves breathing. (Shallow breathing is often associated with anxiety, depression and trauma)

Subtle© Yoga involves six key processes:

  • Mindful movement;
  • Breathing practices
  • Meditation
  • Awareness of values
  • Spiritual development
  • Service

It promotes many of the outcomes that therapy clients seek:

  • Focused attention on the present
  • Mindfulness
  • Emotional self-regulation
  • Healthy body awareness
  • Sense of meaning and purpose
  • Sense of identity
  • Self-actualization

Yoga for Everybody

Subtle© Yoga differs from the yoga classes you may be familiar with from a studio or the gym. It is trauma-informed and focused on “innercise” rather than exercise.

Warrior 1 Pose using a chair
A variation of Warrior 1, a classic yoga pose, using a chair. Photo courtesy of You Call This Yoga.

This is good news for the many of us who are not naturally flexible and may be intimidated by images in the media of people in extreme yoga postures. As a teacher I offer guidance and variations to allow people with injuries or limits in mobility to practice safely.

The style of yoga I teach does not focus on achieving certain classical yoga poses. Rather, it helps participants move and stretch in gentle rhythm with the breath while helping notice body sensations in a safe way.

Over time as you practice, you learn to be more aware of your physical cues to emotional states without feeling overwhelmed or numb. You also learn what to do physically to release tension when or to energize when you’re fatigued. You develop a better relationship with yourself and comfort in your body.

I am attentive to creating a safe space and a positive experience. The focus is always on paying attention to what feels right for you on a given day.

I incorporate yoga in therapy in several ways:

  • Teaching one or two movements or breathing practices in therapy sessions to help you shift your energy to feel calmer or more energized;
  • Teaching meditation practices and using guided imagery;
  • Encouraging the spiritual life by helping you to identify your core values and live a life that is more aligned with a sense of meaning;
  • Helping students find a yoga studio and teacher to explore beginning a regular yoga practice;
  • I also plan to begin offering small yoga classes at my workspace for therapy clients (stay tuned!).