Many of us might be familiar with yoga as a way to get exercise, improve flexibility, and connect our movement with our breath, but in addition to its physical benefits, yoga has a strong connection to mental health and wellbeing.
“Mental health is a combination of our emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing—how you feel, think, and act,” said Lorien Waterer, a coach and MyWellbeing community member. “Yoga offers you the opportunity to further explore each of these wellbeings, understand how to manage these, and offer you a way to connect them so your mental health is being wholesomely supported.”
“Yoga is a mindfulness practice that will help you learn to center yourself and become more present in your everyday life,” said Emma Demar, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Through practicing yoga, you will learn skills to ground yourself, de-stress by incorporating breathwork, and get you more in tune with your body. Yoga is an integration of mind and body, and through practicing yoga you will find yourself more conscious of your thoughts and feelings and how they manifest, which is extremely beneficial to your mental health.”
While yoga has clear mental health benefits and Instagram posts may proclaim that “yoga is my therapy,” yoga is not interchangeable with the act of working with a licensed therapist. It can definitely be used in conjunction with traditional therapy.
“Yoga is scientifically shown to supplement or support what we think of as ‘talk therapy,’” said Suzanne Hagopian, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “The breathing practice of yoga, specifically, helps individuals to effectively slow things down, physically and emotionally. Scholar and psychotherapist Stephen Cope refers to yoga and ‘The Quest for True Self.’ Tara Brach, PhD refers to a meditation by the acronym RAIN to increase self-compassion, incorporating biofeedback and mindfulness. In my practice, client-centered options are provided. We work together to find the best evidence-based course of treatment which may include yoga pose options, mindfulness-based stress reduction principles and/or breathwork in sessions.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all for therapy, yoga, or mental health care. It’s important to find a balance that works for you—and if integrating yoga into your care is something that is important to you, a therapist or coach can help.
“Like any wellness service, a holistic approach to managing yourself and what you need is something I often recommend,” said Lorien Waterer. “Yoga is simply another way, tool, or support for you to learn, understand, connect, and maintain your life as you can and want.”
When you think of yoga, what comes to mind? Toned fitness instructors in fancy leggings striking complicated poses? Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to yoga. While power yoga might not be for everyone, yoga is a vast practice that builds on thousands of years of history and when you dig a little deeper, you might find that there’s something for everyone.
“Anyone can try yoga!” said Jessica Holt, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “You do not need to be flexible or even have a mat to practice. The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali outline eight limbs of yoga. This means that Āsana, the physical practice you often see in yoga studios, is only one eighth of what yoga has to offer. Two limbs of yoga that mirror tools utilized by other evidence-based therapy practices are Prānāyamā (breathwork) and Dhyāna (meditation). Another limb of yoga is the Yamas, which are ethical codes that can help guide people in relating to themselves and others.”
In Sanskrit, Prana means life force, vital breath, or energy and Ayama means length, expansion, restrain, control, or suspension of breath. You might hear yoga teachers say that just showing up and breathing is yoga, so if you breathe, you’re doing it!
“Yoga is a practice that everyone can partake in,” said Whitney Taussig, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “It connects our breath to our body movements and helps relax our parasympathetic nervous system. Even fifteen minutes of daily yoga can help with anxiety, concentration, clarity, and body awareness. It truly is the best exercise for the mind.”
Many of us know that exercise can help boost our moods by lowering levels of stress hormones, increasing the production of feel-good chemicals known as endorphins, and bringing more oxygenated blood to our brains. But if you’re looking to use yoga as a stress-reliever, think about what contributes to your stress and what helps relieve it (if anything) now.
“The best type of yoga for stress depends on your preference for what relieves your stress as well as what contributes to it or triggers it,” Lorien Waterer. “Most of the eight limbs of yoga can be used in isolation or in combination to help relieve stress. There’s a growing number of supporting research papers regarding physical and mental stress reduction in those practicing yoga (at present this focuses on breathing and posture yoga); however, you are the main factor in being able to assess your stress, so you may find a particular limb of yoga works better for you.”
If you’re struggling to even figure out where your stress comes from or how to cope, a therapist can help.
“People experience stress in different ways,” said Jessica Holt. “Ayurveda, which can be translated as the science of life, is a sister science to yoga that can be helpful in understanding the composition of your stress. Once you have an understanding of your stress, you can better understand what kinds of yoga will be the most beneficial for you. This is where working with a practitioner who is familiar with these tools can help!”
Even if you’re not doing a full-on yoga class with your coach or therapist, they can employ the simple strategies of yoga's mind-body awareness and breathing techniques, like encouraging you to get as comfortable as possible during their sessions or to pay attention to how your body feels when you inhale and exhale, helping you stay present.
“As a personal performance coach working with many clients feeling burnout, work-related stress, relationship stress, and anxiety, yoga—including meditation as one of its limbs—is a fantastic way to facilitate a client during a stressful time in their life,” said Lorien Waterer. “It offers an alternative, perhaps even novel, way for a client to understand their emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing so they can then create a bespoke strategy, immediately implementable into their everyday life.”
"Mindfulness meditation is an excellent adjunct to psychotherapy, specifically CBT-focused psychotherapy, because it encourages clients to recognize that they are not their thoughts, and that thoughts can be analyzed and altered; it also helps practitioners recognize how thoughts fuel certain feelings and behaviors,” said Diane Botta, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Furthermore, mindfulness meditation has been proven to increase gray matter in the posterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that is associated with self-awareness, emotion, and cognition. I recommend meditation to most of my clients and think it can be especially helpful for clients looking to drop unwanted habits, like smoking."
And if the typical image of meditation—sitting still in complete silence—feels impossible or would be hard to do physically, you’ll be happy to know that, just like other types of yoga, meditation comes in many forms also.
“The practice of yoga has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression and help with overall mood and sleep,” said Ashlyne Mullen, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Yoga is a form of mindfulness where you are increasing awareness in your body through movement or breathing. This is actually a goal for many psychological therapies. Yoga has been incorporated in evidenced-based treatments such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which have been shown to help with various mental health issues such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and sleep. Therapists can integrate yoga exercises to help clients become more present in the moment, accept one’s emotions and sensations as they are, and be more aware of how their body is responding.”
If you’re interested in integrating yoga and meditation into your care, talk to your therapist or coach about it! And if you’re looking for a therapist or coach who integrates yoga and mediation into their work, you can get matched here.
While some people might want to work up a sweat, others might prefer a slower pace—and either way is perfectly fine! If you want to start or expand your practice, there are plenty of resources out there.
Jessica Holt recommended Susanna Barkataki's Embrace Yoga's Roots and Jessamyn Stanley's Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance. “Both people's websites and social media accounts have really great resources for expanding a yoga practice!”
Instagram is a great place to find yoga teachers, education, and resources. Teachers like Tejal Patel, Pooja Virani, Ravi Dixit, and Shanila Sattar, and accounts like ABCDYogi frequently post free videos and resources as well as links to their podcasts, classes, and other events.
There’s no one way to practice yoga, so finding a method or style that works for you is important. Just like finding a therapist or coach, taking the first step is sometime the hardest, but you’ve got this—just bring the breath!
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.