Generally when I hear someone say “just breathe through it” I want to punch that person in the face. Lately I have however come to see some merit in that advice. Or rather I am slowly accepting that yoga can have some real mental health benefits. I haven’t gotten a hang of the whole breathing thing yet and I don’t expect I will. I’m still a fan of breathing whenever and however I want.
Over the past few years I have slowly and skeptically taken steps towards the world of yoga. I’m simultaneously intrigued and put off by it. It seem to do magic with the people who practice it but it also seem to give them this aura of calm. As if they already know what’s going to happen and they are ok with it. I realize it sounds like a good thing but to me that sense of calm is disconcerting. I’m not inclined to just be cool with things.
I recently got back from a 3 day yoga and hiking retreat in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (Unites States). (Recently when I started writing this.) I have been looking in to the scientific research concerning possible mental health benefits of yoga. There is a growing body of serious research being done on yoga and its potential mental health benefits. Some positive evidence exist but most review articles still state that more and better research is required before yoga can assume a position as a therapy equivalent or alternative. The articles out there suggest that yoga can relieve stress in the general population. Some articles also argue that symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD can be reduced through the practice of yoga. I am not at all opposed to the idea that yoga relieves stress and potentially reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD. There is a clear reasoning behind it that could definitely work.
The function behind this idea is that the practice of yoga calms you down and reduces your heart rate etc. In other words it shuts down your body’s stress response, i.e. adrenalin and cortisol will no longer be released into your blood stream. This is important because although cortisol and adrenaline are good for us when it gives us a shorter burst of energy and attention to deal with an acute situation, in the long run those effects become adverse. To have your system constantly running in turbo mode puts too much strain on the system. The turbo setting was very effective back in the day and kept us alive as a species. It helped us to deal with immediate threats such as fighting off predators or hunting this weeks meal. In those cases there was a clear point when the stress response was no longer needed. Today, the things that induce stress responses rarely have that clear point when we no longer need to be on high alert. …Deadlines rarely mean we’re actually done with work. Completing a workout often mean we need to get home and get ready for the next thing. We go from thing to thing and our system don’t register that it can slow down and turn off the high alert.
And this is where yoga come in and help us. It doesn’t have to be yoga, a lot of things could help you with this but there are few alternatives that are as available and as structured. I know of no other thing than yoga where guided relaxation is a standard part of the practice. And let’s be clear, when I say yoga I mean the compassionate, self-respecting and mindful yoga you get from a well-trained yoga teacher. I don’t mean your daily vinyasa flow at the local gym. If the practice becomes about achieving poses and pushing yourself beyond what’s comfortable you lose the mindfulness and the relaxation and your stress responses are likely to veer up rather than wind down. Not only is this potentially harmful to your body it would also just be one of those things that you have to perform at and rather than giving you time to recover and wind down and be mindful it would just pile on to the stress. And we all have enough of that already.
yoga can be a great way to take care of your mental health and reduce your stress levels but make sure you find a teacher that is good at guiding you through the poses and your journey inwards. As with any therapy or therapeutic practice the relationship to your teacher/therapist is extremely important and vulnerable. You need to feel safe and protected in order to fully benefit and grow from the experience.
Last but not least a shout out to my great friend and yoga teacher Mary Susana Stults at Float and Flow Yoga. I first met this ray of sunshine and love in Costa Rica where she held one of her yearly retreats. Thank you for inviting me out to beautiful Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. See my post “Just breathe. …some mountain air” for pictures and more.
Harkess, Kaitlin N.; Delfabbro, Paul; Mortimer, Jane; Hannaford, Zara; Cohen-Woods, Sarah, Brief Report on the Psychophysiological Effects of a Yoga Intervention for Chronic Stress: Preliminary Findings. Journal of Psychophysiology, Jul 27 , 2016
Johnston, Jennifer M.; Minami, Takuya; Greenwald, Deborah; Li, Chieh; Reinhardt, Kristen; Khalsa, Sat Bir S. Yoga for military service personnel with PTSD: A single arm study Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, Vol 7(6), Nov 2015, 555-562.
Kirkwood G, et al. “Yoga for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of the Research,” British Journal of Sports Medicine (Dec. 2005): Vol. 39, No. 12, pp. 884–91.
Pilkington K, et al. “Yoga for Depression: The Research Evidence,” Journal of Affective Disorders (Dec. 2005): Vol. 89, No. 1–3, pp. 13–24.