Your mental health is as important as your physical health, but tips on caring for it can be complicated. Yoga, which includes exercise, meditation, relaxation and breath-work, is a straightforward method. Even if you do only the exercises, or asana, and breath-work, or pranayama, you’re helping yourself.
To be sure, mental health counseling is necessary for some circumstances. Still, yoga can be a complement.
“I see yoga as a way to self-regulate, meaning it is an individualized practice that meets us where we are and evolves in a lifetime,” says Heather Monson-James, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in Chattanooga, Tenn., who specializes in bereavement, trauma, and anxiety and mood disorders. “For some, it may boost their mood. For others, it may be more stabilizing and grounding. Yoga meets us where we are versus that it is a cure-all.”
Many well-established studies have shown that yoga helps with stress management, which is requisite for maintaining mental wellness. Simple example: Excessive stress inhibits healthy sleeping patterns, and a lack of sleep not only leads to mood disorders but also is associated with psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. More specifically, yoga has been shown to be an effective complementary therapy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. To be sure, scientific research on the psychophysiological benefits of yoga dates back to the early 20th century.
One of yoga’s tools in alleviating anxiety and its related conditions—which can transform from mental to physical problems, by the way, including nausea, dizziness, heart palpitations and the aforementioned insomnia—is its focus on abdominal breathing, wherein your diaphragm moves actively and freely so that you take fuller breaths. Anxious chest breathing, in contrast, constrains.
“Yoga has a profound impact on our nervous system,” says Monson-James, who is also an experienced yoga instructor that assists Judith Hanson Lasater, the pioneer of restorative yoga. “It down-regulates our sympathetic nervous system and increases parasympathetic nervous system dominance. In other words, it improves our responsiveness to perceived stressors and helps us more appropriately recover from stress.”
Monson-James often teaches her therapy clients yoga techniques “to bring them into the present moment, including breath awareness and breath practices such as lengthening the exhale for a calming effect,” she says. She also uses somatic awareness techniques. Indeed, yoga’s signature ability to help practitioners tune in to how they feel can help folks identify root causes of their anxiety.
Here are three asana she recommends, along with her explicit instructions, to feel more grounded and open, which is to say, balanced.
1. Reclined Cat-Cow/Rolling Bridge
How to: Lie on your back, bend your knees, and place the soles of your feet down ahead of your hips. Connect with your breath, and use the duration of your inhale to lift your spine, beginning at your tailbone. When you get to your mid-back, pause, and then use the duration of your exhale to ripple down from your mid-back to your tailbone, until your pelvis again rests on the ground. Be sure to let your movements follow your breath. Complete 8-10 cycles of breath, connecting with the tip/tilt quality of your pelvis as you initiate and complete each breath cycle. Notice the residue of the movement and breath connection.
Why she recommends it: “This is delicious for the spine and pelvis, moving the spine through flexion and extension. It also connects breath with movement, inviting us back into the body, and increases our connection to the present, perfect moment. This is good for depression and lethargy, and it reduces anxiety.”
2. Supported and Restorative Bridge
How to: Place two bolsters end-to-end, or fold and stack several blankets, in order to create a surface on which to lie from your heels to the lower tips of your shoulder blades. You can use a strap around your upper femur bones and one directly below your knees, in order to keep your legs from rolling off your props and to encourage your legs to remain neutral. This often feels better in the low back as well. Rest your head comfortably on the ground. Invite a full inhale until you feel a little stretch in your lung tissue, and then take an easy, smooth exhale. Complete 20 cycles of breath, or stay as long as you like.
Why she recommends it: “This is a wonderful pose to down-regulate your nervous system, and even five minutes can improve your energy, while quieting the chaos of your mind. The head being lower than the heart sends a message to the thinking mind to shush, and it also sends a message to the heart to not work so hard.”
3. Restorative Power Pose
How to: Lie on your back and simply assume the shape of a snow angel, with your arms stretched out and an open heart. You might enjoy the support of a blanket under your head and wrists, along with one to cover you, which can create a feeling of safety and be especially grounding. Take natural breaths in and out. Complete 20 cycles of breath, or stay as long as you like.
Why she recommends it: “This shape lightens your mood while grounding you, allowing you to come back to the present moment and an awareness of the ease of the breath. The pose supports your body as it takes up space as opposed to compressing you, and it can improve your posture. Energetically, it brings you into an awareness of, Here I am, just as I am, a gift in the world. It’s calming, a resting pose that is neutral and integrative.”
Mitra Malek’s reporting and writing have appeared in The Washington Post and USA Today, and she is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal. Connect at mitramalek.com.