Yoga can help you tame stress, tackle depression and overcome anxiety. If you’re dealing with any of these conditions, your yoga mat might be the answer.
Yoga, one of the oldest known health practices in the world, has millennia of research behind its mood-elevating claims. Through the practice of mindfulness, close attention to one’s interior responses, it offers one of the most important skills we learn to develop: our ability to self-soothe.
At the heart of yoga is the basic mind-body principle: if the mind is agitated, the body’s health will be affected, and if the body is in poor health, mental strength will be compromised. For those new to yoga, the asanas, or physical postures, are a great place to begin. Each pose can create immediate changes in your mood by improving alignment, increasing blood flow and instilling a state of relaxation.
As Angela Wilson, a Kripalu yoga teacher and director of evidenced-based yoga curriculum for Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living says, “When you have a healthy and robust nervous system, you are less likely to get knocked off your seat when something challenging in life happens.”
In other words, visit your mat regularly, and visiting your therapist may become moot. Whether you need to soothe jangled nerves or shake off a cocoon of lethargy, yoga can help. Use the following tips and poses to get started.
1. Savasana: Soothe your central nervous system
An out-of-whack nervous system correlates to high stress and an inability to cope with emotional intensity. Yoga modulates the stress response by quieting physiological arousal: reducing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels and smoothing out respiration.
Think about the yoga mat as your own private laboratory for examining how you work through your emotions. Do you get frustrated in postures that are challenging for you? Do you get afraid in certain balance poses? Do backbends make you giddy? Yoga offers a safe training ground to work with both your mind and your body, when the heat, literally, gets turned up.
Wilson sees the therapeutic aspects of yoga in light of the Kripalu philosophy of “riding the wave of experience.” The waves, she explains, are the emotions, and “there is always a critical moment where the decision to jump off or stay on the wave must be made.” The goal is to stay with the wave, neither acting out nor repressing the emotion, but simply witnessing whatever arises—without judgment. In becoming more mindful, your sense of well-being will often increase.
With consistency, yoga can alter the fundamental biochemistry of the body. A 2010 study published in the “Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine” showed yoga elevates levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, which tends to be low in individuals who suffer from depression and anxiety. Savasana, or corpse pose, traditionally practiced at the end of a yoga practice, can induce extreme relaxation.
Try savasana: Lie on your back and let your legs and arms fall open and turn out. Release the back of your neck. Soften forehead, eyes, jaw and tongue. Close your eyes and let your breathing be effortless. Stay in the pose for at least five minutes.
2. Ustrasana (camel pose): Lift your heart
According to yoga philosophy, certain kinds of depression stem from a lack of vitality. Many people don’t realize yoga’s capacity to be deeply energizing. Sun salutations, balance poses and back bends, besides providing a vigorous workout, have an additional therapeutic bonus. The mind and body become so concentrated that the dark thoughts tend to disappear, even if briefly.
The full attention to movement and breath is the equivalent to giving the mind a much-needed vacation. Post-yoga, the uplifted mood may linger, leaving the practitioner bathed in a peaceful afterglow.
Try camel pose: Kneel with knees hip-distance apart, toes pointing back. Press the tops of your feet firmly onto the floor. Draw belly in and drop your tailbone down. Place hands on lower back, fingertips facing up, and squeeze elbows together. Lift chest up and lean back, dropping your head, and move hands to your heels. Stay in the pose for 30 seconds to a minute.