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How Yoga Can Improve Mental Health

Western science and civilization are finally beginning to catch up with the ancient yogis. As new studies are regularly published in medical journals asserting the link between the physical practice of yoga and positive mental health yoga philosophy seeks just a bit deeper into our culture.

For generations western medical science actively chose to ignore the mind/body connection thanks in part to French philosopher Rene Descartes’ theory of dualism which claims the mind and body are distinct entities, the mind as non material and the body as material. Known as the “Cartesian split” this view is now out of favor as most modern scientists, philosophers and solid thinkers recognize the brain is made of material substance.

Descartes did have it right that mind and body interact with one another but because the mind/body connection is an internal process existing in the realm of the spirit, western science’s focus on reason, logic and the scientific method failed to account for a force it could not measure. 

While operating from this empirical model has undoubtedly produced incredible medical and scientific advances and in turn saved countless lives western medicine fails to successfully treat elusive maladies or account for the power of faith, attitude and beliefs in the healing process.

As integrative medicine, preventative health care and “alternative” forms of treatment slide into the mainstream; the science asserted by yoga’s essential focus on the inseparable mind/body grows ever brighter. As Frank Sinatra sang about in his classic “Love and Marriage” – you can’t have one without the other.

The sage Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, (Yoga’s bedrock philosophical document – think of it as similar to our Constitution. A work with endless interpretations.) identifies Svadhyaya, or self-study, as one of the main endeavors of a practicing yogi. Traditionally, this self-study occurred during long periods of meditation. Seeking to still the ebb and flow of our inherently racing mind, Patanjali defines the word “yoga” itself in this way when he states “Yoga Chitti Vritti Narodaha” (often translated as “Yoga occurs when the mind ceases to fluctuate”) The word “yoga” (small “y”) is commonly defined as “union”.  We can quite quickly see yoga happens when we unify the mind and body with spirit. If only it was this quick to accomplish.

Because most westerners are introduced to the practice through asana, the physical side of yoga, it is through the body we slowly learn about the mind. Similar to psychotherapy, the western choice for cultivating positive mental health or “solving” mental health problems, self-study occurs every time we step on a yoga mat or “visit our therapist”, so to speak. When one is twisted and tied in an uncomfortable or challenging physical posture remarkably intense and self-defeating thoughts can quickly rise to the surface.

These thoughts are often deeply held patterns or beliefs (“I hate this!”- “I can’t do this” – “I’m not good enough”) called samskaras in Sanskrit. Eerily familiar to us, these thoughts are the same ones that rear their ugly head off the mat when we are confronted with disappointment, pain or suffering. Through the physical practice of yoga we build a more intimate awareness of these mental habits. We learn to identify them more quickly, notice their temporal nature and in turn foster greater resiliency in our thinking patterns.

A cursory familiarity with current psychotherapeutic trends enables us to notice how this process is nearly identical to the talk-therapy du jour, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT seeks to alter “patient’s” thinking patterns by building awareness of current habits and eventually replacing these unhelpful thoughts with new, more skillful ones.

Within this process, psychotherapists work to help “patients” allow their habitual thoughts to occur without immediate action, understanding this is something the mind is geared to do. Similarly, in yoga, when faced with yet another Eagle posture (Garudasana) we learn to allow these self-doubts to occur without judgment. We begin to see there is a choice as to whether or not we follow them down a rabbit hole of aversion and suffering.  Instead we begin to cultivate self-acceptance, resiliency, tolerance, and confidence – cornerstones of positive mental health.

Amy Weintraub, accomplished yoga teacher and writer has been fostering public conversation about yoga and mental health since her fantastic 2004 book Yoga for Depression. In it she discusses how noticing the feelings that arise during asana without latching onto them can be fruitful,

“ I acknowledge that today I have sad feelings, but I also see that I am not my sad feelings, that I have a self that is bigger than these fleeting emotions. This is especially true when we practice long holdings of postures in order to witness, with equanimity and awareness, all of our feelings, without reaction.  Holding gives us an opportunity to notices the places in the body where energy is blocked, where emotion or even trauma is stored”.

She goes onto to discuss her belief that healing from depression must include a physical component,

“Talk therapy…has its limitations. If, as most psychologists agree, the seeds of our depression are sewn prior to the acquisition of language, how can we root out the depression solely through language? Recovery from depression must include the body.  Research shows that when we suffer trauma, it is mostly the lower, more primitive parts of the brain that are involved.  Maryanna Eckburg, a psychologist who treats survivors of abuse, says ’a body oriented treatment model speaks the language of these areas of the brain – sensation, perceptual experience, and somatic responses.  Cognitive restructuring is, of course, important, but the healing process must also include bodily experience’. “

Similarly, the founder of Integral Yoga, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), wrote many essays throughout his life on the intersection of psychology, mental health, and yoga. In describing optimal mental health Aurobindo identifies integration (hence the name) of mind, body, and “vital” or life-force energy (in Sanskrit this is known as prana). Intriguingly, Aurobindo notes there can be disturbances in any one of these three areas but the true problem occurs when we identify our self with this disturbance.  This is an act of the ego.

Through the practice of yoga we experience more intimately the quirks of our mind and how badly the ego wants to dominate and latch onto any shortcoming or strength it can find. We begin to notice the less we allow our ego to determine our feelings and choices, on or off the mat, we are able to see these passing thoughts as the temporal phenomena they are.  In turn, we cultivate greater freedom to expand our physical bodies and our consciousness.

In the same way Weintraub and Aurobindo describe healing as an integrated process, asana itself can drastically shift and clear areas of long held tension in our bodies, making space for psychological change. Take backbends for example.  By practicing with an experienced teacher who can teach safe physical alignment (moving the inner thighs back and rotating them inward, tucking the tailbone toward the heels, breathing fully into the back body/kidneys J) and effective muscle engagement backbends will require us to open our heart by broadening across the chest.

Ask any yogi who has deepened their backbend practice over the years and they will describe the “buzzing” sensation that occurs through this heart opening. Backbends release stored life-force energy (prana) in the chest (the “heart chakra” in yogic terms), an area where many westerners are constricted due to our daily routines of computer work and driving. These routines slouch the tops of our shoulders forward and compress the chest. Emotional trauma can also lodge itself in this area. Quite literally we protect our heart when we are hurt. 

Practiced properly, backbends will create a healthy opening, a tingle; the spark of Shakti is released. A mildly euphoric feeling, quite similar to the sensation Jennie Garth fostered in me when I used to watch Beverly Hills, 90210! This moment can be life changing as we begin to see and feel a little more clearly, the basis for behavioral change.

Weintraub advocates strongly for a daily yoga practice being both a primary and supportive factor in preventing lapses into depression. She and many leading yoga therapists acknowledge the need for anti-depressants and talk therapy in cases of severely low mood or suicidal thinking. However, the discipline and devotion required to your practice on your mat every day is a significant indicator someone is strongly invested in making positive changes.

Again, this is not dissimilar to someone asked or choosing to attend intensive talk therapy or any other rigorous healing process – the commitment to change is the central component to altering one’s long-standing patterns. Having struggled with depression at various times in my adult life I can attest to not only incredible shifts in the stability of my mood since beginning a daily asana practice but more powerfully my ability to nurture a deep wellspring of happiness is growing by leaps and bounds.

Commonly, mental health is thought to be the absence of identifiable symptoms – one is not depressed or suicidal, not anxious, paranoid, or unreasonably fearful. However, once a person reaches a vague threshold of functioning, they are determined to be “mentally healthy”. This symptom based model struggles to account for a vital aspect of a larger perspective on mental health. How much does our mind control us? 

This question can only be answered through a form of self–study. Another person cannot see what transpires inside our mind and how often we succumb to the willy-nilly manner in which the brain’s constant activity drives us to make impulsive and unhealthy choices.  These choices (snapping at someone, overeating,) may not manifest in immediate danger to our self or others but over time the accumulation will manifest less than desirable results. Through the science of yoga and utilizing the mind/body connection to dive deeper into the ocean of our peculiar and particular mind we can gain liberation from the tyranny of our ego. This is mental health.

The scientific research will continue and The New York Times and CNN will periodically sprinkle their news with hints of the healing powers of yoga. Nonetheless, many westerns will remain averse to this ancient practice out of self-limiting beliefs (“yoga is for flexible people”), “judgment” (“yoga is for hippies and I a hate hippies!) or ignorance (“yoga is a religion”). 

While it may be becoming impossible to find any medical practitioner who flatly denies the mind/body connection, old cultural habits, like personal ones, die-hard.  I point you in the direction of Dr. Timothy McCall’s work on yoga as medicine or toward fashion designer Donna Karan’s successful sponsorship of yoga programs in New York City hospitals as evidence the western medical community is beginning to see the light. 

The yogis? Well, they will go on practicing and hoping you come along too.


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