Self Care : Yoga for Mental Health
I want to preface this post by saying that yoga is an ancient practice, and is far more than stretching or a tool for stress management. Yoga has deep roots in spirituality, mindfulness, and more. In fact, there are eight limbs of yoga, only one of which is asana (physical poses). The focus of this blog will be on yoga as a tool to get present in your body, mitigate stress, and spend time with yourself during an incredibly stress and anxiety-inducing time. I plan to write more in-depth posts about specific aspects of yoga and their relation to grief and vulnerability, so consider this somewhat of an introduction blog. If you’re interested in reading more about the history of yoga, amongst other things, please see the resources listed at the end of this blog.
Something I noticed, or more so felt, during the period of time that my mother was very ill was how much I sat. I sat in the car on the way to the hospital, I sat in a chair or on her bed in the hospital, I sat on our living room couch next to her for weeks. I sat. Not only did I sit, I hunched. Stressed and sometimes holding my head in my hands, I caved in on myself for several months. My body felt it. My mind felt it.
Yoga translates to “union,” that being the union of the mind and the body. The Sanskrit root ‘Yuj’ means ‘to unite,’ ‘to integrate,’ ‘to harness.’ The practice can help reconnect us to our bodies when we have created distance, for whatever reason. Sometimes we disconnect from our bodies intentionally, sometimes subconsciously, to protect ourselves in situations of trauma or high stress. Know that the practice of yoga is there for you, when you feel ready.
Let’s talk about the physical: yoga can improve muscle strength, flexibility, hormone function, and more (Parshad 2004). Research indicates that not only can yoga mitigate symptoms of stress (Chong et al. 2011), a regular practice of yoga can also make us more resilient to stressful situations (Parshad 2004). Further studies are needed to ascertain long-term benefits (Chong et al. 2011). Overall, yoga is a promising tool for stress management (Sharma 2014).
What is most important is how yoga makes you feel in your body. There are infinite asanas (poses), styles of yoga, teachings of yoga, etc. Just like not all forms of movement will feel good in your body, it is likely that you will resonate with certain styles of yoga over others. For example, heated vinyasa yoga in combination with a yin practice is what I do. A regular restorative practice, or hatha practice, may feel the best in your body. The yoga practice that you feel the best, the most at peace with, is the one you’re going to actually do. There’s enough pressure off the yoga mat, when you’re dealing with grief and its many manifestations. You need not bring that pressure onto your yoga mat. Take the pressure off–create it as an open exploration of your own body.
Here’s some poses you may want to try. When you are first beginning a yoga practice, keep it simple. There is no need to do a full 45 or 60 minute practice, unless you truly want to. Doing one pose counts. Doing two poses counts. Intentionally connecting with and caring for your body is meaningful, no matter the minutes.
Legs up the wall:
Creating this pose is simple. Find a spot where you’ve got some free wall space. Lay onto your back, with your hips as close to the wall as you can, and send your legs up the wall. Feel free to add a pillow under your head, a blanket over your body, or any other form of support. I like to hold this pose for between 5 - 7 minutes.
Benefits: Since this pose is considered an inversion, it aids with circulation in the body. Inversions can also promote relaxation, so it’s a great pose to do before bed or after dinner. You’ll also lengthen your hamstrings and release pressure on your lower back.
Reclined frog pose:
You can also use a wall for this pose, or omit the wall if it’s not convenient. Lay onto your back and bend your legs out to the side. You’re creating a goalpost shape with the legs: work your knees in line with your hips to your sides, and your ankles in line with your knees. If you’ve got the wall, plant your heels on it for extra support. Either way, you can use your hands on your inner thighs to gently press downward and deepen the posture. I recommend holding this posture for 5 minutes.
Frog pose is a double hip opener, as it creates an external rotation in both of your hip joints. If you’re spending a lot of time sitting, your hips are closed. This is a great way to open up your hips—your intensity lever is how wide you let your knees fall open. Note that this pose is naturally uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t feel painful (no yoga pose should).
Warrior 2 + Star pose flow:
For Warrior 2 (right side), step your right foot near the top of your mat, facing 12 o’clock. Plant your feet hip-width apart, and plant the whole sole of your left foot somewhere between 9 and 11 o’clock behind you in a lunge position. Reach your hands up above you as you work your left hip point forward, and your right hip point back. To transition into star pose, straighten both of your legs, and point your toes to the left side of your mat. Reach your hands high up above your head, and take up as much space as possible. To take with breath: Warrior 2 (exhale), Star pose (inhale), Warrior 2 (exhale), Star pose (inhale), etc… until you feel complete.
These poses (and flow) will challenge your legs, if you want something to get your heart rate up and build more heat in the muscles. It’s also a great way to connect with breath.
If you would like to learn more about yoga, consider these resources:
The Yamas & Niyamas by Deborah Adele.
How Yoga Works by Michael Roach.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda.
Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews.
Chong, C.S.M., Tsunaka, M., Tsang, H.W.H., Chan, E.P., Cheung, W.M., 2011. Effects of Yoga on Stress Management in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 17, 32–8.
Parshad, O., 2004. Role of yoga in stress management. West Indian Med J 53, 191–194.
Sharma, M., 2014. Yoga as an Alternative and Complementary Approach for Stress Management: A Systematic Review. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med 19, 59–67. https://doi.org/10.1177/2156587213503344