Yoga has been shown to reduce stress and to help practitioners to calm their mind. Speaking in psychological terms: to lower the arousal of the mind.
This effect can be seen directly after a yoga practice, plus regular practitioners over a longer term can handle stressful situations better, are more likely to lead a healthier lifestyle and are more aware of situations that causes stress. So to answer the question right away: It’s not as simple as that, but yes, yoga can help with mental illness.
To understand the benefits and also the negative effects yoga can have on people suffering from a mental illness, let’s go through some of the caveats below.
Depression and Anxiety – The world’s leading mental health illnesses
Anxiety and depression are the most common mental illnesses of our time. Anxiety is an increased state of arousal. It is fear trapped in the body.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (late 19th Century) described depression on the other hand as anger turned inwards.
While the nature of depression is more complex, anger often is described as not only targeting others around us, but also ourselves. Especially the latter can greatly contribute to depression.
Yoga gives you tools at hand, how to calm your mind when fear or anger arise. These can be grounding, breathing (Pranayama) or mindfulness exercises. Balancing breathing exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our rest and digest mode. A state of mind, that is neglected in our daily life, as we find ourselves mainly in fight or flight mode: Ready to react to triggers quickly, ready to engage in action. A regular relaxation practice just gives us a bit more breathing room, or better, time to think, between triggers and our reaction. Or we can actively choose just not to react at all.
Yoga also improves sleep, which is highly important for wellbeing in general, and for mental health.
Furthermore, the practice of asanas – the physical yoga exercises that are the most well-known part of yoga in the West – gives practitioners the same benefits as other endurance sports, like running or a fitness class, training endurance, strength and flexibility. It discharges endorphins that make you feel great, and lowers our blood pressure. It increases self-esteem and self-awareness. Mostly, physical exercise, and therefore asanas, contribute a big deal in keeping your physical body fit, mobile and healthy. And a healthy, pain free body is very important for a healthy mind.
Yoga hand in hand with Psychotherapy
Many psychotherapists already incorporate mindfulness exercises into their therapy. If people with mental illness would like to pick up yoga outside of therapy. It’s recommended to consult their therapist first, to discuss which yoga style to try and what dangers to look out for. Continuous supervision is advised.
Why? A regular yoga practice and deep relaxation can bring up memories and a whole lot of feelings. Good and bad ones. It’s common that practitioners are more aware of their feelings after a yoga class, or even got some clarity. In people affected by mental illness, such as depression, there is a possibility that they feel even more depressed after a yoga session. So yoga would have the exact opposite effect as the one hoped for.
The importance of a safe space for vulnerable students
Not only do students need to be aware of the risks when taking a yoga class, but also yoga teachers need to get more training on how to lead and teach vulnerable students. Chances are, they don’t know about the mental health of every student in their class.
Internationally renowned yoga teacher and book author Donna Farhi wrote an important book (called Teaching Yoga) about how to keep students safe, and about boundaries in a teacher-student relationship. It’s interesting for yoga teachers and students alike, as students will probably recognize a lot of situations they have encountered in class before, and might have felt uncomfortable with.
Therapists and also Donna Farhi expand on the importance of using the right, safe language and wording in class, boundaries on physical adjustments, and elaborate on students’ unconscious projections onto their teacher (yoga teacher, therapist, doctor, parent and many more roles).
One of the most important rules for teachers and students both to play by is:
For the teacher: Never touch a student when adjusting without their explicit permission. Especially important when dealing with traumatised people.
And for the student: Always use your right to say no or to leave the class. If you’re not comfortable with being touched or with anything else that’s going on in a yoga class, or with just the teacher her-/himself.
Should we be more open about our mental health state?
Teachers ask for physical injuries before class, but never about mental illnesses. Maybe these questions should find their way into a regular yoga class; as long as the topic can be discussed privately. No one likes to yell their personal issues through a room full of people.
Entering a yoga class alone is a big step for some people, which we have to acknowledge. It is even harder, if the other students present know each other. Everyone needs to feel welcomed, and needs to find a place where to relax in a safe environment before the start of the class. Best practice is to allow early arriving students to enter the classroom and to relax on their mat.
These are just two aspects that yoga teachers but also yoga practitioners should be aware of. If people suffering from a mental health problem know that they are taken good care of in a yoga class. Maybe more would take the step and try a yoga practice, to see if they can benefit from the practice.