I’m Hannah, a mental health therapist (MSW, CSW) and yoga instructor. But I wasn’t always either of these. In fact, I probably said the words “I don’t like yoga” at least a dozen times before I was 23 years old. “It’s too easy.” “It’s just stretching.” “It’s fluffy hippy-dippy stuff.” Then, at 23 years old, I went to my first hot yoga class. 90 minutes. 107 degrees. Humid. No talking. Eyes on yourself in the mirror in front of you. The instructor speaks, then you move. It was miserable. I thought to myself, “Never again…”
Yet, something drew me back the next week. And then again. Within months, I was showing up to the hot room 3-4 times a week and I was not the same person anymore.
I found that on my yoga mat, I would shed layers of myself- layers like “I’m ugly,” “I’m bad,” “I need something to make me happy,” layers of impatience, discontent, restlessness (mental and physical), and doubt. As I shed these layers, I found underneath someone I had lost sight of. I found this open hearted young woman who would cry in gratitude seeing others’ successes and who would feel a beautiful song as deeply as if she was the song itself. I found a woman who hardly cared what others thought of her because she knew who she was. There was clarity and insight bubbling up often. I found stillness of mind and body like I never knew was possible. I also found a community of like-minded people. They would gather in a hot room every day and shed layers of themselves that were heavy. They would become more light and they would carry that light with them throughout their day and inspire others.
Making Friends with Myself on the Mat
Here’s the thing: yoga wasn’t easy. On the mat, there is nowhere to run and hide. You are with yourself completely. That can be painful depending on what is going on in your life. There is no running from your mind. It is so easy to run when we have the distractions of work, relationships, phones, and errands. On the mat, you just watch your mind. You also see your body in this mirror in front of you. How often have you stared at yourself for 90 minutes straight? Does that frighten you? It did me. I would look around the room anxiously for months, until one day, I didn’t. That might be the day I began making friends with myself, truly.
Then of course, in hot yoga, it is… hot. You can hear your heart beating and you are covered in your own sweat. You want to wipe it off, but the instructor reminds you to return to stillness. Then, one day, you don’t even notice the sweat. This becomes generalized- small annoyances in life don’t distract you from your purpose, and you begin to calm your heart with your breath wherever you are throughout the day.
By deliberately placing your body in unusual and uncomfortable positions, you reverse patterns created by the repetitive motions of living a human life, and strangely enough, you begin to notice the mental, emotional, and social habit patterns you have formed and consciously work at undoing those, as well.
Yoga’s Impact on Mental Health
In yoga asana (posture) practice, the physical detoxification, flexibility, and control translates to the same qualities in the mental realm. Yoga means “union.” Physical and mental are unified, not separate. Yoga is as much, if not more, a mental health treatment as it is a physical practice.
Yoga’s ability to combat anxiety, trauma, and other mental health conditions interests me, both as a mental health therapist and an individual who has dealt firsthand with mental illness. I would like to give a brief description of the ways that yoga addresses different issues related to mental health.
Yoga to Mitigate Trauma
When we think of trauma, we often think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its symptoms- flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, etc. In the mental health world, we also recognize what I call “small t” traumas. These experiences, usually in early childhood, are where we have picked up negative beliefs about our self. “I am unlovable.” “I am unwanted.” “I am unsafe.” “It was my fault.” “I am helpless.” “I cannot trust anyone.” Sound familiar? These beliefs often remain unconscious, but they affect our relationships, our serenity, and our self-image.
Whether one deals with PTSD from a life-threatening experience or has other negative, irrational beliefs affecting them, the information from past experiences is stored maladaptively in the nervous system and until recognized and processed, can haunt one’s perception.
During yoga practice, your awareness merges with your body in the present moment. You consciously move your body into postures and you look inside of your body as you notice your breath and listen to your body’s feedback when attempting new postures and depths. PTSD symptoms typically involve detachment from the body and from the safety of the present moment (known as dissociation), because at one time, the body and the present were not a safe place to be.
Yoga shows you that it is now safe and rewarding to be inside of your body in the here and now. I like to say that the greatest benefit of yoga is that you become friends with your body. You learn to have fun with your body. You learn that you are in control of your body. Yoga practice also inspires mindfulness of thoughts and unconscious patterns. The minute you become mindful of the way that past experiences have conditioned your thoughts and behaviors, you automatically begin to heal them.
Yoga to Calm Anxiety
In yoga, breath becomes your guide. “When you lose the breath, back out a little bit,” is an important line in the instruction dialogue. When an anxiety attack occurs, heart rate increases and breath becomes shallow. In the yoga room, while holding a posture, engaging your muscles, your heart rate increases. You learn to slow it down consciously with your breath. I like to say, “In only two slow, conscious breaths, your heart rate will begin to decrease. This communicates to your nervous system, ‘Everything is okay. I am safe.’” In addition to the breath-work skills acquired through regular practice, mindfulness skills are also acquired.
Mindfulness is one of the most current and growing research-based treatments for anxiety. Mindfulness of the physical sensations associated with anxiety becomes automatic outside of the yoga studio as you practice noticing sensations in your body while inside the studio. You start to become “bigger” than your anxiety, so-to-speak, as you are able to observe it for what the uncomfortable aspect of it is: a physical sensation resulting after an ineffective thought occurs about a triggering event. Most importantly, mindfulness of thoughts, including the irrational ones underlying anxiety, becomes a useful skill in the arsenal of anyone dealing with anxiety; and let’s be honest, who hasn’t struggled with anxiety at times? To be able to say, “I know where this physical sensation is coming from and I know that I can move through this moment with intention and breath,” is the power behind yoga’s effect on anxiety.
Many people have found a solution to mental health issues in yoga practice. In addition to what’s already been mentioned, yoga reflects some important aspects of life: we can always do more than we thought we could if we keep showing up for ourselves, there is no end point of perfection- only continual progression, our best ally is our self when we prioritize our own well-being, and there is support in our communities.
I have personally seen yoga students rebound from depression, cease self-harm, lose unhealthy weight, gain healthy weight, and reconnect socially and spiritually after years of isolation and darkness. I will always include it as an aspect of my overall approach to mental health in my therapy practice and in my own life.
Hannah Cross is a mental health therapist who provides therapy for juvenile offenders in a secure facility. Most of her experience is with clients who deal with the challenges of having experienced complex trauma, as well as clients with drug addictions. She teaches hot yoga at Higher Ground Hot Yoga in Ogden, UT and brings yoga into corrections facilities and other mental health treatment settings.