Why Yoga and Mindfulness Work

Beyond its appeal as a form of physical exercise, yoga has tremendous potential; it enhances our emotional well-being. When we feel anxious or depressed, it’s tempting to view our emotional difficulties as proof that we’re unstable. I frequently hear people say, “I don’t have what it takes to be happy,” “I’ve been depressed all my life,” or “I’ve always been anxious, as long as I can remember—I’ll never learn to relax.” This reaction to emotional pain is understandable, especially if it’s been a long time since we’ve experienced anything different. But over time, our response solidifies. It can lock our emotional wiring—the way our brain cells are wired to communicate and respond to experience—onto the anxiety and depression settings. Therapeutic yoga, mindfulness, and movement therapy can help reverse our habitual responses to difficulty. They actually get deep enough into us to reset our emotional wiring. They give us a new collection of tools and experiences that reverberate deep into the mind-body network. Yet how, exactly, do they do this?

When practiced in a contemplative way, yoga draws our focus from the world outside us (the one which requires continual action) and transfers it deep into the mind, brain, and body, where the roots of anxiety, depression, and disconnection lie. Naturally, this puts us into immediate and intimate contact with our deep-rooted issues. We might want to escape from our pain. Yet, when we can hang in there a little longer, something happens. We regulate our breath and relax our muscles and tissue, which calms the agitation that can come from immersion in challenging experience. We draw our attention toward our interior and become exquisitely present with our issues, our pain. Yet at the same time, we’re also in our bodies and in the present moment. And suddenly, or slowly by degrees, our narrative—the story that says “I am anxiety,” or “Depression’s a permanent part of me”—begins to quiet down. Our story loses its traction and becomes less compelling. This allows us, even for a moment, an experience of not anxiety or not depression, and the brain and body respond by laying down new “tracks.” What’s key here is that this new adaptation can take as few as five minutes. And when we do this regularly over time, we develop the emotional muscles to resist the stubborn pull of our reactions. We cease to let them define us.

Beyond these benefits, therapeutic yoga, mindfulness, and movement therapy offer something more. They give us a firsthand, embodied experience of our fluctuating emotional landscapes. We can feel how emotions ebb and flow—how they really are short-lived, passing states of awareness. With even a brief interlude of not being anxious or depressed, we can begin to suspect that anxiety and depression are not who we are; they’re just powerful emotional patterns that draw us in. We can replace these anxious or depressed emotional patterns with healthier ones. And because yoga’s experiential practices involve both the mind and the body, the insight they create isn’t simply mental; it’s embodied insight, which has a more lasting effect on anxiety and depression.

Each year in teacher training, I hold free group clinics for people with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other mind-body issues. For a 75-minute span of time, our “guinea pigs,” as we fondly think of them, are not anxious, depressed, or in pain. The changes are evident. Faces previously tense with anxiety are, during and after the practice, smoothed with calm. The slow, deadened movements and hunched posture of those with depression become infused with energy. The light that shines in their eyes afterward never fails to move me. And this happens by simply entering the body with awareness, and having the faith to stay for a while. The beauty of mindful yoga: It doesn’t require flexibility, strength, or even grace. It’s an equal-opportunity tool, available to everyone.

Distinguishing Between Tension and Relaxation

In this exercise, you’ll begin the process of becoming more at home in your body, one of the most important prerequisites for calming your nervous system and creating emotional balance.

  1. Sit in a comfortable chair or lie down. Close your eyes. Begin to breathe in and out through your nose. Turn your awareness inward.
  2. Tighten the skin on your forehead by raising your eyebrows and smiling. Tighten your mouth, jaw, and neck; squint your eyes; scrunch your face into a tiny ball; or do anything you need to in order to tighten your facial muscles. Notice what happens to your breathing. Can you still breathe easily? Continue to feel the tightness or stuck energy in your body. What does this tightness feel like? Is it unfamiliar to you? Or has it been with you so long that you hardly notice its presence?
  3. Completely relax your eyes, face, head, and neck. Breathe in and out through your nose. Notice the difference between the tightness you felt a few moments ago and the relaxation you feel now.
  4. Bring your awareness to your hands. Ball your hands into fists and keep them tight; notice your breathing. Hold for a few breaths and then release. Direct your breath into your hands. Feel the difference between now and the tension you felt just a few moments ago. Next, focus on your abdomen. Contract your abdominal muscles and draw your navel sharply toward your spine. Notice your breath. How much more difficult is it to breathe when your abdomen is tense? Release your muscles completely and deepen your breath.
  5. Repeat this exercise with as many body parts as you wish: arms, legs, feet, shoulders. Each time, notice what the tension feels like and what happens to your breath in response to the tension. Then feel the difference in your breath and body when you release that tension. When you’re ready to stop, breathe normally, in and out through your nose, for several minutes. Then slowly open your eyes. Do you feel more relaxed? How does your mind feel? Are your thoughts slower or calmer? As time goes on, it will get easier to feel and observe your response. “Small” practices such as this one have a big impact on your mood and ability to regulate your emotions.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.

Bo Forbes, PsyD, E-RYT 500, is a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology,...

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