by Kristen Butler: There is currently a mental health crisis in America…
Statistics show that one in five adults experience mental illness each year. That is 20 percent of all U.S. adults! So you may be surprised to hear that yoga and mental health could not only be related – but could also be the saving grace to this epidemic.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental illnesses can be generally defined as “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior (or a combination of these).”
As a holistic psychotherapist and yoga instructor, I am acutely aware of how the body and mind are intricately connected. I feel called as a clinician and body worker to utilize the mental benefits of yoga as an effective coping skill in the management of many symptoms that plague those suffering from mental illness.
Yoga and mental health may not often be used in the same sentence, but there are really so many mental benefits of yoga. But before we jump into how the practice can affect our mental health, let’s explore the basics of psychology to lay the groundwork.
The Psychological Principle of Self-Actualization
From a humanistic perspective, the goal in psychotherapy is to work toward self-actualization.
There are too many psychological schools of thought to possibly be addressed here. But for our purposes, it’s important to elaborate on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as I find it particularly helpful. I use this a great deal in my treatment plans with clients.
Maslow created a pyramid that illustrates a path to self-actualization. In order to reach the top of the pyramid, the lower, foundational needs have to be satisfied. For example, these needs include physiological necessities and safety needs.
Only once these basic needs are met can we realize our full potential and ascend farther to the top of the pyramid.
The Link Between Yoga and Mental Health
Moving through physical postures can help us to work toward self-actualization by healing the body and allowing for a sense of safety and security while moving up the pyramid.
Samadhi and self-actualization are really parallels. They both emphasize mastery of all the other moving parts in order to achieve our ultimate potential.
The Important Mental Benefits of Yoga
The practice of yoga has countless benefits for mental health. It relieves stress, increases concentration and attention, and calms the nervous system. Research even suggests that yoga can be helpful to manage anxiety and depression.
According to the American Psychological Association, yoga’s positive benefits on mental health have made it an important practice tool of psychotherapy.
So How Can You Connect Yoga and Mental Health?
So, how do I incorporate this knowledge in my practice with clients? I invite individuals I work with to deeply connect mind and soul with the body through asana.
Asana aids in quieting the mind. Once quieted, asana can become a moving meditation, connecting the mind to the body through beautiful shapes. We can slow the thinking mind by focusing on postures and breath.
Once a person can move past thoughts, the feelings or emotions that asana can evoke can then come through in physical practice. Afterwards, these feelings and emotions can be processed in a therapeutic setting.
In working with someone experiencing trauma or any other mental health concerns, this is especially useful to get to the core of what has led up to, or is possibly still contributing to, a person’s psychological state.
We can slow the thinking mind by focusing on postures and breath.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. wrote:
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from themselves.”
The physical body can hold on to psychological stress without us even being aware psychologically. An asana practice can help us connect the mind to the physical body and allow space to identify factors that may lead to psychological distress in a non-threatening way.