Even the most basic of yoga practices can make a huge difference in your mood, your energy, and your outlook.

Here, studio BE faculty member Sarah Jane Shangraw shares her thoughts on how yoga can be a powerful tool for cultivating mental health.

What are the benefits of yoga for mental health?

Yoga is a system that helps us regulate our well-being by giving us tools to promote our own physical health, energetic balance, emotional regulation, mental awareness, and ethical actions.

It's a vast and varied system of tools that address an unlimited range of human experience, conditions, and circumstances, but it is crucial to know which practices to use for a given situation.

If we do, or if we work with a teacher who chooses personalized methods and guides us through them, it is possible to feel whole despite ailments or illnesses, as “wholeness” is a state of well-being that is based on how we relate to ourselves as we are, rather than on an external measure of our health. Not only can we feel whole, but we can experience measurable physiological improvements in focus, sleep, blood pressure, and more.

Overall, with the right practices for situations, our response to stress, energy levels, and experience of relationships can improve.

What are the best ways to practice?

There is no one best way to practice. In fact, yoga takes place in the moment, and it is only as therapeutic as it is responsive and supportive to your state of body and mind as you are now — not as you were last year or even yesterday, not as you’d like to be, and certainly not as the average person in a group class is doing.

If you are using yoga to support your mental health, it is important to work directly with a teacher, and to not only watch videos of choreographed routines that may or may not address your state and needs.

Think about how someone experiencing depression can have spells of low energy, lack of interest and motivation, and sleep more than usual. On the other hand, someone with an anxiety disorder might suffer from restlessness that prevents focus and productivity due to the frequent triggering or chronic state of over-alertness from which their nervous system cannot come down.

A person with depression might benefit from various styles of practice on different days, but generally they should not always practice a style that is down-regulating to the nervous system, as it will only reinforce their low energy. A person with an anxiety disorder should not practice active and enlivening styles of yoga to stimulate their body-heart-mind system, as they are already suffering from over-stimulation and excitation.

Knowing this, we can purposefully choose a practice that will antidote rather than exacerbate our condition. Still, without consulting a teacher, we are likely to miss out on the more subtle and potent methods (and their adaptations), which are rarely taught in group or pre-recorded sessions, and that will best address our conditions.

Put simply, yoga should be tailored to your physical, emotional, and mental state. A knowledgeable teacher will be able to craft a yoga practice that is responsive to your conditions and circumstances, encouraging balance, wholeness, and health for you.

Any specific tips?

When practicing yoga for mental health, we might do well to go beyond the overly emphasized physical aspects of yoga practice, and spend more time with the inner methods — working with energy, breath, and mind — in order to promote self-awareness and a sense of wholeness.

Even if a sense of wholeness is elusive when we are in our most disrupted states, we can expand self-awareness, giving us a better sense of just what is happening.

For example, we can notice how our energy is stagnant or our breath is uneven, and then learn a pranayama (breathwork) exercise to restore evenness and flow to the inner system. Or, we can notice a tendency toward overly critical thinking and bring the theme of our inner critic to a trained mental health professional, mentor, or teacher, who can support us in understanding and processing disruptive core beliefs.  

A key benefit of the inner method of mindfulness is that it capacitates us to tolerate discomfort in our bodies or minds. It helps us relax away from the impulse to immediately escape from an uncomfortable experience, so that we can proceed with more awareness, slowly and deliberately.

After all, responding to anything with skill first requires we avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Mindfulness meditation is a great way to train this up.

Guest post by studio BE faculty member Sarah Jane Shangraw

Sarah Jane Shangraw, M.S., E-RYT 500, YACEP, teaches mindfulness meditation and Insight Yoga in the Boston area and beyond. Using Buddhist, yogic, and western psychological approaches, she guides individuals and groups in alleviating stress and training in awareness for the greater good.

A studio BE facilitator, she also teaches courses and workshops on mindfulness for people operating in the 21st century workplace.

Feature image by Maria/Adobe Stock