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Mental HealthWhy yoga helps with stress relief, anxiety and depression — and so much more

Combining fluid movement with mindful breathing induces a sense of calm and sharpens the mental focus.
Pem FassaJune 21, 201810 min
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There’s a reason this practice has kept people calm and centered for thousands of years. Here’s how the simple act of bending and stretching can ease us into exploring what hurts.

Yoga for stress relief

I believe that yoga and meditation, coupled with appropriate medical care, can help a person navigate through and out of a dark place. There is so much to be said about feeling hopeless and how difficult it may seem to find proper help. If you take a look at the structure of any yoga class, there are poses that will either appeal to or be more challenging for the practitioner. The purpose is to get through them the best we can. Yoga reminds us of the law of impermanence — that everything changes. When we struggle to complete a pose and feel relieved when its over, this is reminding us that everything changes. A moment of joy is followed by sorrow, a moment of strength can become weakness in the next. For someone struggling with depression, yoga can help shift one’s perspective and reinforce the belief that there is a way out, that there is hope. Meditation enables us to identify our feelings and acknowledge them. When we are in a state of discomfort or ”dis-ease,” our first instinct is to run away. Meditation enables us to feel our emotions and teaches us to sit with the discomfort. By doing so we don’t solve the root cause but we diffuse the strength of the emotion we are trying to evade. I find more people gravitating toward yoga with the belief that it can help in coping with the anxieties of modern society: stress, disconnection, mental illness. It’s important to highlight the importance of maintaining a consistent yoga practice to achieve results and not perceive it as a quick-fix solution. Healing and recovery take time.

Yoga for anxiety

I would recommend yoga classes with a strong focus on breath awareness, meditation and a slower-paced or restorative practice to reduce anxiety. The simple act of conscious breathing can reduce the impact of high levels of stress and anxiety on the mind and body. When we experience anxiety, we breath faster, our body produces stress hormones, our heart rate rises, our blood pressure increases. The body intuitively prepares itself for the worst-case scenario (a fight or flight response). Taking deep, abdominal breaths can reverse this effect and bring the body back to an optimal level of functioning. A physical (asana) practice can help relieve muscle tension. Adding to that a mantra – such as ”I am at peace” as you breathe with awareness – can lead you to that particular state of mind.

Yoga for depression

I am deeply saddened by the recent spate of high-profile suicides [Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain] – this is just the prominent edge of a terrible progression. Depression is a disease that permeates all layers of modern society without regard to age or class, race or profession. As a mother of two teenagers, it grieves me to know that they have already experienced the loss of a friend to suicide. In my late twenties, I lost my childhood friend this way. He was a wonderful person who, it seemed to me at least, was leading a meaningful life. A father of two little boys, he had a beautiful wife and a stellar career. It haunts me to this day that we were clueless to his suffering. I read recently how a suicide can have a ripple effect on family members, friends and communities and can be a precursor to feelings of guilt, anxiety and depression. This was a time when I turned toward meditation and yoga to address my grief and give myself the space and system to process that grief. I remember being drawn toward a fast-paced physical practice to maintain my focus on breath and movement, rather than allowing my mind to wander elsewhere. I’ve had students talk to me after class and tell me how much yoga has helped them from the depths of despair, grief and hopelessness. Recently I had a student tell me she had been struggling with depression for years and that practicing yoga regularly had saved her life. One of my closest friends discovered yoga during rehab after struggling with addiction and depression, and has maintained a consistent practice for five consecutive years.

Seek a doctor’s help first

Depending on the severity of a person’s suffering/inability to cope, I would definitely suggest they seek medical advice. Stepping into a yoga class for the first time can be a daunting experience, especially if a person is experiencing feelings of isolation and feels uncomfortable around others. I would suggest maybe starting with one-on-one classes, gradually moving into a group setting. An experienced teacher will prescribe poses that will calm the central nervous system and guide the practitioner to gradually feel at ease. I would also encourage them to give it more than one try. There is an abundance of yoga styles to choose from. One size doesn’t fit all in finding the right style for each individual, but there is a style for everyone out there. I would also highly recommend downloading a meditation app to get started and enable them to track their journey.

Yoga for connection

Yoga is connection. Connecting to ourselves and others. Today, we tend to disconnect from everything around us, including ourselves. We spend countless hours connected to our phones, plugged into other people’s lives through social media. We are always ”doing” rather than just ”being.” How could this benefit our mental stability when we expend so much energy on the world outside our own? Yoga is an introspective journey of re-connection. Combining fluid movement with mindful breathing induces a sense of calm and sharpens the mental focus. Creating a state of calm minimizes our emotional reactivity and enables us to cope with stressful situations in life.

Featured photo Unsplash

Pem Fassa

The owner of The Hot House studio in Al Zeina, Pem has been a yoga teacher for more than 20 years, training extensively, first at the Sivananda yoga school in Geneva, and later through Bodhi Yoga Academy and Bryce Yoga. She's also a certified Anti Gravity yoga instructor.