I’m intrigued by ongoing studies that continue to report the mental health benefits of practicing yoga on a regular basis. Luckily, I recently reconnected with an old roommate from my four year romp in San Francisco, who happens to be an inspiring human being and dedicated yoga instructor. Intertwined with her personal search for health, happiness and fulfillment, Renee Gauthier has always had a strong desire to inspire others. Her passion for movement and healing arts led her to become a yoga instructor and massage therapist, in addition to holding a graduate degree in education, with an emphasis in cross-cultural counseling. This combination of expressive movement, bodywork, yogic mindfulness, and emotion focused counseling represent her integrated approach towards health and wellness.
DM: Research reports that yoga has several biological and physical health benefits including boosting immunity, easing migraines, improving sleep, improving balance, strength, flexibility, pain prevention etc. How does mental health benefits fit into this equation?
RG: Yes, studies are showing that yoga can help with depression, anxiety, and mental clarity. My own personal journey with yoga proved beneficial to my mental health from the beginning. I started practicing yoga almost 20 years ago because of a back problem. At first I thought yoga was kind of boring, but I kept at it and the more I practiced, the better I felt. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was going through a very emotional and painful time that I started to feel a deeper connection to my yoga practice. Actually, my psychotherapist at the time was also a yoga teacher and incorporated yoga mindfulness, breathing, and a bit of philosophy into our sessions. From that point on I realized yoga and mental health were not only complimentary, but one in the same. I realized that I needed both talk therapy and the somatic experience of mindfully being in my body for healing in order to maintain my own well-being. The combination of talk therapy with mindfulness and focus of breath in yoga has helped me with stress and anxiety related symptoms such as shortness of breath, tightness in my chest, sensation of having a lump in my throat digestive disturbances, and insomnia. In the last few years the practice has helped me to cope while I worked through feelings of fear, sadness, and grief brought on by family trauma. It taught me important lessons on how to move through challenges of life while maintaining my own self-care. The practice can also bring more mindfulness and balance into daily life. When I’m more in tune with myself mentally, emotionally, and physically, I tend to make better choices. This has a direct impact on how I eat, sleep, function, and even how I communicate with others. My yoga practice has really helped to shape my entire lifestyle.
DM: From observing and speaking with your clients, does mental calmness, stress reduction, improvements in mood, attention, concentration, and body awareness play a role in the mental health benefits of yoga practice?
RG: My counseling experience led me to teaching opportunities in therapeutic settings, including a mental health day program, recovery home for eating disorders, and a foster youth group home. For each setting, I was able to tailor the yoga classes to incorporate some group process about their yoga experiences. It was inspiring to see first hand how these short sessions had a tremendous impact on my students. For the majority of students, who were heavily medicated and/or severely depressed, I designed a more energetic practice which helped with elevating their moods. For the students who were already overstimulated, classes focused more on simpler movements and deep relaxation. Overall, these sessions provided a space for each student to practice mindfulness and focus on their thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and breath; lesson being that when we can shift into a space of observing ourselves and allowing ourselves to arrive in the moment as we are, the rest of life becomes much more manageable.
DM: Any suggestions/recommendations for beginners or those that are interested but nervous about trying yoga?
RG: Allow yourself to explore and by taking this approach we are less likely to get caught up in judgments. Finding the right teacher, style, studio, and practice schedule can take some time. I’ve heard of this referred to as “yoga dating.” There are so many different styles of yoga and each teacher has their own unique approach. Other great options to consider are yoga classes that are offered in gyms, schools, and in private sessions. It’s helpful to get a recommendation from someone for a good teacher or class, but yoga is a very personal thing; so what works for one might not work for another. Basically, you will know when you have found a class that works for you. Although yoga is a personal practice, it can be helpful to have a yoga buddy. When you make plans with a friend to go to class you make a commitment to yourself and to your friend. Sometimes the hardest part about practicing yoga is showing up because it’s easy to feel unmotivated. Yoga is a practice that you can come to as you are; tired, irritable, wound-up, stressed-out, sad, happy, or bored. Come as you are and let yourself experience what comes up for you. Most likely you will feel better when you leave than when you arrived.
DM: Can you suggest 3 yoga poses that may directly affect one’s current mood and mental state?
RG: I suggest…
1. Legs up the wall (Viparita Karani)
This is a relaxing, restorative pose to encourage the nervous system to slow down. Lie on the floor and bring your hips to touch the wall and extend your legs up the wall. If your hamstrings are tight, you can scoot your hips away from the wall. Alternatively, rest your calves on the seat of a chair (legs on the chair) which will offer the same benefits, but might feel better on your back and legs. It’s recommended to do this pose for 5-10 min. Make sure the space is quiet and warm. Cover your eyes with a towel or eye pillow to promote deeper relaxation. Studies show this pose can help with slowing the heart rate, slowing down the breath, quieting the mind, and promoting deeper sleep.
2. Back bending (i.e. cobra, bridge, camel or wheel)
Backbends can not only help with alleviating tension in the back and chest, but can also help with breathing more deeply and lifting your energy and mood. Bridge pose is one of my favorites and a simple way to start.
Savasana is done at the end of each class. This is an opportunity to lie down and do nothing. It represents the end of our practice; the end of all our focused energy and work. Lie down and let your feet spred out. Allow your arms to rest slightly away from your sides with palms facing up. Clothes your eyes and rest for 5-20 minutes. You don’t have to do an active yoga practice to enjoy the benefits of savasana. Most of us need to practice more deliberate stillness or non-doing. It’s not always easy to do nothing. The mind might continue to be active and that’s OK. Simply allow yourself to be, as you are. It can also be helpful to focus on the sound and movement of your breath. Explore and see how it goes!
Written and edited in collaboration with Renee Gauthier MA, E-RYT, CMT. Renee lives and works in San Diego, California. Visit www.reneegauthier.com for more information.