Yoga For Mental Health

By: Amanda Manning, LMHC, LPC, RYT (200)

It wasn’t what you would recognize as depression, or anxiety. It didn’t present itself with those tell-tale symptoms. I was out of bed. Dressed. Functioning for the most part, but I was angry. Easily agitated. Easily frustrated. Screaming and irritated and really, really, really effing mad all the time. Rage burning out of my chest.

It was the middle of a pandemic and I was doing my best, but I was sad, tired, angry. I was overwhelmed. I was still living in the belief that things could go the way I expected them to go and still surprised and angry when they didn’t.

Fun fact. I’m a mental health therapist AND a yoga teacher, so when you think you are alone in feeling some similar way and that there are other people out there who have it all together, please know that you are absolutely not alone in this. This year has been a struggle for all of us. And sometimes it’s still a struggle when we are not in the middle of a pandemic.

The only thing that I have over you is training and education - that I paid a lot of money for - that has given me the tools to dig myself out of these holes a little quicker. I also have the years of experience in using these tools to know that it is the only way for me to get out of these holes.

The best part about these tools is that they are absolutely available to everyone, where ever you are. The tools that I am referring to are yoga and meditation and other mindfulness practices. You may roll your eyes at yoga. There has been a problem with yoga in the West for years that has made yoga seem inaccessible either physically or financially.

Let’s put that aside for a moment and imagine a world where that isn’t an issue.

The funny thing is…this dream of accessible yoga? It really isn’t a dream. Accessibility is the nature and the core of yoga and anyone making you feel differently should not be taking your money to teach you about yoga.

So here we are in our reality that yoga is financially and physically accessible, yes? With none of those things to worry about anymore, let’s focus on why you need yoga for mental wellness.

First of all, one of the purposes of yoga is to connect you to your own inner strengths, recognizing that you already have everything within you to make the changes that you feel you want to make. In yoga, this concept is called “samtusta”. Samtusta is recognizing that we have enough conditions to be happy right here and right now. Inevitably when I say that people have a knee-jerk reaction to tell me why that isn’t possible. What was your reaction when you read that? Was it a thought? A physical feeling?

We have been tricked over time to forget that we have everything we need and one of the biggest culprits and tricksters is trauma.

Trauma is big and little and we all experience it in different ways, but we all experience it. The details of the trauma don’t matter so much. There are some theories that believe that talking about trauma can help. EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing therapy certainly has us try to re-experience those moments, and it does work as I have seen with my clients. However, even in EMDR, the details of the traumatic memory don’t matter as much as the connection to the physical body.

Peter Levine, the father of a type of therapy called Somatic Experiencing states that “trauma occurs when an event creates an unresolved impact on [us]. Resolution is accomplished,” he continues, “through working with the unresolved impact through the felt sense.” He also says that “traumatic symptoms are not caused by a triggering event itself, they stem from frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and our spirits.”

The yoga concept of samskara comes into play here. A samskara is like a trait that we are unconscious of. We have good and bad samskaras. Compassion, empathy, and kindness are good samskaras. Dr. Gail Parker states that “maladaptive samskaras are undigested stored energy that block and inhibit the release of past painful experiences they manifest as beliefs and behaviors that undermine self-esteem and lead to self-defeating behaviors that hold us hostage and limit growth.”

This is easy enough for adults to understand perhaps, but these traumatic events typically happen to us when we are children. As children we lack the skills to problem-solve in this way, so this stuff just stays stuck within us. This is why sometimes we cry in certain yoga poses. It all just comes flowing out of us.

All animals exhibit trauma in the same way. A bird flew into my window once, and I thought that it had died, after a bit of time it got up, shook itself off, and flew away. The shaking was the moment it discharged that traumatic energy.

That bird isn’t afraid of flying anymore, or having nightmares about my window. It shook it off and is out there being its best little birdy self. Easy for a bird, but we are humans. We have way more options at our disposal and can’t just shake it off like that.

According to the yoga sutras, the purpose of yoga is to alleviate pain and suffering, and to minimize it in the future. I believe this applies to mental and emotional pain as well as physical pain.

Enter the Polyvagal Theory developed by Stephen Porges in the mid-90s. Poly meaning “many” and vagal referring to the vagus nerve, polyvagal refers to the many theories surrounding the purpose of the vagus nerve and how it relates to emotional regulation, social connection, and our fear response. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our bodies and runs from tip to toe and back again. It is thought to play a part in several of our responses including connection to our autonomic nervous system, which has two parts.

Our sympathetic nervous system and our parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is easier to remember as our fight or flight response and our parasympathetic nervous system is our rest and digest response. When something traumatic happens, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. We are in fight, flight or freeze mode. When this happens our pre-frontal cortex shuts down, which is the logic portion of our brain, and we slip into our limbic system and we literally lose the ability to speak.

Yoga brings awareness to our bodies. It increases interoception, which is the ability to be aware of what is going on within our body. The breathwork, or pranayama, we do in yoga helps us to stay in that parasympathetic, rest and digest, place for longer and longer periods of time so that we don’t experience those trauma reactions.

To quote Dr. Gail Parker again, “Learning to pay attention to your inner state of being helps regulate emotional responses.”

In yoga we work towards uncoupling the immobility we experience from a traumatic experience from the fear we associate with it.

This happens through movement and breathwork. The more we focus on these practices the easier we find it to stay centered in the present moment. That centeredness, that settling into our bodies is what leads us to becoming less reactive in stressful moments. We feel the stress and anxiety melt away and we are better able to handle each moment with whatever it brings us.

Please note: I’m not promising happiness and ease for all of your days if you practice yoga. Somewhere along the line we started to believe that if we are living a life with pleasure and no pain we are succeeding. That’s a lie. Pleasure and pain are inextricably linked. There will always be ups and downs.

What yoga and meditation help us do is to truly understand ourselves, to befriend ourselves, so that when we experience those downs we recognize the impermanence of that moment, experience the emotion that we need to experience, and then let it go. When those downs come we experience them with a bit more calm and bit more ease, perhaps.

No one speaks more clearly on this subject than Pema Chodron. In Awakening Loving-Kindness she speaks specifically about meditation when she states,

“When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they are going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are…The point is not to change ourselves…It’s about befriending who we are already.”

Woo! Pema. She always knows just what to say. It doesn’t take me long to notice when I am not in a good place and not being a good friend to myself. As soon as I am aware, I look at what I am doing and what I am not doing and switch it up. I refocus on making sure my yoga and meditation practice is a priority. Not just for me. My entire family benefits when I am taking care of myself.

When I’m settled everyone else is settled and life can just roll along.

If you are ready to begin your yoga practice, I am here to point you in the right direction.

I have several pre-recorded classes on my Yoga For Every Body and Mind YouTube channel. I also teach in person and live virtual classes right now. My virtual classes range from free to donation-based with a suggested donation of $5 towards my group private practice, Trauma Informed Therapies. Donations go to helping us ensure that individuals in our community can receive quality mental health care regardless of insurance or ability to pay. The in-person classes are in various studios with different price options. You can find out more about who I am and where I am teaching by following me on Facebook or Instagram.

May you be filled with love and light!

Amanda Manning, LMHC, LPC, RYT (200)


Awakening Loving-Kindness by Pema Chodron The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe by Stephen Porges

Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma 1st Edition by Dr. Gail Parker

Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine

Sullivan, M.B., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonaz, S., Noggle Taylor, J., Porges, S.W. (2018) “Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience,” in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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