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How the Tenets of the Yoga Practice Can Improve Your Mental Health

By Jenna Kauffman, PsyD.

Psychologist and Yoga Instructor

When we hear the word “yoga” in the West we tend to think about the postural practice, or asana. Traditionally however, the yoga practice includes tenets and moral precepts to live by (yamas and niyamas), breathing practices (pranayama), meditation (dhyana), and concentration (dharana)–predating most modern yoga postures practiced today. While we tend to hear the most about asana, arguably all the tenets of the yoga practice offer health benefits for the mind and body.

Yoga as a Complement to Therapy

Evidence-based practices such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) offer strategies for targeting and changing thinking patterns, in an attempt to change the way we feel and behave. However, changing the way we think can prove to be a tedious process and difficult to access in high emotional states.

New innovations and research in interpersonal neurobiology and neuroscience indicate that through yoga we can access the brain and the nervous system, bypassing thought and cognition, via breath and meditation practices, in order to enact change on emotional states and behaviors.

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How to Start a Yoga Practice

During the pandemic, while most studios, gyms, and meditation centers have been and are still closed, a number of ways exist to start a practice, continue to connect, or reconnect to your practice, both on and off the mat.

Virtual yoga postural and meditation classes are offered on social media, via online platforms, and through apps, most of which offer free trials. Additionally, breath practices can be learned and practiced without the need for a guide or at no cost.

Breathing Practices for Mental Health

Samavritti breathing, otherwise known as “box breathing” or “even breathing,” is an accessible practice I most often teach to patients. Samavritti breathing involves syncing your exhale and inhale in order to strike a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It can be practiced anywhere by anybody and can be personalized to fit your breath.

Just like professional athletes practice in order to prepare for the pressure of game time, this breath exercise is meant to be practiced when calm to more easily access during times of high stress or emotionality. To practice even breathing, choose a breath count to start with that feels comfortable, without straining excess effort, typically a count of three or four is recommended to start.

To start you will seal your lips and inhale softly and slowly through the nose while counting “Inhale 2-3-4,” pause briefly, and exhale softly and slowly through your nose counting “Exhale 2-3-4.”

 

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Maintaining an even breath count or a longer exhale signals to the parasympathetic nervous system that it is okay to relax, regardless of what the mind is communicating, bypassing thought to calm the nervous system.

Continue with this breathing practice until the body or mind feels calmer, or you can’t focus on it and you can always return to it at any time or anywhere. This and other breath practices may be combined with a postural yoga practice, meditation practice and makes for an excellent compliment to therapy.