The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root word “to yoke” or “to unite.” Yoga is intended to create a union of body, mind, and spirit. The practice of yoga originated in ancient India and is now widely practiced throughout the world. A growing number of celebrities and business leaders—people like Russel Simmons, Madonna, Michelle Williams, and Sting—do yoga. Many people who practice yoga regularly look much younger than their age, and who is going to complain about that? Sting, who has practiced yoga since the 1980s, states, “If anything, it’s reversing my aging process. I can now do things with my body that I wouldn’t even have thought possible when I was an athletic teenager.” David Beckman reportedly practices yoga with his wife, Victoria, to garner deeper intimacy and connection. Robert Downey Jr. swears by yoga to control his past substance abuse. If you have a negative habit you want to change, think Y.O.G.A. for youth, optimism, gratitude, and attitude.
Yoga helps to keep your body and mind youthful by stretching, maintaining elasticity, and improving oxygenation. It can also decrease aches and pains and helps with constricted breathing, which can be more common among people struggling with mood challenges.
YOGA, MOOD, AND RELATIONSHIP THERAPY
As a relationship psychologist, I work with many people who struggle with depression and anxiety. I also have a history of depression and anxiety myself. Over the years, I have witnessed how yoga has helped both my clients and myself with improving moods, cultivating balance, and creating a state of well-being. Yoga strengthens and expands your relationship with yourself and fuels positive connections with others. When we feel better, are calm, energetic, and aware—we relate better. Improved strength gives us more energy and vitality, which improves productivity and invites people to come toward us. My clients in couples therapy benefit from taking a time-out stretch when they feel like arguing. Remember, stretching is tranquilizing. Yoga breathing and postures can help you manage your fear (or emotions) as you learn to go in and out of your comfort zone.
Brad and Daisy used to have frequent arguments that would lead to nonproductive fights, leaving them distant and resentful over time. Brad actually had some interest in yoga, so I taught them three poses that can help with reducing stress. We did them in a session during which they were on the verge of a fight. I had each one sit down on the floor, slowly stretch their head to their knees and to breathe into that position. Brad shared, “Wow! I feel more relaxed. I think we need to do this every session!” Daisy also felt calmer and held the pose for a few minutes. The two were then able to take turns listening to each other and could curb their emotional reactivity.
To help describe the benefits of yoga to my clients, I developed the acronym Y.O.G.A. I like to say that Y.O.G.A. will improve your youth, your optimism, your gratitude, and your attitude. Research shows that learning to practice yoga will help to improve your mood while making you stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally. Another easy-to-develop habit is making positive, optimistic statements with each yoga posture. Reminding yourself of what you have to look forward to also helps with mood management. Susie would practice her yoga poses and say to herself, “I am looking forward to how good I will feel after my three poses,” which helped her keep her commitment to practice. Some research indicates that yoga can also help with weight loss, and I agree. One trick is to do a yoga pose any time you get a craving for unhealthy food, as cravings seldom last longer than 20 minutes. Many of my clients practice gratitude while doing poses, and here you can reap double benefits for your physical health workout and a mental health workout! Make it a habit to exercise your gratitude muscle as you do your various postures.
You will also develop a more positive attitude as you practice the various yoga postures that both appeal to you and challenge you. When you learn to do things you didn’t think you could do, you start getting that confident attitude. Yoga will help you stand taller, have better posture, be more balanced, and get that glow back! After a while, you will feel like you’re walking in the tall cotton! People will be drawn to you as you look strong and radiant. You will soon see how yoga helps your relationship with yourself. It is often said that forming a good relationship with yourself is the foundation for flourishing in a relationship.
MOVE YOUR BODY TO FEEL GOOD
No doubt about it, if you are mood challenged, there are plenty of habits you can take up that will help you improve your mood. Those habits include eating healthy foods, keeping a structured routine, getting things done, meditating, and socializing, to mention a few. Perhaps the most important thing that you can do, though, if you face depression and/or anxiety, is to exercise. Even if you get in 15 minutes a day, you will benefit. If you are so depressed that you have trouble getting up in the morning, then start doing some poses while you are in bed. I used to lift each leg 10 times when I was going through depression canyon. Just getting moving in bed will trigger you to get up and get going. Keep telling yourself how you’ll feel better once you get up and going on the steps to your daily routine.
If exercise came in a pill, there would be a significant reduction in depression. It’s the best no-cost treatment with only positive side effects. Weight-bearing exercise—like lifting weights and, you guessed it, yoga—is known to increase bone density, improve mood, and release growth factors that strengthen the connections in our nerves. I recommend that you do a combination of aerobic work, such as walking, and some sort of weight-bearing activity, like yoga, to bust the blues. But if you’re cultivating a new healthy habit, just pick one and make it part of your morning routine (or whenever you can fit it in!) Pair your new habit with something you already love, and you will increase your probability of long-term positive change. When I instituted a new morning routine with a yoga tune-up, I paired this habit with my favorite part of every morning: a steaming cup of good coffee. And treat yourself to a little prize each day you commit to your new practice. My motto is, “Let’s make it fun! That’s how we get things done!”
YOGA AND YOUR BRAIN
Exercise can be as effective as antidepressants for many people with mild to moderate mood challenges. Exercise:
- raises the level of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine in specific parts of the brain,
- elevates dopamine, which ignites the attention system and improves mood, motivation, and attention,
- increases the storage of dopamine, and
- helps serotonin production, which raises mood, self-esteem, and impulse control.
The American Psychological Association has concluded that yoga reduces the symptoms of depression. In one study, participants practiced yoga twice a week for eight weeks. This significantly reduced their symptoms of depression and also improved other secondary measures including quality of life, optimism, and cognitive and physical functioning. In another study, exercise worked as well as Zoloft for people with mild to moderate depression. As with any medication, you must take it regularly for it to be effective. Treat your yoga practice like a prescription. Aim to get yourself in a class, form a small group to meet with, or follow along with free YouTube videos. I have had a number of patients learn to manage their anxiety conditions by taking up yoga and aerobic exercise. You can too!
One-third of patients with depression achieve full remission of their symptoms with antidepressants. Another third feel better with medication, but continue to have problems with motivation, lethargy, and fatigue. They are still lingering in the shadow of depression and need effective psychoeducation. The hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex are not as resilient in people with depression. However, with brain fitness exercises we have new hope for strengthening these parts of the brain. The bottom line in depression is the shutdown of learning at the cellular level. This is why any form of movement, any way you can get it, makes a difference. You might listen up to my song, “Eyes on the Prize” on YouTube and also on my music website: www.musicandmentalhealth.com.
Eyes on the prize.
A goal reached is what you visualize.
So, stick with the grind.
You can overcome it with your head held high.
THE BENEFITS OF MAKING AN EFFORT
Clients must feel inspired by their therapists and understood by the teacher. Yoga lengthens life, as it strengthens the body and mind. I have found that it enhances my life, as I have more energy and a more positive mental state. I blend my daily yoga practice with the habit of walking one mile most days of the week. I also do squats and exercises for my posture. I practice steep hiking to expand my breathing capacity and get cardiovascular benefits.
One thing I have gained from my yoga classes is the experience of making an effort. Doing a series of postures in a row requires effort. This simple practice has helped me to make more effort in my daily life. It has helped me stop procrastinating and get things done! And it can help you too! You can increase your overall productivity as you get in the habit of making a real effort throughout the day. Those of us who are mood-challenged have to make an effort to move forward and feel better, and yoga is a terrific aid. We are all stronger than we realize.
GETTING STARTED WITH YOGA
If you want to take up yoga, there are many free resources online. You can find a 20-minute home workout on YouTube called “Yoga for Complete Beginners.” Most yoga studios have special introductory packages for beginners. I recommend testing out a few different types of yoga, from gentle yoga to more fast-paced “hot yoga” classes to find what you like the most. Any type of class will have mood-improving benefits.
If you are just starting, please check with your doctor to get clearance. Also do not do an exercise or yoga pose if it hurts. The goal is to stretch, but not to experience pain.
YOGA POSES FOR IMPROVED MOOD
Some good yoga exercises for helping you to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety are:
- Sit in the lotus position and breathe.
- Do the plow with your legs up in the air and breathe in and out through your nose.
- Bring your legs back and feet to the floor and breathe into your belly.
- Sit and bring the hands toward the feet and breathe into the belly, filling the belly last.
- Sit on your feet and lean backward.
As a psychologist, I tell my clients, “Let’s unite for the fight!” There are so many issues facing our country today that can only be solved if people unite to make a difference. Let your yoga practice unify and fortify you! Yoga requires us to activate—to activate our muscles and our minds. Practice yoga and be an activist! Let yoga shape you and fortify you to support the causes that motivate you!
Regularly practicing yoga will help you to develop a stronger, more flexible, and more poised relationship with yourself. It will also help you to relate to others in your life. Remember: youth, optimism, gratitude, and attitude are your “why” for yoga!