Freud said the key to mental health is to have no secrets.
Clearly, he never tried hot yoga.
Because when you’re sitting in a hot room, half-naked, staring in the mirror for ninety 90 minutes straight, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s pure confrontation with the self. No secrets allowed.
Yoga has been a profound healer for my mental health issues. From anxiety to stress to workaholism, the practice has taught me to sit with my feelings. Even the uncomfortable ones.
With National Mental Health Awareness Month in full swing, here are three ways yoga might help you heal along your mental health journey:
1. Take care of hostile thoughts.
Monkey mind is an obstacle for even the most devoted yogi. Psychotherapist Eric Maisel calls this state “racing brain syndrome.” He explains that when we’re dealing with endless thoughts and no brake pedal, our behavior inclines itself toward insomnia, mania, obsession, compulsion, and addiction. Not exactly the picture of health! Our minds are always trying to distract us, jumping from thought to thought as if ideas were branches on a tree, and it’s often happy to accept the cheapest thrills to escape itself.
Yeats famously prayed, “God guard me from the thoughts men think.”
But with so many questions, voices, and ideas inside our heads spinning like plates on sticks, perhaps the thoughts of other men aren’t our problem. Despite the powers of our racing brain, I have slowly become skilled at quieting the thoughts inside my head during yoga class. It took many years to master this conditioning technique, but it works wonders.
Instead of banging around and around on the endless racetrack of compulsive thoughts, I firmly turn my attention to the breath. Before I allow the thief inside my head to steal away my joy, I firmly turn my attention to the breath. As an alternative to trying to control, judge, and bully the stream of thoughts that run along my mind, I firmly turn my attention to the breath.
Are you noticing a pattern?
Channel those anxious, yammering neurons elsewhere. Spend your energy on a new pursuit, and the thoughts will go away. As my yoga teacher loves to say, the brain is a bad neighborhood. Stay out of it. Don’t allow yourself to become unceremoniously yanked around by your thoughts. Turn your attention to something else.
2. Regulate your compulsion to control.
Hot yoga is meditative, peaceful, connected, and expressive.
But it’s also messy, sweaty, crowded, and imperfect. And that’s a good thing. Because the nature of the practice regulates our compulsion to control, manage, neaten, organize, and label ourselves. Which, in turn, helps us regulate our compulsion to control, manage, neaten, organize, and label the lives of others.
In my first few months of yoga, I could literally feel the controlling instinct welling up inside of me during each pose. Must fix mat. Must wipe sweat. Must straighten towel. Must help the guy practicing next to me do the postures correctly.
That’s the codependent’s creed. What else can I do for you to make me more comfortable?
But soon enough, yoga helped me accept people and situations as they were, instead of as I would have liked them to be. And that was huge—on and off the mat. Each of those micro moments of acceptance during the postures seeped into the rest of my life. They stopped me from subtly controlling and molding everyone I met into my own image.
The best part is, when we trust the natural flow of our experiences instead of trying to control everything, we experience less pain and greater joy.
3. Take the calm with you.
Finding peace in yoga class is a worthwhile goal. One that millions of people hope to accomplish every day.
The true test, however, is when you learn to transfer those feelings to the rest of your life. Take the calm with you, as it were.
It’s harder than it sounds, and often happens without our conscious awareness. Here’s how the story usually goes:
A person starts practicing yoga regularly, and after a few months or years, something occurs to them. Their stress level has plummeted. Their pain tolerance has increased. They don’t get road rage anymore. Mistakes and failures at work roll off their back. Petty little battles with friends and family members that used to make their blood boil no longer activate their anger.
The list goes on and on. Not because people tried to improve in those specific areas, but because yoga acted as a force multiplier to make them more even-keeled.
When you walk out of the hot room feeling calm and relaxed, remember to take that calm with you. Because whatever work you did during class, it was all prologue for the real postures that lay ahead.
Author: Scott Ginsberg
Image: Daniel Friedman/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman