By Sumer Aeed
When we are seeking to help others heal as psychologists we want to expand our client’s toolbox options as wide as possible. We rarely encounter someone who would not benefit from being more connected to their body to heal whatever challenge they face. The vast field of yoga provides a plethora of tools that can resource our people and create awareness, change, and healing. Finding peace within our bodies has long been an important part of mental health healing and yoga offers a bountiful array of paths to take us there.
We may feel intimidated to draw from yoga or worry that our clients may find even the word yoga a daunting prospect. Our clients may conjure up visions of cross-legged or complicated limb positions or some requirements of spirituality. Even the prospect of having to go to a group and lay down on the floor can seem like an unlikely fit for many. Fortunately, there are a number of yoga practices that we may make use of that allow clients to access all of the benefits of yoga while demystifying things or without a mat or Om symbol in sight.
Studies have suggested possible benefits of yoga for several aspects of wellness, including stress management, mental/emotional health, promoting healthy eating/activity habits, social connection, pain management, sleep, and balance. As a form of low-impact movement, yoga has been shown to lower stress hormones in our bodies while simultaneously increasing beneficial brain chemicals like endorphins and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). These feel-good chemicals help decrease anxiety and improve mood. More recent science has introduced the idea of proprioception and how yoga can increase awareness in this area. Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is the sense that lets us perceive the location, movement, and action of parts of the body. This allows clients to be more present and aware of their bodies.
Here is a brief overview of three yoga styles that may be powerful adjunct healing at any stage of therapy. Each of these may be broken down into small bites to complement therapy goals or be used as ongoing practices to deepen healing. It is also valuable to remember that these same tools can help us as practitioners be more present, connected, and effective with our clients as we make use of them in our practice. Co-regulation or the ability to quiet down one another’s nervous systems increases with access to many of these resources.
Pranayama breathing or intentional breath control is a key tenant in yoga. Breathwork practice is a holistic, mind-body approach to mental health and well-being that can be easily taught and practiced. Its purpose is to directly influence your body’s inner workings to reduce stress, anxiety, and other challenges, increase calm, and encourage well-being. A primary and immediate benefit of breathwork is to activate the body’s relaxation response.
The polyvagal theory proposes that the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system provides the neurophysiological substrates for adaptive behavioral strategies. When applied to yoga, polyvagal is the benefit of using specific poses to help people get unstuck or manage certain feeling states. Yoga movement and breath can trigger changes in our polyvagal state. When it comes to therapy this means we can help clients who are anxious to calm down, depressed clients to increase their energy, and distracted or disassociated clients to be more grounded and present.
Trauma-Informed Yoga (TIY)
Trauma-informed yoga is a specialist branch of yoga that helps people recover from the impact of trauma on the body, brain, emotions, and sense of self. It helps clients feel more connected and balanced, helps them get back in their bodies, be aware of the present and reduce triggers and better manage anxiety. Trauma, although very common in mental health, is unique to every individual. A key to healing is taking back ownership of one’s body and choices and TYI creates flexibility and permission to explore what works for each individual’s body. TIY is a great forum to heal trauma, in that every movement you make is a choice you’re making for yourself.
Yoga Nidra and Flow Yoga
Yoga nidra and or flow yoga are practices exploring movement and how to create safety, relaxation, and joy through movement and breath. Research has shown that yoga nidra can help reduce stress, anxiety, and insomnia. Both of these practices teach clients to self-regulate their central nervous systems as well as to find comfort in both stillness and begin to explore the key therapy goal of learning to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable” in their bodies.
When we get curious about the elements of yoga that can contribute to healing, there are a multitude and our clients may dip into one or two small areas or find benefits from going slowly and starting small which can give them the confidence to continue the exploration of what yoga may have to offer them. Yoga can be tailored to provide support to almost all the life challenges that our clients may face. Having the ability to be able to quiet down the central nervous system, sit with things, tolerate discomfort, explore breath, and learn to be more present in the body allow for healing with all mental health concerns.
Arora S, Bhattacharjee J. Modulation of immune response in stress by yoga. Int J Yoga. 2008;1:45–55. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]When we get curious about the elements of yoga that can contribute to healing there are a multitude and our clients may dip into one or two small areas or find benefits from going slowly and starting small which can give them the confidence to continue the exploration of what yoga may have to offer them. the power of being present Porges SW. The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. Int J Psychophysiol. 2001;42:123–146. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
Cleveland Clinic: “Pineal Gland,” “What Is Yoga Nidra?”
Domingues RB. Modern postural yoga as a mental health promoting tool: a systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2018; 31:248-255.
Justice L, et al. (2018). Bridging body and mind: Considerations for trauma-informed yoga.
Peterson, L.A. (2017, March). Decrease stress by using your breath. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/decrease-stress-by-using-your-breath/art-20267197