Yoga for Mental Wellness. Part 2: The How

In a previous post I explained WHY my journey with yoga began on a path toward physical fitness and meandered in the direction of mental wellness. Today I want to share HOW my brand of yoga can improve your mental well-being by breaking down the elements you will experience in my class... but first I want to reiterate that you do not need to have a mental health challenge to benefit from the style of yoga I teach. Wether you experience occasional stress or you live with more complex challenges like anxiety and depression these tools will help - here's how:

  • PRANAYAMA - (translation: prana: life force; yama: to control) So if breath is the force of life, the practice of pranayama is to control the breath for benefit. Through pranayama we can slow the body's autonomic processes (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.), which then reduces anxiety, freeing us from the "fight or flight" response to stress. Pranayama also strengthens the respiratory muscles, improving the quality and capacity of breath. Different techniques yield varying effects from energizing to calming so I encourage you to explore both sides of the spectrum.

    • Try This Technique: Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing) - In this variation the goal is for the length of inhalation to match the length of exhalation. Begin by sitting tall in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Empty the lungs on an exhale. Breathing slowly, inhale steadily for 5 counts (reaching max lung capacity at 5), hold your breath for 1-2 counts, and then exhale for 5 counts (the lungs should be completely empty at 5). Repeat the cycle 10 times.

  • POSTURAL CHANGES - Scientific evidence shows emotions can be manipulated by changing postures. Known as "embodied emotion", this more specifically means that certain yoga poses can be used to target stress reduction by lowering the level of the "stress hormone" (Cortisol) present in our bodies. These postures are known as "power poses" and can be conveniently accessed on or off the mat. I once had a student tell me he was sitting in traffic, feeling his stress level increasing. He knew he wasn't getting anywhere fast in that Bay Area rush hour traffic so he pulled over and did some yoga! The effect? He felt better!!
    • Try this Pose: Alpha Chimp - Begin in a standing position with the spine straight, shoulders relaxed down then back, feet approximately hip-width apart (Tadasana or Mountain Pose, if you are familiar). As you inhale, extend the arms above the head, actively stretching the fingertips toward the sky. On the exhalation, check the shoulders to make sure they're still relaxed. With your next inward breath, try coming up onto the toes. Consider closing your eyes for an extra challenge and added escape. Hold for 5-10 complete cycles of breath.
  • MEDITATION - An invaluable tool in the pursuit of mental wellness, regular meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety as well as increase mental clarity. Like Pranayama, there are a variety of techniques with varying degrees of difficulty. Mastering the art of meditation takes practice and dedication but you don't need to be a Guru or sit for hours in silence to achieve its peaceful affects. To begin all you need is discipline, a smart phone, 10 minutes and a quiet space.
    • Try this Technique: Guided Meditation - I highly recommend downloading the Headspace app on your smart phone. Headspace is self-professed "meditation made simple" and has a huge following, myself included. With 10 minute meditations guided by a former Buddhist Monk, Headspace makes meditation accessible, educational, and motivational. Skeptical? Try their free 10-Day Trial. I promise it'll hook you and you'll be well on your way to a more peaceful state of mind.
  • PHYSICAL EXERCISE - We already know exercise is good for our body, but did you know it's excellent for your brain? Scientists once believed our brains were "static" - that we were born with a set number of brain cells - but recent research indicates physical exercise boosts brain fitness by increasing its neuroplasticity (a fancy word for growing and changing your brain throughout your lifetime). Neuroplasticity is also linked to increased mood and happiness, improved memory function and increased intelligence. So how does yoga fit in? Modern (Western) yoga uses movement tied to the breath to engage various muscles groups, increasing strength & improving flexibility. It can also get your heart pumping!
    • Try this Exercise: Begin in Downward Facing Dog. With a deep inhalation, lift the right leg toward the sky with toes pointed. As you exhale bend the right knee, gently bringing it toward the RIGHT elbow. Inhaling, extend the right leg back into the air. Exhaling, bend the right knee, gently bringing it toward the LEFT elbow. Inhale to send the right leg into the air one last time. Exhale to lower the right foot down to mat in Downward Facing Dog. Repeat on the left side.

I hope you'll try a few of these techniques, and more than that - may you find something here that brings you peace. I hope to see you in class soon, becoming mentally well together.


Purple Lotus Flower, photographed by Sukoski Bros. on my wedding day at San Ysidro Ranch.

Purple Lotus Flower, photographed by Sukoski Bros. on my wedding day at San Ysidro Ranch.