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.

Yoga for Mental Wellness. Part 1: The Why

I whole-heartedly believe that every moment in my life has brought me to here. To teaching yoga, but not just yoga – yoga for mental wellness. Research has proven it makes a remarkable difference and I am determined to share this practice to help those who suffer. 

Both yoga and mental illness have touched my life in profound and personal ways.  If you read my inaugural post, you know that stress and management of life's proverbial rollercoaster kept me coming back to yoga... but life was pretty easy back then. For the most part, I was troubled with school, and when that subsided typical job stress replaced it. Flash forward a handful of years when I came face to face with mental illness. Job stress was peanuts, by comparison.

A special person in my life was diagnosed with a serious mental health disorder. For many years I watched this person move through life in a way that was unique and purposeful, but I could sense that there was pain. I didn't know where the pain came from, but I wanted to help. I just didn't know how. 

One component strongly recommended by his doctors was exercise. If you have ever suffered from a depressive illness you know that finding the will to get out of bed for anything – let alone exercise – feels like it might be the end of you. But he tried anyway. He lifted weights, took spin classes, walked his dog... nothing gave him that burst of endorphins he was supposed to feel with exercise.

And then he went to a yoga class. He spent the first 15 minutes looking at the clock, wishing he could walk out, but stayed out of politeness. Halfway through the class he started to feel more comfortable, better than when he walked in. He told me that by the end of class he felt "happy",  a word I hadn't heard him use to describe himself in years. He said, "maybe a regular yoga practice will help me feel better". 

It has been an arduous road to recovery, but he has been successful. Inspired by that initial feeling of wellness, he continues to build a consistent practice. He is listening to the needs of his own body and feeling better with each passing day. One simple explanation for why he felt better after yoga practice is because emotions can be manipulated by changing postures.

And so I am here, with a sliver of his wellness in my pocket (as well as some incredibly powerful knowledge thanks to Avalon Teacher Training), and I have to share it. I can finally help!

You don't have to have a mental illness to benefit from the yoga that I teach. But you will benefit anyway. Find out how in my next post, Yoga for Mental Wellness Part 2: The How.


Rancho San Antonio County Park

Rancho San Antonio County Park

The Journey Begins

It's official... I am a professional Yoga Teacher! It's amazing to reflect on the path that brought me here. I have a degree in Agricultural Business and a career spanning advertising sales, hotel sales and teaching kindergarteners - not very yogic, and in fact, some of the reasons I needed yoga in my life to begin with. One may never have guessed this would be where my career would lead me (including myself), yet it makes so much sense to me now.

I was 19 the first time I set foot on the mat. I was in college (Go Mustangs!) and looking for a fun new form of physical exercise. It was fun, and it was physical, but what I didn't expect it to be was peaceful. I noticed immediately the calming effects yoga had on my mind; a toned figure became just a bonus. As an overwhelmed college student I needed all the stress relief I could get and yoga became my source.  

As much as I loved yoga, I admit I was a fair-weather yogi for quite a long time. With a lot on my plate, I didn't have the discipline to make it to the mat as often as I could have... should have. Many things changed over many, many years. Schedules shifted, jobs changed, we moved across the country, got married, started a family... but one thing remained the same: I always came back to yoga when I needed to release. It became my source of daily rebirth. If ever a day was tough I would find myself in a yoga class and by the time that class was over I felt like a new person, whole again, ready to tackle whatever came at me and with fresh perspective.

Fast forward several years later to the seriously belated honeymoon we took to Tulum last June.  For those of you who have been to Tulum, you know about the presence of yoga in this tranquil Caribbean oasis (If you haven't been to Tulum, what are you waiting for!?  Seriously, it's incredible.). I took a handful of classes at the in-house studio where we were staying - which was a loft above the restaurant. The loft's beach-facing wall had sliding doors that opened up to a panoramic view of the ocean; the breeze coming in during our practice was unforgettable. It was so loud it literally drowned out every other ambient sound. The experience was absolutely life-changing. It was here, in this loft, that I knew I was going to become a yoga teacher.

On the flight home from Mexico, we researched Teacher Training programs in our area and came across Avalon Yoga in Palo Alto. This training program was unique to others because it was rooted in science with expert guests spanning a wide range of topics including Chiropractics, Music, Systems Biology, Asana, Anatomy, and Pranayama.  We even spent a day in a cadaver lab (my stomach is still churning). Each guest was individually fascinating. And again, I got more than I expected from the experience of yoga. Not only did I enrich my mind with seriously incredible knowledge, but I made some lifelong friends along the way.  

So here I am, one year later, a certified yoga teacher. I feel honored that I am allowed to do this for a living. Yoga has brought me peace and self awareness, amongst much, much more - and hope I can bring some of the same benefits to my students.  But why Yoga for Mental Wellness?  You'll have to check back here for my next post! ;)  Until then, I'll see you on the mat.


The view from our cabana in Tulum.