How do you wake up?
We can all wake up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes. The other day I had one of those days. I woke up feeling irritable and agitated without even know why. If I launch into the world too quickly from this space I could stir up unnecessary reactions creating a domino effect of negativity. This is not the kind of “pay it forward” that I want to participate in.
“It can be challenging to unveil ourselves from the socially conditioned masks that we wear to hide our emotions in the external world. In yoga we have an opportunity to ‘drop in’ and feel our experience from the inside out.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Those who know me well are aware that I build my daily routine around my yoga practice. My morning looks something like this: wake up, eat breakfast, attend to my children, husband, and household, go to my yoga mat…and then go to work. The pause on my mat is like pressing the reset button on the morning and offers me a chance to reflect on what I am bringing with me into my day. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to design many of my days with a built in mindfulness break. On the days that I cannot set aside time for a class I build in 15 minutes to sit, move, and breathe. I can then set forth into my day with greater clarity and attention to my impact on others.
Yoga is not stretching
The physical practice of yoga, or “asana” in Sanskrit, is not a stretching practice. Yoga postures exist within a context of mindfulness: an intention to focus on the present moment, and a willingness to be honest with ourselves, and an orientation towards self-compassion. Yoga involves waking up my body, deepening my breath, and clearing the cobwebs of the mind. My aim in yoga is not to achieve Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (one legged, king pigeon pose) and while I like to play upside down, my healing does not come in the form of a perfect handstand, flat abs, or a trimming Lululemon outfit. In fact, classes that emphasize the external look of a pose or body type can be a disservice or amplify a student’s already self-critical or perfectionist tendencies.
Yoga as Therapy
As a clinical psychologist, somatic psychotherapist, and certified yoga teacher with over 20 years experience I am immensely grateful for the tools that yoga offers. Research indicates that yoga is beneficial for emotional wellness and can help with depression, anxiety, or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Students are increasingly coming to yoga with this healing purpose in mind. While many teachers are already offering the types of classes and cues that encourage students to work with the vulnerable places within themselves, here are some additional things to look for when finding the a therapeutic yoga class:
- Attention to emotions: It is normal for emotions to arise in yoga. However, it can be challenging to unveil ourselves from the socially conditioned masks that we wear to hide our emotions in the external world. In yoga we have an opportunity to “drop in” and feel our experience from the inside out. You may want to explore practicing in a space that does not have mirrors up or diving in with eyes closed. Attend to your sensations and notice your emotional tone especially as you deepen into hip opening postures and forward folds. When feelings arise or if you feel vulnerable take a moment to pause, listen, and honor your own pace. Seek out a teacher who holds a safe space for emotional process.
- Connection to others: One of the healing benefits of going to a yoga class is the reduction of isolation. It is common for most of us to feel disconnected from others sometimes. Bigger is not always better when it comes to a therapeutic yoga class. A smaller class size, say 6-8 students, allows a teacher to get know who is coming to class and may create opportunities for you to experience meaningful connections with other students. A larger group can sometimes leave us feeling disconnected but depending upon the group can also amplify a sense of community. I enjoy practicing in larger groups when the teacher has a capacity to draw people together through intention, story telling, or opening our hearts. I sometimes enjoy the anonymity that a large group offers, allowing me to leave behind my personal story to be simply one in the crowd. Look for classes that encourage connection.
- Explore your options: The breath is the foundation of yoga practice and it is the breath that has the capacity to regulate our nervous system. Deep slow breaths can help us relax when we are worried and quick energizing breaths can provide a profound pick me up when we feel down or fatigued. You have the capacity to alter your inner mental and emotional state through changing how you breathe. In this way, yoga helps us gain an increased sense of choice over the “out-of control” feeing states of anxiety, panic, or despair. Take some time to experiment with different breath practices and look for a class that includes “pranayama,” the practice of controlling your breath to optimize your experience of peace, clarity, and balance.
- Empowerment: Strength building engages muscular action and provides a sense of our physical abilities. Standing postures such as mountain pose or warrior poses can help us feel empowered and present; ready to handle whatever we meet in life. When holding a posture for an extended period of time we have an opportunity to watch our mind and the messages we tell ourselves. How I handle these moments on my mat gives me a great deal of information about how I handle these moments off of the mat. It is important to find a class that is the right level for you. A supportive class environment can sometimes encourage you to stay just a little longer in an uncomfortable experience. Sometimes we meet our “edge” through active physical practice; however, if you are someone who is constantly pushing yourself, your growth may occur in letting go.
- Soften your vigilance: Releasing tension is the complementary action to strength building and involves the art of letting go. Anxiety and post-traumatic stress create states of vigilance in the body and mind. Often the eyes become fixed on the world around us in order to scan the environment for potential risk. When you soften or close your eyes there is an opportunity to drop-in and away from this watchful stance resulting in greater ease throughout the body. Find postures that shift this watchful stance by supporting your head. For example, in child’s pose allow your forehead to make contact with the floor or on a blanket. When your neck muscles relax you immediately tell your body that you are safe and that it is okay to relax.
Finding the right therapeutic yoga class for you can take time. Give yourself an opportunity to try a variety of classes. Notice your experience of the space in the class, how you felt in relationship with the teacher and other students, and whether the pace of the class was a good fit for you. Trust your instincts.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook to stay up to date with all my posts.