Monday, November 19, 2018

Yoga and Mental Health

by Tiffany Rose

Edgar Degas, Young Woman and Ibis, 1857, Fresco

Now, more than ever, fewer people are able to access professional help for mental health challenges. In Canada, the US, and the UK, we are living through the dismantling of community-based supports and access is limited to those who can afford to pay for it. So many folks who are looking for relief, care, connection, and peer-based support are turning to yoga. 

Yoga has long been praised for its ability to help with several mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety. Yoga certainly can be a wonderful tool for anyone who is searching for a connection to themselves and to community and is a great way to notice our inner landscape, connect to our experience, and to plug us into a sense of belonging. Through practices that encourage nervous system regulation we have also seen massive inroads for those living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other issues that impact nervous system regulation.

However, when we as teachers aren’t aware of contraindications, such as seated still meditation for PTSD, yoga can also harm those seeking care and direction by driving people deeper into psychosis, suicidal ideation, and pattern dissociation (when an event reminds them of a past trauma).

This is why​ ​offering the practices as optional tools for individuals to try, keep, or discard based only on their own body’s response to them is paramount. It doesn’t matter if the yoga tradition teaches us that X practice heals X affliction, if the individual practicing X had an adverse experience, we need to be clear that the tools are optional. So, it is essential to first honour the student’s experience without alienating them from the practice or the community and to empower each individual to express their agency in choosing what works for them.

Yoga teachers have a responsibility to be aware that yoga is an individual practice and just because one person may find a practice or technique healing does not make that practice inherently healing. In addition, consent and autonomy are important guides for yoga teachers, ensuring that we aren’t projecting our own practice or beliefs onto our students.

When someone with mental health challenges enters the yoga room and shares about their challenges, it’s helpful to affirm that they are welcome and accepted even if their experience differs from those of the majority of our students. And please refrain from labeling someone as “negative” or pushing them to see the “positive” or the “bright side,” especially if they are sharing what is true for them.

Compassion and humility in our approach is important to ensure that everyone feels included and welcome.

Some ways we can encourage a more autonomous, safe(r) environment include:

  • Provide consent cards for touch in asana practice, along with ensuring we are clued into non-verbal consent cues from our students. 
  • Give options for gentle movement in Savasana and allow for eyes open for those who need it.
  • Do not walk around in Savasana. 
  • Practice optional language rather than commanding language in asana, such as “if you’d like to, you are welcome to join me...” 
  • As options for seated meditation, offer walking/movement meditation options, eyes open, and/or mala beads.
  • Listen when a student shares personal experiences but do not take on the role of therapist.
  • Do not give advice or offer treatment options, such as “I’ve heard neti pots two times a day cure X.” 
  • Don’t judge people for being on medication or using other Western forms of treatment or ask them to change their current treatments. Yoga can be an excellent adjunct for Western forms of treatment. 
Yoga is one tool that we can share with people who are seeking relief and options for many of life’s challenges. Mental health challenges are a part of the human experience and people who live with them deserve dignity, respect, inclusion, access, and representation. Yoga teachers and fellow practitioners can form a loving community which, in and of itself, can be so very healing for all of us. Yoga can’t be everything to everyone, but if we treat our students as individuals and respect their lived experiences, yoga has the potential to provide something of value for a very wide range of people. 

Tiffany Rose is a PTSD Yoga educator and facilitator in Alberta Canada. She owns LacOMbe Yoga and is on the faculty of several teacher training academies. She is the lead instructor at LacOMbe Yoga and facilitates mentorship style training for yoga teachers there, and she also facilitates learning spaces for people who serve and support those who may be living with the effects of trauma. She works and facilitates around the topics of inclusivity and accessibility, LGBTQ inclusion, and mental health activism.

Prior to her career as a yoga teacher, Tiffany Rose worked in the nonprofit sector for over 10 years as a marketing and public relations professional. She loves to create art, connection, community, and collaboration. She lives in Central Alberta with her daughter, her cats, and her cute puppy Hufflepuff, who is often assisting in yoga classes at LacOMbe Yoga. Tiffany Rose is a queer trauma survivor, living and teaching openly with CPTSD, DID, and chronic pain disorder. She uses she/her pronouns., Facebook: unguru Instagram: Ungurutiff

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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