April 12, 2019
I would not be the person I am today without yoga.
When I first started practicing yoga, it was one of the only things I did just for me. I cherished every minute of it. Not being responsible for anyone or anything but my own well-being felt like a luxury. “Yoga is a great form of self-care,” Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S, and Ohio-based Talkspace therapist said. Having been an overachiever my entire life, the idea of self-care was brand new to me. Yoga felt like the perfect combination of doing something that felt productive while also giving my brain a much-needed break.
“One thing that I really love about yoga is the emphasis on mindfulness (i.e. being fully present and focused on the moment),” O’Neill added. “In my work with clients, I often incorporate those same mindfulness principles into the counseling sessions.”
I initially started going to yoga to heal from a running injury. However, I quickly realized my running injury wasn’t the only thing I needed to heal. Yoga was the first place I slowed down enough to discover my inner world was in turmoil. Up until that point, I was so busy trying to attend to the needs of others around me that I hadn’t realized I was sacrificing my own mental health.
My experience is not uncommon. Dr. O’Neill finds that one of the greatest mental health benefits her clients experience from practicing yoga is finding space for self-care. “In most cases, yoga is something that requires fully focused attention,” O’Neill shared. “You can’t multitask when you’re doing yoga and it forces you to carve out time for your own wellness.”
Prior to practicing yoga, I was under the false assumption that everyone had the same levels of anxiety and perfectionism that I did. It never occured to me that it was possible to cultivate a different, more loving relationship with myself and my thoughts. I had a choice? It felt like I was discovering myself for the first time. It was the me underneath all the people-pleasing, self-criticism, and feelings of unworthiness.
The more I practiced yoga, the more I uncovered about the dire state of my mental health. I started to observe my obsessive thought patterns, the harsh ways I spoke to myself, and how I would override signals from my body in order to push myself beyond my limits. It was eye-opening to say the least.
“I think the mind-body-spirit connection can be helpful for many clients,” O’Neill said. “I also really like the emphasis on non-judgmental acceptance that is inherent within yoga,” she added. “So instead of being focused on perfecting a pose within yoga; it becomes important to focus on simply experiencing your body connecting with the pose.”
Even as I enrolled in my 200-hour yoga teacher certification, I came to the realization that yoga was just the beginning of my healing journey. If I truly wanted to feel better and learn how to take care of my mind, body, and spirit, I needed to seek professional help. As Dr. O’Neill shared, “I think that both yoga and therapy are focused on wellness and self-investment. Individuals who do yoga often do so to feel more focused, centered, and balanced in their life.” Thanks to yoga, I was ready.
A big component of therapy for me is mindfulness. I work a lot on developing my “observer,” or the part of me that can catch my thoughts without attaching judgements to them. Since yoga is an active form of meditation (and sometimes even includes seated meditation), every time I practice, I am helping to strengthen my observer.
There is a growing body of research that supports yoga and other contemplative practices as effective ways to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. In fact, some therapies such as the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn include yoga as a core element of the treatment.
“I often utilize meditation in session and I tend to ask clients to incorporate a program of meditation within their own daily self-care routines,” O’Neill said. “I especially love breath work because it is usually a very tangible way to introduce difficult concepts like mindfulness into session.”
While therapy has become my non-negotiable form of self-care, yoga remains an important part of my life. It’s still one of the best ways for me to recenter, ground my energy, and reconnect with my body. Especially on the days I don’t have therapy and find myself overwhelmed in a sea of thoughts, I know I can always find a sense of peace on my mat.
For that, I am grateful.
This article was originally published by Talkspace on April 12, 2019.