Ashtanga Yoga for Mental Health
Could Ashtanga Yoga be a particularly helpful complimentary approach to managing addictions, depression and anxiety, enhancing the benefits of psychotherapy and / or psychopharmacology? We already know from the research that hatha yoga in general can be quite beneficial. But, might there be some aspects of Ashtanga Yoga in particular that would make it especially well suited?
In 2017, I attended the Ashtanga and Addiction Forum through the Trini Foundation, a training program for yoga teachers who would like to help people who suffer from drug and/or alcohol addiction use ashtanga yoga as a tool for sustained recovery. The Trini Foundation was created by Taylor Hunt, who credits ashtanga yoga with saving his life. His foundation is endorsed by Sharath Jois who is the current head of the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. At the Forum, I also met an amazing researcher from Canada studying the impact of Ashtanga Yoga on people managing addictions, depression and breast cancer.
Ashtanga yoga is a system that has been passed down for many generations, designed for healing and self-realization. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Ashtanga and Addiction Forum was a continued discussion we had about why this particular style of yoga, especially Mysore style practice, might be so useful for folks in recovery. In his book, A Way From Darkness, Hunt outlines some of the reasons the method resonated with him.
I would love to see more research addressing this hypothesis directly, but I will add here some of my own thoughts, as a psychologist and a yoga practitioner/teacher, on why this system may be a powerful ally in managing mental health challenges:
1. Ashtanga yoga is healing.
The primary series of ashtanga yoga is called Yoga Chikitsa, yoga for health or yoga therapy. Along the difficult road to recovery, the abused and/or neglected body and mind require healing. Yoga reconnects us with our embodied selves, which is useful because the body is often the harbinger that signals trouble ahead. Neglected muscles are re-awakened and stiff joints are brought to a therapeutic edge. The foggy mind is sharpened via single pointed concentration developed through the tristhana – a coordination of breath, postures, and gaze. A sort of “internal cleansing” begins to occur and we see how we treat ourselves has a direct correlation to our experience in the practice. We discover a compelling reason to treat ourselves better, changing our diets, sleeping habits and schedules to improve our experience on the mat. The deep shame and self-loathing that often come along with recovery may be replaced by newfound self-care, self-compassion, and self-respect.
2. Ashtanga yoga is challenging.
This healing system demands much of its practitioners physically, cognitively and emotionally. Memorizing the sequence and maintaining the tristhana require sustained focus, concentration, and mental clarity. The cardiovascular system is taxed through deep breathing coordinated with flowing movements called vinyasas. The window of presence increases as we learn to work through challenges and we become more resilient in the face of difficulty. Strength, balance and flexibility build through continued practice. The practitioner “earns” postures as they are mastered and this tends to be both motivating and intriguing.
As abilities increase, hope is cultivated. Practitioners develop greater independence and take increasing responsibility for their personal practice. We become curious about our capabilities. A sense of excitement about the possibilities encourages us to adopt a beginner’s mind, allowing us to loosen the grip of ego and open to present moment experience. We find ourselves continually surprised and delighted by what we are capable of.
When practiced at a brisk pace, ashtanga yoga can be more aerobic and vigorous than other forms of yoga. The primary series has around 60 chaturangas (low push-ups) as well as numerous jump-backs and jump-throughs, that occur every five breaths or so. This intensity of physical activity is one of the aspects that may make it particularly well suited for helping with depression and anxiety. We already know that moderate exercise is correlated with increased endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and other hormones that help us feel content and modulate the body’s stress response. Less vigorous activity may not be as effective. Regular moderate exercisers are less likely to suffer from mental health disorders and those that do, have a decreased rate of relapse. The beneficial effects of moderate exercise tend to be longer lasting than many medications, although the time to take full effect may be longer. Exercise may also impact self-esteem and quality of sleep, which can improve mental health.
Just as a thought provoking aside, the ashtanga yoga primary and intermediate series include many forward folds and inversions, which B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga and Amy Weintraub in Yoga for Depression describe as beneficial for both depression and anxiety for a variety of physiological reasons. These claims are not yet rigorously scientifically tested, so this is another area where good research could be very helpful.
3. Ashtanga yoga demands commitment and devotion.
The practice of ashtanga yoga asks much of its devotees. In response, we develop “grit”, a quality of determination and perseverance fueled by a deep passion for the practice and its effects. Ashtanga practitioners quickly discover that our behavior in everyday life impacts our practice. We begin to naturally gravitate toward more healthful behavior in service to their practice. We may go to bed earlier so we can awaken refreshed for the early morning practice that is typical of this form of yoga. We may refrain from drinking too much alcohol so we don’t feel fatigued, dehydrated or nauseous. We may also drink more water for the same reason. We may become more conscious of what and when we eat so we don’t feel weighed down or have digestive issues during practice. Many of us choose to forgo meat for this reason, as well as in observance of ahimsa or non-harming. This leads to eating a more plant-based diet, which we already know is a healthy habit. The intuitive gravitation toward more healthful behavior creates a healthier body, in turn establishing a better foundation for a healthy and balanced mind. Fortunately, the benefits that come from a devoted practice prove to be self-reinforcing and make any sacrifices we decide to make for it feel worthwhile.
4. Ashtanga yoga requires single pointed concentration and mindfulness.
When practicing ashtanga yoga, there is something called the tristhana, or three places of attention (breath, gaze and posture). We are instructed to breathe in a slow, steady and rhythmic manner in coordination with our movements and to take a particular drishti or gaze with each posture. We also activate the bandhas, or energy locks, contracting certain muscles throughout the practice. Along with executing a memorized and challenging sequence of postures, attending simultaneously to all of these aspects of inner experience at once requires considerable concentration. Mind wandering becomes less likely and interestingly, certain types of mind wandering may be an important component of cravings, anxiety and depression. Rumination, or repeatedly mulling over past events or future worries, is a major cause of suffering in these disorders. We unconsciously turn to it as a coping mechanism (along with avoidance), creating a painful feedback loop. Attending to experience is an antidote to avoidance and rumination. Ashtangis with a devoted practice spend a couple of hours each day practicing this type of concentration and mindfulness. We learn to maintain equanimity, moving smoothly through the practice, working with whatever arises, returning again and again to the intended points of focus.
5. Ashtanga yoga remains a spiritual practice even in the US.
Because it has remained relatively close to its lineage, ashtanga yoga continues to be a largely spiritual practice. Spirituality involves an openness to the immaterial – that which is immeasurable. When we are willing to consider that there may be something greater than ourselves, something we cannot detect with our senses, we don’t have to take things so personally and we are better able to tolerate ambiguity.
Spirituality also also involves a recognition of the fundamental interconnection of all things. When see ourselves as interconnected, we recognize both our smallness and our vastness – we see that we are not in control and yet we are responsible to do the best we can. We discover that our own wellbeing is inextricably bound to that of others and our environment. To mistreat ourselves is to mistreat others – to destroy our environment is to destroy ourselves – and vice versa.
These spiritual understandings begin to free us from some of our self-imposed suffering. We come to understand that everything is part of a greater whole; therefore, everything is workable. We don’t need to fight so much, run away or hide from our difficulties. We don’t need to keep acquiring more and more material things, chase after intensifying pleasures, or strive for external validation to find happiness. We begin to realize we are enough and we are not alone.
Research has shown a correlation between spirituality and decreased incidence of depression and anxiety disorders. All yoga was meant to be a spiritual practice, including aspects of ethical behavior, virtuous observances, meditation, and a journey toward enlightenment. However, here in the West there is an increasing focus on the physical aspects of yoga with a corresponding decrease in focus on the more spiritual aspects of the eight-limbed path. It seems to me that the practice of Ashtanga Yoga is still seen as a system of purification and healing – not just a series of postures. Many teachers continue to recite the opening and/or closing mantra in their classes, teach the other limbs of yoga during workshops, and recommend pranayama (breathwork) and meditation as a part of the practice. This spiritual aspect could potentially give ashtanga yoga an advantage as a complementary approach.
“In Ashtanga Yoga, the only variable is you.” – Taylor Hunt
Ashtanga Yoga consists of set series of increasingly difficult postures and transitions choreographed to a specific rhythm. A clear pathway is laid out for us from which we need not vary. Because the series is the same each time we come to the mat, the only variable in the practice is ourselves. For this reason, the practice acts as a mirror, bringing us face to face with our afflictive emotions. The mat becomes a laboratory in which we can experiment, gaining wisdom, objectivity and clarity about ourselves, our habits and patterns. We learn to face difficulty with more patience and less reactivity. We become more attuned, which allows space for wise consideration. Over time we develop new ways of responding and relating that are healthier, kinder, and more balanced. The effects of these changes ripple out beyond us benefiting everyone we touch, creating a self-reinforcing, life affirming cycle.
Of course, Ashtanga Yoga shares all the general health and wellness benefits of other forms of hatha yoga. For example, practicing as part of a class builds social connection and community, which is often lacking in people who suffer from mental health challenges. Yoga practice is correlated with increased oxytocin, the “love hormone” that also modulates fear, as well as heart rate variability, which appears to be related to stress modulation. Strength, flexibility and balance improve as well as an overall sense of wellbeing, supporting the mind-body connection.
Anyone suffering from addiction, depression or anxiety should first seek the consultation of licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist – yoga is not meant to take the place of this type of care. Yoga is also not meant to take the place of a comprehensive addiction treatment program for recovery, but it may be a helpful adjunct. I encourage you to ask your provider about the potential benefits of adding yoga to your self-care toolkit. It will be interesting to see if, in the future, more scientific research emerges to support or disprove the theory that ashtanga yoga may be particularly helpful for a variety of mental health concerns. Until then I plan to be part of the solution – I’ll see you in the practice room!
The Trini Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to sharing Ashtanga yoga with those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. It’s their mission to provide yoga as a tool to aide in the recovery process and support the individual in maintaining long-term sobriety. Through the Trini Foundation’s scholarship program, they offer monthly tuition assistance to individuals in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. If you are a scholarship candidate, click here to apply.
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