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Guide

How to use yoga for emotional wellbeing

Yoga offers a unique whole-body approach to regulating your emotions. And it’s easier to get started than you might think

Photo by Chris Stowers/Panos

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Pamela Crane

is a certified yoga therapist, actor and dancer, and former broadcast journalist. She is the owner of Interoceptive Performance in San Diego, California, and host of The Yoga Pro Podcast.

Edited by Matt Huston

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Need to know

Most of us look outside ourselves for relief from life’s big and small stresses. If you sometimes reach for alcohol to manage anger, go online to shop for things you do not need in order to tackle loneliness, or hide under the covers to deal with grief, chances are that your emotions are trying to tell you something. Rather than suppressing or ignoring how you’re feeling, it is better to turn to healthy ways of self-soothing when emotions feel too big. The ancient and thriving practice of yoga can help you do that.

In this Guide, we will show you how a yoga practice can provide support when you are experiencing difficult emotions. Yoga cannot cure mental health problems, but it may help lessen a tidal wave of emotional symptoms. It can also help you change your relationship with emotional pain so that you don’t experience it in the same way. An important goal is to use the foundation of yoga to be more curious (and less judgmental) about what you are feeling. Yoga could enable you to step back a bit from emotional overwhelm, and be kinder toward yourself and more inquisitive rather than getting completely entrenched in the struggle.

The guidance that follows is for anyone who wants to use the practice and principles of yoga to enhance their emotional wellbeing – to become better able to navigate daily stresses effectively. If you are not sure about yoga, it will help you decide if it might be a helpful addition to your busy life. If you have been practising for years, we aim to give you a window into how you can specifically use yoga to deepen your emotional wellbeing.

A very brief introduction to yoga

Yoga can be defined as ‘yoking’ or joining mind, body and spirit in service to overall health. It is distinct from other activities that can improve emotional wellbeing, such as talking to a supportive friend, going for a run, or seeing a psychotherapist. Yoga offers you the ability to regulate your nervous system. It is a holistic way of balancing yourself through movement, breathwork, contemplation and connection. This whole-body approach makes yoga a unique intervention compared with traditional physical therapy, psychotherapy or other treatments. Yoga provides a ‘grounding’ experience that can be accessed even when you’re not in a class doing the postures. It can help you maintain emotional stability between designated practice sessions. Yoga is more than something you do. It is something you embody – a way of cultivating a lifestyle of emotional wellness.

The practice of yoga originated in India and was outlined in the oldest records of Indian culture, the Vedas. It was systematised in the Yoga-sutras, a text attributed to the Indian sage Patanjali. Many people today think about yoga as a physical practice, but there are actually eight ‘limbs’ of yoga, of which the postures are just one. They are:

  1. yama (a set of philosophical principles, translated as ‘restraint’);
  2. niyama (a set of philosophical principles, translated as ‘discipline’);
  3. asana (postures);
  4. pranayama (breathing);
  5. pratyahara (withdrawing of the senses);
  6. dharana (holding focus and attention);
  7. dhyana (connection); and
  8. samadhi (consciousness).

It’s important to recognise the multifaceted nature of yoga – not only as a sign of respect for the Indian culture from which it originated, but because people stand to get the most benefit from yoga when they practise it in its entirety.

Yoga is a practice. It’s not about finding perfection in poses; it is a contemplative practice that cultivates resilience. Yoga doesn’t make the stressors of your life go away, but it can provide you with coping skills to help you respond differently to them.

Yoga can be a resource for building emotional wellbeing

An important shift in perspective that yoga can help you achieve is to go from ‘being an emotion’, or seeing an emotion as the entirety of your experience, to ‘having an emotion’ – seeing the emotion as just one, temporary part of your experience. This perspective shift is one of the best ways to offer compassion towards yourself and to begin to quiet negative thoughts. Even big emotions can get smaller and more manageable with the practice of yoga.

Yoga may be a helpful addition to your routine whether you are seeking more effective ways to deal with daily stress or are struggling with challenging experiences such as feelings of depression or chronic anxiety. Research on the benefits of yoga for people with diagnosed mental health disorders is encouraging. For example, an overview of scientific studies looking at the effects of yoga on depressive symptoms indicated that people participating in a yoga intervention showed greater symptom reductions than those who did not participate in one. Other research highlights the promise of working with a yoga therapist to help alleviate not only symptoms of depression but also symptoms of anxiety.

Yoga is not a quick fix for life’s emotional ups and downs. But incorporating yoga practices into your life will likely have a positive effect in the long run. The key will be to keep coming back to the practices that feel good to you. You may need to tap in to different practices at different times of the day or different days of the week. In the rest of this Guide, we’ll give you a number of options to try, first describing some breathing and posture practices with a focus on your emotional balance, followed by a simple form of meditation to comfort your mind. We will also share more information on how to find the right yoga professional and class experience. Finally, we’ll provide an overview of philosophical principles of yoga that could bear on your emotional wellbeing.

What to do

Use breathing exercises to shift your emotional state

Taking a few minutes to notice your breathing patterns can start to make a difference in how you feel. This act of noticing is beneficial on its own, but there are certain practices, known as pranayama in yoga, that you can do to bring about more significant changes if you use them intentionally.

Not all breathing practices are relaxing, so tailoring the practice to how you want to feel is key. If you are feeling down, an energising breathwork may lift your spirits and get you moving. Alternatively, if you are feeling worried or anxious, it might be better to stick with something that will help you downregulate your sympathetic nervous system and put you in a state of rest and relaxation.

Here are some specific breathing practices to try, depending on your goal:

For relaxation try Extended Exhale Breathing. This involves taking a big breath in, and then exhaling for a longer amount of time than the inhale. If you are in a state of fight or flight (your sympathetic nervous system is activated and you feel ‘worked up’ or ‘on edge’), this way of breathing can bring you to a more relaxed state.

To start, breathe in for four slow counts and then exhale for six slow counts. Repeat this five to 10 times, and notice how your mind and body start to feel. You can slow down the counts as you start breathing more deeply, or you can exhale for eight instead of six. Notice how you are feeling in the moment. Your heart rate might slow down. You might notice less anxiety. You might feel lighter, and your thoughts may be clearer. If you are in an anxious state and the practice isn’t helping, moving around a bit to expel some energy before practising the breathwork again may be helpful.

To help reduce overwhelm and increase concentration, try Box Breathing, also called square breathing. This practice can be useful if your mind is feeling scattered and you are struggling to focus.

Here’s how to do it: breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold your breath for four counts. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you go – each part should be even in duration. Repeat five to 10 times. If you have heart problems, high blood pressure, or are in a state of high anxiety or panic, you will want to pay special attention to how you are feeling and discontinue if you notice agitation or a heart rate that is unusually high.

For uplifting feelings try Kapalbhati Breath (Breath of Fire). This energising breathwork will get your heart pumping and may get your body ready to move. Some people find it useful for instilling motivation.

First, place your hand on your belly and keep your mouth closed. Let the belly expand as you take a big breath in. Then, draw the abdomen in quickly, pushing the air out forcefully through the nostrils. Try it a few times slowly to get the action and then speed it up to a fast pace like a moving train. Start with 10 quick breaths and repeat a few rounds. This is another breathwork that is not recommended if you have heart, blood pressure or anxiety issues; so pay attention to how you are feeling and stop if something doesn’t feel right in your body. You might also notice your nose getting runny, so keep a tissue handy.

Keep in mind that breathing exercises have been shown in research and in our work with clients to bring the results described, but you may respond differently. Trying different approaches, without judgment, to see what works for you is a very yogic action to take.

Try some yoga postures to help calm you or lift you up

One of the most well-known aspects of yoga is the asanas, or postures. These are what most people think of when they hear the word ‘yoga’, and they can be helpful for emotional wellbeing. The key to success when starting a physical yoga practice is to mindfully tune in to your body and notice what you are feeling. Doing so can not only help you avoid injury; it can enhance your ability to get ‘out of your head’.

We will describe a few postures that can be helpful, but there are so many more that we recommend finding a qualified practitioner to help you design a practice (see more on this later in the Guide). When you practise asanas, remember that not everyone responds the same way; you may even respond differently on different days. It’s not about how the postures look, but rather how they feel that really matters. Though you may find a yoga mat helpful, you do not need one to practise asanas.

Here are some restorative yoga postures to help you get started. In each case, we describe typical effects of these postures, based on our combined experience with studying and practising yoga and working with clients:

  • Constructive rest (legs on a chair) is great for balancing the nervous system. Lie down on your back and place your calves on the seat of a chair, ottoman or bench. Scoot up to it, so that your legs, bent at the knee, form as close to a 90-degree angle as possible. Place your arms at your sides, and close your eyes or cast your gaze down to your belly. Tune in to your breath. Then, with your attention turned inward, scan your body from head to toe to see where you might be holding tension or feeling other sensations. Notice any sensations and release any tension you might have. Try this for five to 20 minutes daily. You may even find that lower back pain subsides as the psoas muscle tends to release in this posture. (For a visual illustration, this video shows a version of this pose.)

The following two postures can be useful for bringing about a sense of safety and calm:

  • Supported child’s pose: grab a couple of small blankets or towels and roll them up to make a bolster about the length of your torso. You can also stack some pillows if you want more support. Kneel down behind your bolster, place the tops of your feet against the floor, and sit back on your heels with your knees apart. Pull your bolster in toward you. Then lie your chest down on the bolster with your knees on either side. Hold for three to five minutes. (Here is a brief video demonstration of this pose.)
  • Supine gentle twist: lying on your back, bend both knees and place your feet on the floor near your torso. Let both your knees fall to one side, keeping both shoulders on the floor. It may be helpful to have a couple of blankets or towels folded up in case you want one between your legs and one under the legs. You need to feel relaxed and supported rather than a deep stretch or strain of any kind. Rest there for three to five minutes, then switch sides. (You can see a version of a gentle twist in this video.)

The next two postures can be useful for alleviating stress and instilling an uplifting sense of purpose and openness:

  • Supported fish can be a useful posture if you have low mood as it can help cultivate self-compassion. Roll up one or two blankets and lie down on them with the blanket roll running along the length of your spine. Place your feet on the ground, hip-width apart, with your knees bent – or extend your legs out straight and place your arms out to the side in a T shape. You may feel a stretch through the chest muscles and the sensation of release in the muscles of the back. Stay in this posture for three to five minutes. (Here’s a video demonstrating the supported fish pose.)
  • Supported butterfly is not only effective for relieving stress, it can also be helpful for back pain. Roll up one or two blankets and lie down on them with the blanket roll running along the length of your spine. Place the soles of your feet together, with your knees bent and falling out to the side. If you’d like, you can place pillows or rolled towels underneath your knees to keep the pose restorative and to avoid overstretching the groin muscles. Let your arms fall down to your sides. Stay in this posture for three to five minutes. (To see a version of the butterfly pose, check out this video.)

Anchor yourself in the present moment

Meditation is an essential component of yoga, and it involves an act of focused concentration. Many people think you have to clear your mind to meditate, but just the act of noticing your thoughts and then letting them pass can be therapeutic.

Here’s a way to practise this kind of noticing. Aim to do this for at least two minutes (or as long as you can) each day:

  • Find a comfortable way to sit or lie down, and just start to notice your breath. Notice your heartbeat. If you want, you can close your eyes or soften your gaze.
  • Scan the body from head to toe and notice any areas where you feel tension, sensation or pain. See if you can release any tension or tightness.
  • Direct some kind thoughts towards yourself. You can use mantras such as ‘I am creating space for kindness to myself’, ‘I greet my challenges with acceptance’, or ‘I am moving into emotional wellbeing.’ Then, bring your attention back to the world around you.

A new practitioner may also benefit by trying out guided meditations that you can find on apps such as Insight Timer or Calm. Having a guided recording to follow along with can help you to stay on track.

Another practice for finding presence in the here-and-now is to cultivate gratitude. Looking for ways to feel grateful doesn’t make the bad stuff disappear, but it can change how you react to what is going on in your life.

Here’s a gratitude exercise: light a candle and think of three things you are grateful for. These could be anything from your family, your home or your health, to a moment that made you laugh or a treat that you enjoyed. Close your eyes or gaze at the candle and notice what you feel in your body as you think of each thing for which you are grateful. If you like to write, you can get a journal and write down what you are grateful for. You can return to these writings and notice which sources of gratitude pop up the most for you. Make gratitude a habit; however casual or involved you want to make it is up to you.

Find a yoga teacher or yoga therapist

If you have decided to start a yoga practice, you’ll want to find someone to teach you more of the basics and guide you directly so that you can get the most from your practice. Yoga teachers and certified yoga therapists are your best bet for learning how to practise yoga. It’s valuable to find someone who is true to the traditions of yoga and shares the philosophy, ethics and contemplative practices – not just the postures and breathing exercises.

Yoga teachers will have typically trained with an experienced teacher themselves or completed a 200- or 500-hour teacher-training programme. They provide group instruction or private yoga sessions, and everyone in the class is usually presented with the same sequence of practices that are predominately postures.

A certified yoga therapist has at least 1,000 hours of training that typically covers the philosophical principles of yoga, professional practices, training in physiology and pathology of disease, contraindications of yoga for particular diseases, in-depth anatomy and kinesiology, mental health considerations, and the importance of working within their scope of practice. Yoga therapists design a practice that is specific for an individual or group with the goal of enhancing health and wellbeing.

Neither yoga teachers nor certified yoga therapists are licensed medical or mental health providers, and they are not qualified to diagnose or treat specific diseases. A good yoga professional will always refer you to the appropriate medical or mental health provider.

Once you decide to find a yoga therapist or yoga teacher to work with, make sure to seek the right fit. Working with a yoga professional who seems to jibe with your own personality will make it easier to build a good relationship. Getting to know the person in a video call or short in-person meeting before committing to a programme is a great way to test this out. Make sure that the person you choose understands your goals and is equipped to meet them. You can also ask questions about their training and background, whether diversity and inclusion are a priority in their yoga space, if they are trauma sensitive, and what their policies are regarding physical touch in the yoga session.

Another consideration is location. If you want to work with someone in person, you may find it hard to be consistent if it’s a hassle to get to them, and that could be the difference between keeping up a practice or making excuses for why you can’t practise. If there’s not a yoga professional nearby, are you willing to do sessions via Zoom or another video-calling platform? Seek a professional who is easy to access, whether that’s in your neighbourhood, near your workplace, or online.

Consulting a healthcare professional is important when starting or continuing any type of physical exercise. If you are experiencing pain or have a serious acute or chronic medical or mental health condition, don’t postpone seeing a professional prior to starting or returning to yoga practice.

Key points – How to use yoga for emotional wellbeing

  1. Yoga is a rich, whole-body practice that anyone can begin. Many people are familiar with yoga poses, but yoga also encompasses breathing and meditative practices, philosophical principles and more.
  2. Yoga can be a resource for building emotional wellbeing. Practising yoga can help change your relationship to challenging emotions; they can start to feel more manageable.
  3. Use breathing exercises to shift your emotional state. Depending on your goal, you can employ breathing practices to help relax, focus or energise you.
  4. Try some yoga postures to help calm you or lift you up. The important thing is not how a pose looks but how it feels. Seek comfort in the asanas and notice what you’re feeling in your body.
  5. Anchor yourself in the present moment. Take at least a couple of minutes each day to connect with the here-and-now, such as by noticing inner sensations and directing kind thoughts toward yourself.
  6. Find a yoga teacher or yoga therapist. A yoga professional can work with you directly to help you expand your practice and explore the yogic tradition further.

Learn more

Engaging with the philosophical principles of yoga

Among the important aspects of yoga that are often overlooked are the philosophical principles outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras. These include five yamas and five niyamas, considered to be the guiding ethical practices of yoga.

The yamas are the moral guides and generally relate to how we interact with the world around us. These include:

  • ahimsa (nonviolence, or non-harm);
  • satya (truthfulness);
  • asteya (non-stealing);
  • brahmacharya (non-excess, or moderation); and
  • aparigraha (non-attachment, or non-possessiveness).

The niyamas are ‘observances’ and are largely concerned with how we relate to ourselves. These include:

  • saucha (purity, or cleanliness);
  • santosha (contentment);
  • tapas (self-discipline);
  • svadhyaya (self-study); and
  • isvara pranidhana (surrender).

A few of these principles may stand out as particularly significant for emotional wellbeing. Ahimsa, the idea of non-harming, is sometimes translated as compassion toward one’s self and others. You may apply ahimsa by having compassion for yourself in terms of forgiving past mistakes and offering yourself kind words. Self-compassion is a vital practice for cultivating better mental health.

Many people who suffer from emotional challenges are stuck in unhealthy thought patterns. Aparigraha, or non-attachment, is a fitting concept to explore in these instances. For example, you may ask yourself: What can I let go of now? What thought pattern can I release that isn’t serving me anymore? It can be maddening when you fixate on things that you don’t have control over. Practising aparigraha to lessen your attachment to the outcomes of events is also helpful for redirecting anxious thought patterns.

Also consider svadhyaya, or self-study. Psychotherapy can be a form of self-study. Questioning your own thought patterns can be self-study. Taking time to closely examine yourself to learn more about who you are – including what your values are and whether you are living in line with them – is probably one of the hardest and most important things you can do to improve your emotional wellbeing. It’s not always easy, but the rewards are great.

If you’re interested in embracing yoga more fully as a way of living, an experienced yoga teacher or yoga therapist should be able to help you learn more about these principles and how to incorporate them into your daily life. You can also take a look at our curated resources below to dig deeper into these concepts.

Links & books

If you would like to learn more about yoga therapy, visit the website of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) and their additional resource for yoga therapy and health. The latter website includes a search tool for locating certified yoga therapists. If you would like to find mental health care more generally, the website Psychology Today lists professionals in multiple countries in its therapist directory.

There are lots of terrific books on yoga. Here are some that provide more information specifically on yoga and emotional wellbeing. They include further instruction on physical, emotional and spiritual practices that many people find helpful:

The book Yoga for Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom (2015) by Colleen Saidman Yee and the book Yoga for Emotional Balance: Simple Practices to Help Relieve Anxiety and Depression (2011) by Bo Forbes both offer a selection of postures with photographs and in-depth instruction.

The book The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice (2009) by Deborah Adele and the book True Yoga: Practicing with the Yoga Sutras for Happiness and Spiritual Fulfillment (2016) by Jennie Lee both discuss the ethical principles of yoga in a reader-friendly way.

Incorporating new mindfulness and meditation skills is a natural expansion of your yoga practice. Rebecca E Williams (co-author of this Guide) and Julie Kraft offer simple strategies for being mindful in their book The Gift of Recovery: 52 Mindful Ways to Live Joyfully Beyond Addiction (2018). Donald Altman provides practices for clearing the mind in his book Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What’s Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation (2016).

Whether you practise yoga or teach it, give a listen to The Yoga Pro Podcast with this Guide’s co-author Pamela Crane, or check out Yoga Therapy Hour with Amy Wheeler.

This Guide was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon+Psyche from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. Funders to Aeon+Psyche are not involved in editorial decision-making.