4 Things You Should Know About Yoga & Mental Health


As a licensed mental health counselor and a long-time yoga practitioner, I am a strong supporter of using a combination of practices to help you feel like the best version of yourself. For some of you, this may mean going to therapy to learn new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. For others, you may choose Mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga to help yourself feel more grounded and at-peace. For me: I’ve always believed that using a little bit of both gives you the biggest bang for your buck.

If you are new to yoga theory, you can watch my TEDx talk where I talk about the basic components of yoga philosophy and how these line-up with current mental health treatment practices. This should familiarize you with the concepts I will be going more in-depth on now. The video may also be helpful for those of you who have trouble staying focused while reading, as it contains an abbreviated version of this post.

So why did I write this post? and what am I hoping you can get out of it?

The fact is, I’ve been practicing yoga for a long time. And the more I learn about the the mind and body, the more I realize how significantly yoga theory correlates with what science continues to uncover. And I don’t like to make recommendations to my clients without having a legitimate reasons for these. The fact that science is reinforcing the practices that yoga teachers have been doing for years, means that we can confidently utilize these practices to help ourselves feel better.

Not quite sure that yoga and science have so much in common?

Let me share an example that may change your mind:

  • Did you know that the second highest concentration of neurons is in your gastrointestinal tract? Neurons are cells that carry messages from your brain throughout the rest of your body via your central nervous system. Most of them are concentrated in your brain. In fact, historically, we assumed pretty much all of your neurons were located here. However, in recent years, scientists have discovered that the second largest concentration of neurons is found in our gut.  This means that the way we treat our guts may have a direct impact on how we feel, and that the symptoms we feel in our guts might mirror mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Just one simple example of how yogis have been applying this knowledge for years is with spinal twists. It is common practice in yoga classes to utilize twisting postures stimulate relaxation. Initially, one may wonder why that is.  However, now that science has uncovered this high concentration of neurons in our GI tracts, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to believe that working our bellies in twists can have positive effects on our brains. In yoga, we call this having a “squeeze-and-soak” effect (the idea that if we wring out parts of our bodies like we would wring out a sponge, those areas are then flooded with nutrients).

Why you should consider utilizing yoga as a complement to traditional self-help and mental health treatment.

This post originally came to fruition as I was preparing a presentation for my peers in the mental health field explaining the history and philosophy of yoga, and advocating for why yoga complements counseling & psychology so well.  Simply put, I believe that yoga is a great tool for supporting stress management, positive life functioning, and recovery from many mental illnesses. You can do it in a class or at-home on your own time, it requires little supplies or equipment, and it can be adapted to any level of physical, emotional, or mental fitness. Plus, the more you learn about yoga, the more you can see how yoga practices reinforce the same changes you may be attempting to make in therapy. For example, learning to practice good self-care, releasing judgmental thoughts, and having healthy boundaries.  Takeaway point: you do not need a lot of time, money, or resources to reap the benefits of yoga, and you can use your yoga practice as an extension of your current self-help or therapy practice.

So with that said, I’d like to take a moment to share an abbreviated version of the presentation I gave to my peers on yoga & mental health.  My hope is that you will find this information useful and reflect more on why yoga is such a great complement to traditional counseling and psychotherapy (some camps would even argue that yoga is it’s own form of therapy, but I personally believe the best outcomes involve a combination of eastern & western principles).  Rather than go on a long narrative, I figured I would give you the key points of this presentation, outlining what I think would be beneficial for all counselors, yoga practitioners, or anyone interested in yoga as a support for mental health should know:

  1. Yoga is not just a physical practice, but a philosophy with cultural & historical roots dating back hundreds of years. It is the philosophy of yoga, as much as the physical practice of yoga, that I believe lends itself to positive mental health.  For example, yoga prescribes a list of ethical codes known as the yamas & niyamas that describe how we should go about living our most-fulfilling lives.  Examples of these include ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), santosha (contentment), and svadhyaya (self-study).  I would argue that these are all examples of practices that lead us to a more fulfilling life.
  2. Yoga does not have to equal exercise.  In fact, the wheel of yoga outlines many different ways to practice yoga, some of which focus heavily on asana (physical) practice, and some of which focus more heavily on other principles like spiritual practice, connecting with your community, mantra (prayer), or energy work.  I’ve posted a photo of the yoga wheel below.  What most people in the U.S. think of as “yoga” is what the wheel refers to as “hatha yoga.”  Hatha yoga is basically a practice of yoga that places strong emphasis on physical asana (postures).  Examples of hatha yoga include Kripalu, Iyengar, Bikram, Vinyasa, Yin, Power Yoga, etc.
  3. Even if yoga DOES include exercise, the 8-limbed path of yoga prescribes more than just physical practice.  Yoga teaches us that by following this path (which includes 8 limbs, or steps) we can achieve spiritual fulfillment.  I would argue that this idea of fulfillment can mean whatever you choose.  Just like in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), participants are taught to turn their problems over to a higher power of their choosing (whether it be God, fate, Buddha, nature, whatever), yoga students can choose what spiritual bliss and fulfillment means for them.  Perhaps it’s feeling free of mental illness, having mental clarity, being one with the universe, or simply feeling fully integrated into whatever spiritual practice you subscribe to.
  4. Simply put, the 8 limbs of yoga, from the bottom (step 1) up (step 8) are: yama (self-restraints), niyama (ways of acting in the world), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), pratyhara (withdrawing from the senses), dharana (concentration/steady focus), dhyana (contemplation, a more intense form of dharana requiring less effort), samadhi (spiritual bliss).  I’ll save going into these further for future posts, but my hope here is to illustrate how a great yoga teacher, class, or practice integrates teachings besides physical posture.

In the interest of keeping this post from getting any longer than it already is and causing information overload, I’m going to stop here.  Stay tuned for more info on ways yoga and other holistic healing practices can improve your mental health. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Shoot me an e-mail at nikolai@ompowermentpsych.com or leave a comment below and let me know what you liked about this post, what questions you have, and how I can share more information to help you on your wellness journey.

In the meantime, if you want to delve deeper into the practice of yoga as it pertains to positive mental health, you may like my post on Yogic Guidelines for Peaceful Living (Part 1): Yamas.