Alexandra Mathisen’s yoga practice looks a little different lately.
After she finishes helping her daughter with homework, preparing a healthy dinner and writing new posts for her wellness blog, “A Rainbow a Day,” Mathisen teaches outdoor, socially-distanced yoga to the local population of Clark, Colorado. She unfolds her mat, spritzes lavender essential oil on her mask and makes sure everyone stays at least six feet apart.
Then, a few times a week, Mathisen attempts to teach yoga–an ancient practice that combines movement with mindfulness to encourage peace in the mind and body–in a social and political climate that is anything but peaceful.
Mindfulness has quickly gained popularity as the buzzword for practicing mental health. Our fast-paced society is beginning to place greater emphasis on meditation and breathing techniques as a way to slow down and destress. Meanwhile, yoga is typically thought of as a low-impact, physical exercise, not a mental or emotional one.
Western tradition has so far kept yoga and mindfulness separate from each other—one is a popular and accessible workout, and the other is a mental practice used for lowering anxiety and learning better coping mechanisms.
What is being overlooked is yoga is an essential part of mindfulness, and they can be used in conjunction to create a practice that encourages mental and physical health on and off the mat—especially during these unprecedented times.
“The mind-body connection is so real,” said Samantha Nimock, yoga instructor and owner of Village Yoga in St. Louis, MO. “What we think affects how we feel in our body, and what we think can make or break our emotions. We have more control over our mind and our emotions than we give ourselves credit for.”
“I typically like to start with breathing and tapping into the breath,” said Mathisen. “The breath is a really easy way to get grounded and rooted–you don’t need any tools; everyone can do it. I do simple breathing exercises to get grounded to the moment, and then I keep bringing them (the yoga students) back to those breathing exercises throughout the whole class.”
Background to Yogic Philosophy
Yoga has quickly gained popularity among people looking for a low-stress workout, and for those seeking to increase flexibility and strength. A national Harvard study found that 7.5% of U.S. adults have tried yoga once, and 4% practiced within the last year. But yoga is more than a physical exercise; it’s an ancient practice that combines three parts—the breath, the body and the mind.
Yoga was originally intended to be a spiritual practice. Ancient yogic philosophy is based on the Sanskrit texts The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita. These texts detail the eight limbs, or tenets, of yoga that build upon one another so that the practitioner can eventually gain enlightenment. The physical element of yoga is one component of that journey toward enlightenment, but traditional yogic philosophy focuses on the breath and the mind as the most important aspects of the practice.
“In the West, we tend to think of yoga as physical,” said Mathisen. “But really, it’s just one limb of yoga, and there are these seven other limbs that are all based upon the Bhagavad Gita.”
In the Western world, these seven other tenets of yoga are referred to as “mindfulness.” Mindfulness emphasizes focus on the breath and the sensations in the body in order to cope with stressful situations in a more relaxed manner.
The Science of Mindfulness
Mindfulness first became a point of interest in psychology with the development of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program designed to help people struggling with stress, anxiety, chronic pain and depression, by author and professor emeritus of medicine, Jon Kabat Zinn in 1979. MBSR teaches practitioners how to notice the stressors around them, and, instead of reacting impulsively, learn to respond with a lower degree of anxiety.
In his book, Mindfulness for Beginners, Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
A 2018 study on MBSR found that eight weeks of one weekly 90-minute meditation session lowered anxiety and stress, increased mood and boosted pain tolerance for a sample of injured athletes. Reducing the mental effects of stress and anxiety actually benefits the physical body, as well.
“We live most of our daily lives in the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight, and the parasympathetic (The Parasympathetic Nervous System Explained) is rest and digest,” said Mathisen. “For our health, and to fight off disease, we really want to be in the parasympathetic because, when we’re in the sympathetic, we’re stressed. Our bodies’ response to stress is inflammation, which causes disease.”
What’s missing from the increasing societal emphasis on mindfulness is yoga. Yoga is a key element to a well-rounded mindful practice, and the fundamental teachings of yoga are actually the same as the core foundations of mindfulness–response, not reaction, to stressful stimuli. For example, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali teach the same techniques as MBSR.
“Yoga teaches us to sit in our feelings, or sit in our bodies, or sit with our emotions, or our mental state, and take a moment before we respond,” said Anna Michelle, middle school teacher and yoga instructor at Tacoma Yoga in Tacoma, WA. “The thing I love the most in yoga class is when the teacher starts and you have a moment of silence, or a simple meditation, so they give you time to think and find your breath.”
“I had to take yoga in college, and at the time I had massive anxiety, panic attacks, depression. I was self-medicating; I was numbing,” said Nimock. “And when I started doing yoga it was this whole different experience of really staying with emotions, and you have to face what’s really going on without distractions.”
The section of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali called the Sadhana Pada teaches yoga practice brings the easing of mental fluctuations, so that the practitioner can calm the mind and learn to stop reacting impulsively to stressful situations—the same goal of MBSR. In this way, yoga is intended to be taken off of the mat and into everyday life.
Why are yoga and mindfulness kept separate?
So, why do we tend to separate yoga from mindfulness when they’re actually the same thing? To begin, Western culture places enormous emphasis on fitness and working out, and many people don’t view yoga as a “hard” workout.
“I was definitely somewhat resistant to yoga when I first started,” said Mathisen. “I was in my 20s and I wanted something more active, so I kind of poopooed it.”
People tend to forget that mental strength is just as important as physical fitness, and yoga can be a crucial antidote to mental health.
“Working out is very important, but the added benefit of a good yoga class is having that silent meditation time, so you’re not just working out and busting your butt the whole time,” said Michelle. “There’s also time to just sit in stillness and have that chill time where there’s no expectations.”
Additionally, yoga often has a stigma of being religiously affiliated, or that the practitioner needs to fit the “yogi” mold in order to do it. Mindfulness has successfully escaped that stigma since yoga and mindfulness tend to be placed into different categories.
“Mindfulness is just a much more mainstream way of saying “yoga,” said Mathisen. “When you say “mindfulness,” people are pretty open-minded. When you say “yoga,” people are not so open-minded, or have certain judgments about it.”
Yoga and Mindfulness as antidotes to stressful times
What’s important is a re-definition of yoga within the Western context. It’s not simply a physical practice, but a mental and emotional one that’s meant to be applied to all aspects of life—on and off the mat. With that new framework, yoga can be used as a crucial tool for people who are currently struggling with their mental health.
“I started teaching high school math in Charleston, SC, and I was super depressed and overwhelmed and under-supported,” said Michelle. “I quit that job after only six months and the same week I started going to this yoga studio, and that really gave me a routine and I started to process my emotions.”
“Yoga showed me how to create calm instead of being so reactive to what was going on,” said Nimock. “I don’t have to be so reactive, and I don’t have to stuff away trauma and grief–it’s something I have the ability to face and move through and come out the other end.”
Yoga is especially needed right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a desperate need for mindfulness resources. Companies are now offering employees free access to mindfulness apps–Headspace saw a more than 500% increase in inbound interest from companies. Downloads of mindfulness apps reached 750,000 the week of March 29—a 25% increase from the weekly averages in January and February.
Fancy meditation apps and expensive yoga studio memberships are nice, but they’re not exactly accessible to the multitudes of people who are currently struggling with their mental health. Luckily, there are simple ways to implement the teachings of yoga in daily life.
“I always tell people to set a timer on their phone once every few hours to breathe,” said Nimock. “Whatever you’re doing, pause and take three to ten solid deep breaths that ground you back in the moment.”
“Get outside, exercise, breathe,” said Mathisen. “It’s not traditional yoga as we know it, but it’s all yoga, it’s all mindfulness, and it’s all about getting into the body, and out of the mind.”
Perhaps most significantly, yoga teaches the art of perspective, and the ability to see the potential positivity within stressful circumstances.
“From a totally different perspective, especially as a yogi, the COVID-19 pandemic is the universe telling us all to slow down, and that we don’t need so much excess, and that we should figure out what it is that we really love,” said Michelle.
“I believe that everybody is in control of their own destiny and has the power to make positive changes in their lives,” said Mathisen. “Mental health, physical health, nutritional health, are all things I’m focusing on. I really want to make people aware of the power they have to be healthy.”