Betsy Rippentrop leads a yoga class in Iowa City.
Fall is a time of inevitable transition. The days shorten, cooler weather emerges, leaves fall, and yellow buses signal the start of the school year. In my practice as a psychologist, I’ve observed fall to be an emotionally challenging time for people. Increased worry, anxiety, and general feelings of unsettledness rise to the surface.
A new analysis of mental health inquiries on Google suggests that mental health may be more strongly linked to seasonal changes than previously thought. Summer months have significantly lower searches for mental health-related information than winter months. Now that summer is officially over, how do we stay emotionally well?
Whether you struggle with depression and anxiety, or just feel subtle emotional shifts throughout the year, research is beginning to show the practice of yoga to be beneficial both physically and emotionally. Broadly speaking, data is showing that yoga can improve mood, sleep, fatigue, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, plus reduce stress and improve memory.
In some of the most cutting-edge research, findings show that yoga is actually changing gene expression, altering how quickly we age, and creating new neuronal pathways in the brain. Now that science is verifying what the yogis have known for centuries, yoga is starting to get our attention!
So why does yoga work? Research hasn’t yet figured out the mechanisms for why it seems to be a panacea for so many physical and mental conditions. Based on my work as both a psychologist and yoga teacher, as well as nearly two decades of personal practice, I have some hypotheses.
Listening to the Body
First, yoga begins to connect us more deeply with our bodies. Our minds are constantly busy with to-do lists, calendars, and email inboxes. The frenetic pace of the 21st century has almost a “numbing” effect on our bodies. We quit listening to deep exhaustion and instead add more caffeine. We ignore insomnia and a racing mind, and pop an Ambien. We eat fast food because we have no time to cook, and overlook the stomach pain.
Yoga wakes us up to the holding patterns in our bodies. We start to listen to the messages and wisdom the body contains. Tension starts to release in our muscles, blood begins to flow, and our focus on physical sensations breaks the train of our everyday thinking, which calms the mind.
Learning to Be Present
Next, yoga teaches the important practice of acceptance or non-judgment. To me, this is one of the most challenging aspects of the practice but also the most healing. Our minds want to continuously label our experiences and drop them into “good and bad” or “right and wrong” categories.
Spending time on a yoga mat following a teacher’s guidance provides an opportunity to soften the judgmental mind and be present with what is. Life continues to throw curveballs, and no matter how much we prepare or try to exert our perfectly crafted plan, things don’t always work out the way we hoped. We can keep resisting reality, or we can learn to accept and flow with what life brings. Yoga is a great way to practice this.
Finally, through a yoga practice, we start to reconnect with our inherent wholeness. This is perhaps the most poignant and powerful lesson yoga has taught me personally and professionally. In my traditional psychology training, I took many courses on diagnosis and figuring out “the problem.” Our media contribute to this deeply rooted idea that something is wrong with us, and advertising rests on the assumption that whatever’s missing in life will be restored by buying some product. We live in a culture that believes we all need to be fixed.
That is why it has been so refreshing to learn the yogic philosophy that teaches at our core, we are all complete, whole, and balanced. We are not broken. You might be asking, then why am I depressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed?
Yoga would say our inherent wholeness gets buried by the stressors of life, past traumas, and old belief systems. We don’t need to “add” anything new to feel better, such as a medication or the perfect partner. What is necessary is to begin to let go and release all that is getting in the way of us remembering our greatness. Yoga is a path for letting go and tuning in to the best parts of ourselves.
A Stabilizing Force
I must add that yoga practice is not a substitute for professional psychological or psychiatric care, which may first be needed to stabilize and alleviate distress or self-destructive patterns. But it certainly can enhance the benefits of traditional psychological interventions. And it is a long-term solution for creating greater stability and clarity.
How long does it take to see the results? Research suggests measurable changes can emerge in eight weeks of weekly practice. However, B.K.S. Iyengar, father of yoga in the West, is famous for his belief that “yoga brings gifts from your very first day.”
What are you waiting for?
Betsy Rippentrop, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and owner of Heartland Yoga in Iowa City. She teaches classes and workshops on yoga for the mind, and maintains a private practice. Her work is focused on the integration of yoga and psychology. Visit her at icheartlandyoga.com or her upcoming blog dryogamomma.com.