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Yoga as a Healthy Coping Mechanism

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Yoga as a Healthy Coping Mechanism

Photo by Melina Meza

In my post Coping Mechanisms for Grief and Loss, I discussed coping mechanisms for grief and loss, and compared some unhealthy ones (such as using alcohol, drugs, or food to numb pain or lashing out in anger at others) with healthier options (such as turning to others for support and/or sympathy). Naturally, I also encouraged the use of yoga as a healthy coping mechanism for grief, and I added that I thought the main reason I was still so committed to yoga after all these years was that yoga provided me with healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with all kinds of difficulty. 

It’s likely that the coping mechanisms you yourself use for grief and loss are similar to—if not the same as—to the ones you turn to for any type of difficulty. So for all of us, of course, it’s wise to take a good look at the coping mechanisms we tend to turn to in general so if we’re using unhealthy ones we can intentionally substitute healthier ones, like yoga. But exactly what kind of yoga should you do?

Today I thought I’d take a look at that very question and propose some ways you can use your yoga practice when life just gets to be too much. I’ve identified four different scenarios for you to choose from. Please let me know if you think I’m missing a scenario (or potential yoga coping mechanism), as this is something I’ve just started thinking about and is a work in progress. 

1. When you need a break in the intensity

Holding space for your negative emotions is very valuable because you need to understand what you’re feeling and learn about what actions to take afterward (and for grief, and possibly other emotions, let your feelings run their course). See Holding Space and Self-Study for Emotional Well-Being for more information on this practice. However, sometimes you might feel that you need a break from the intensity. 

Former hospice nurse and yoga teacher Bonnie Maeda, who teaches yoga for grief, told me that distraction can be particularly helpful when you need a break from the intensity of grief. But I’ve found a mindful asana practice can help provide a refuge or mini “escape” during most times of difficulty. When you engage your mind on your physical sensations (breath or any other physical sensations), your asana practice gives you a mental and emotional break from what’s going on outside the yoga room. At times like these, choose any kind of active practice that requires focus and concentration. The following posts provide information on practicing asana mindfully:

Practicing Yoga Mindfully
Coming to Your Senses in Yoga Poses
What is the difference between exercise and yoga?

An added benefit is that a mindful asana practice often reduces your stress levels, which in turn can quiet your thoughts and emotions, because it’s a form of moving meditation. This is why we often feel “better” after practicing, not matter what we practiced. 

2. When you’re feeling stuck

When I was discussing yoga for grief with Bonnie, she mentioned that she believes that each of our emotions has an energy that resides in the body and that emotions can get stuck, causing repetitive feelings. At times like these, movement can help because moving your body allows the energy to move through your body. This is why when she teaches yoga for grief, she includes simple, gentle vinyasas, in the form of short series of linked poses that you move through with your breath. Something like the Wall Sun Salutations or a practice consisting of gentle dynamic poses, such as Cat-Cow pose, Dynamic Bridge pose, Dynamic Arms Overhead pose, etc.

In addition, because moving with your breath is slightly energizing, this type of practice can alleviate mild depression, a sense of heaviness, and lack of motivation.

3. When your nervous system is over-stimulated

Most negative emotions stimulate your sympathetic nervous system because at some level you’re preparing to face difficulty (your nervous system can’t tell the difference between internal and external challenges). For example, one aspect of grief can be fear, including fear of death and fear of change, so when you’re grieving your nervous system may be moving toward fight-or-flight to prepare you to “run.” And when you’re angry, your nervous system moves toward fight-or-flight to prepare you for possible confrontations. 

So even if you’re not obviously feeling “stressed out,”” take a moment to notice whether you’re experiencing any of the common physical symptoms of stress, such as poor sleep, digestive problems, nightmares, headaches, weakened immune system and so on (see About Stress: Acute vs. Chronic for information).

At times like these, practicing any form of yoga for stress management that works for you is a good way to go. See Stress Management for When You’re Stressed  and Keeping Your Cool: Stress Management and Equanimity for information.
4. When you’re exhausted or fatigued

Going through difficult times—whether due to grief, anger, stress, or anxiety—can be exhausting and depleting. You may also have trouble sleeping. So restorative yoga can help provide you with much-needed rest that will help you regain energy, support your immune and digestive systems, and hopefully provide emotional respite. See Restorative Yoga: An Introduction and for information.
If lying on your back in poses such as Reclined Cobbler’s Pose and Legs Up the Wall pose, makes you feel exposed or vulnerable, try a prone position, such as Supported Child’s pose instead. And in all positions, try covering yourself with a blanket to create a feeling of comfort and safety. 

If you can’t rest peacefully in any position because of the emotional turmoil you’re experience, try practicing as recommended for scenarios 1, 2, or 3 first, and then see if you can rest more comfortably after that.

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For information about Nina's upcoming workshops and retreats and other activities, see Nina's Workshops, Retreats, and Books.

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