Bipolar Disorder: Yoga for Your Mind and Body

The first yoga pose I ever remember doing was Child’s Pose. I remember reading about it in an article when I was in college. The article stated it was a restorative pose that helps to stretch the back muscles and relieve stress. I used the pose frequently to stretch my tense back, and I loved the calm I felt when I was in the pose.

My next experience with yoga was several years later when I was a mother with young children. A friend of mine invited me to go to a yoga class with her. I had never been to a yoga class before, but I loved it from the first. I loved how the stretching and calm approach made me feel physically, mentally and emotionally.

I only went to a few classes because finding childcare was difficult and I couldn’t afford the class fees. But I really loved how I felt when I did yoga. In the years after that I sporadically practiced yoga with DVDs and YouTube videos. I loved doing yoga, but because I was still relatively new to the practice I didn’t fully appreciate how beneficial yoga could be to my mental, emotional and physical health.

Finally, a couple of years ago I stumbled across Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. I was looking for yoga stretches to help me with running and found some videos of hers. I really love her videos. She is easy to follow and understand in the directions she gives. She also has a calming, positive voice and presence that help you feel that she really cares about you and your wellbeing and she genuinely wants to assist you. 

It was also around the time that I was learning about mindfulness meditation (see my post on Mindfulness). As I was learning about mindfulness I discovered what is referred to as “mindful movement.” It was yoga poses! 

I started to learn more about how your muscles can take a beating from your mind when you are unaware of what is happening in your thought processes. You store tension, anxiety, anger, fear, etc. in your muscles and it wears you out. The negative emotions and thoughts are amplified by your physical reactions that are happening automatically, without you even being aware of it.

Yoga is a fantastic exercise for the mind and body that helps to counteract the brain's assault on the body. When coupled with mindfulness meditation practice, yoga can help you to improve your physical, mental and emotional health dramatically. 

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First, yoga helps you release tension and stress in your body.

When I first started doing yoga I thought it was just a fancy way of stretching. I knew all about stretching because I was an athlete in high school and college. My coaches were always reminding us how important it is to stretch before and after practice to protect your muscles from injury. But I had never cried when I stretched–unless I hurt myself. 

The first time I cried during one of my first yoga classes I was caught off guard. I wasn’t in pain, in fact the crying felt good. It felt like all of the anxiety, stress and built up tension trapped in my body was being released. It was so therapeutic and cathartic. I find myself crying occasionally when I practice yoga and I have learned that this is helping my body and mind to let go of emotional stress that had built up in muscles. 

Second, you learn to mindfully focus on your breath. 

Most yoga is slow, and you learn to move through poses in time with your breath. This helps you pay attention to your breath and be intentional with deepening and slowing your breathing, which is part of mindfulness practice. Breathing is something you do without thinking most of the time. 

When you are struggling with a mood disorder that causes depression and anxiety your body can have negative reactions that can restrict or speed up your breath. Breathing in a reactionary state like this makes you feel helpless and compounds the feelings of stress and panic. 

As I have practiced yoga over the past few years I have noticed how restricted my chest feels when I try to take full breaths. Over the years of having bipolar disorder my normal state was often anxious and stressed, so my chest was used to being tight and restricted. I often felt like I couldn’t get a full breath of air.

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Yoga has taught me to be mindful of my breathing and intentional about taking slow, full breaths of air that have helped to relax my chest and open my lungs. It has also helped me be more aware of when my chest does tighten up in reaction to something. I can then be mindful of what is happening to cause it and deliberate about choosing how I want to handle the trigger or situation.

Third, yoga has helped me be mindful and compassionate with my body.

The slow, deliberate movements require you to focus on your body. When you have bipolar disorder you feel like things are happening to you. You often don’t feel like you have control over your mind, and that causes reactions in your body, which increases the feelings of helplessness. 

Yoga helps you to slow things down, and pay attention to how your body feels and take responsibility for the care of your mind and body. 

One of Adrienne’s mantras when you are practicing with her is “find what feels good.” This means pay attention to how your body feels while you are practicing and don’t force it to do things that hurt you. 

One of the great things about practicing in my home is that I don’t feel any outside pressure to do certain poses or stretch more than my body is able. Yoga teaches you to listen to and honor your body. While you want to challenge yourself, you don’t want to hurt yourself. Yoga can help you learn the difference.

Fourth, yoga helps you build confidence in a powerful way.

When you first start to practice yoga there can be a lot of challenges. You are learning how to breathe correctly (sounds silly, but it is true) and discovering inflexibility and weakness in your body.  There are also challenges with balance, even in mountain pose–standing straight up–that can feel discouraging. 

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But steady, consistent, persistent practice will slowly help you improve in all of these areas. Anyone can do yoga. You can individualize your practice to meet your needs and you will look forward to the practice because of the calm, peace and confidence that are the benefits.

I really love that you can practice yoga anywhere and in any mental state. When you don’t have the energy, physical or emotional, to go on a walk or run, a yoga practice is a great substitute. There are many different kinds of practices you can do from physically challenging to restorative. I always feel better mentally and physically after I practice and I can feel that I have taken an important step on my path to mental wellness.