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How Mental Health Professionals Use Yoga to Stay Sane

Invaluable advice for anyone facing burnout and blurred boundaries.

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There’s no fun way to say this: Anxiety and depression rates have skyrocketed during COVID, and pandemic-related mental health maladies, like prolonged anxiety and even Zoom fatigue, have amplified feelings of exhaustion, isolation, and stress. A year and a half ago, one in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, and now, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, that number is one in four.

We’re all still reeling, which is why we asked mental health professionals how they maintain their own sanity during an ongoing crisis.

Here, their advice on how to leverage movement, meditation, and yogic philosophy for setting boundaries, staying the course with self-care, and avoiding burnout.

Rest, and Restorative Yoga, to the Rescue

While Gail Parker, PhD, gave up her private psychotherapy practice nearly five years ago, she still practices yoga therapy and teaches health care professionals how to incorporate breath work, relaxation, and embodiment into patient care. 

Her own yoga practice includes active asana almost daily, and at least one Restorative Yoga or Yoga Nidra session a week. 

To stay balanced when you’re constantly in stressful situations, like many helping professionals are (think counseling, doctoring, or nursing), you have to feel embodied, and able to sit with discomfort without it jolting your nervous system, explains Parker. Yoga, especially Restorative Yoga and Yoga Nidra, allow you to settle into your own body and come in contact with your authentic self. 

The self-awareness that emerges from being still and calming your nervous system through more restorative practices allows you to detect the signs of burnout before it’s too late, says Parker. “If you’re falling asleep in your sessions with clients [yes, this happens], bored, impatient, or agitated that someone is bringing their problems to you, then you’re exhausted and burned out,” she says. 

How do restorative practices work? They help you tap into your parasympathetic nervous system, or rest-and-digest response, where you have time to observe tension and stress without reacting to it. If you tone this part of your nervous system, meaning practice using it, you’ll not only start to see when you’ve pushed too hard, you’ll also become more resilient, able to feel difficult emotions without it rocking your world, or sit with others’ difficult emotions without becoming enmeshed.

Parker describes a recent experience she had in Savasana (Corpse Pose)—the ultimate restorative asana—in which she felt fear from head to toe. She let it run through her, then released it. “It didn’t mean I wasn’t still afraid, but I had a deep level of awareness and understanding and radical self-acceptance,” says Parker. Letting the emotion run through her helped her feel whole, authentic, resilient, and emotionally balanced, and able to help her students feel the same way.

“The attunement to your own well-being allows you to attune to someone else in therapy,” says Parker, who saw clients for nearly 40 years. “If you can’t attune to your own well-being, your ability to be helpful is minimized.” 

Here, Restorative Yoga and Yoga Nidra classes to consider for anyone facing stress, anxiety, and depression:

Read All About It

Coral Brown is a yoga teacher and trainer, as well as a licensed mental health counselor with more than 20 years of experience in both fields. She sees about 20 to 25 clients a week while maintaining a schedule of online yoga classes and workshops. 

To stay grounded, Brown runs almost daily, as a form of moving meditation, and says that being steeped in yoga philosophy helps her stay present and resourced for clients, students, and herself. “Through the sacred texts, you can see that yoga is an embodiment practice that gives us the opportunity to practice self-regulation,” she says.

Practice being the key word. It takes practice to tone your nervous system to the point of recognizing when you are out of alignment with your authentic self, says Brown. Even the first yoga sutra, Atha yoganusasanam, is about dedication to practice and continual learning. 

Toning your nervous system allows for more discernment, so your initial response to stress is not always a primal fight, flight, or freeze. Brown mentions the old story, from the Upanishads, the original yogic text, of a man who sees a snake in the corner of the room and stays up all night on high alert. Come morning, he sees the snake was just a rope. “The more time we practice, we’ll see that awareness, pausing, and breathing help us know where the boundary is between real danger and discomfort,” she explains.

Beyond the Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, and Upanishads, here are Brown’s go-to yoga books for tapping into yogic wisdom and a neuroscience approach to embodiment and connection:

  • Yoga & Psyche: Integrating the Paths of Yoga and Psychology for Healing, Transformation, and Joy, by Mariana Caplan
  • Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, by Rick Hanson

Additional resources:

The long-term impacts of COVID-19: your mental health (Cedars-Sinai)

The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance abuse (KFF)