A woman doing yoga on a boardwalk to promote mental health

Breath, Posture, and Meditation: The Holistic Power of Yoga

Rachel Janssen
March 28, 2024
February 22, 2024

Yoga is an ancient path of wellness practices designed to elevate physical, mental, and emotional health. Traditionally, yoga consists of eight parts. In the West, we often focus on asana, the physical postures; pranayama, breathwork; and dhyana, meditation. When practiced together, these can create a sense of physical ease and mental calm in daily life. 

Investing in our mental health by practicing yoga acts as an excellent form of self-care.  

Something Is Better Than Nothing

Yoga is an accessible practice. 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes—and beyond—all offer something of value. Integrating a few postures or breathing techniques into your day or pausing for a few minutes to draw your attention inward can, with time, promote a deeper level of mindfulness; in essence, you will become more attuned to what you are feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

For many of us, it’s challenging to sit, be entirely still, and meditate effortlessly. The ancient yogis grasped this obstacle, which is why the first component of yoga involves movement. Movement steadies the mind. Exploration of yoga’s diverse postures cultivates concentration, dedication, and curiosity. On a physical level, the postures relieve feelings of tightness, soreness, or dullness throughout the body which allows you to feel more agile, limber, and well. 

The Breath As Life Force

The ancient yogis describe the breath as ‘life force’. An integral element of yoga involves nurturing awareness toward the depth and quality of your breath. In day-to-day life, if we are stressed or rushing, the breath usually becomes shallow and rapid, heightening feelings of anxiety. Sometimes we even, unintentionally, hold our breath. Breathing deeply is a healthy habit that requires practice; it generally doesn’t come naturally even to the best of us! 

Breathing Deeply: A Practice

Taking longer exhales calms the parasympathetic nervous system. To begin exploring the transformative power of deep breathing, try the following exercise: inhale for a count of three, and exhale for a count of five or six. Repeat this pattern for 10-15 cycles. Afterward, observe how you feel. 

Movement Guided by Breath

The breath is the foundation for our yoga practice. It steadies us when discomfort—but never pain—arises in a posture. The Iyengar yoga teacher with whom I studied for many years regularly remarked, “The first 25 seconds of a posture are the most difficult. If you can stay with your breath and get through that initial discomfort, growth, and expansion lie on the other side.”

Accessing expansive breath while holding postures and when transitioning between postures refines our sense of how we inhabit space. Ultimately, the body and mind are fully in step with one another. This understanding leads to a sense of grounding and connection. 

Deep Breath Off The Yoga Mat

Establishing a strong connection to the breath while on the mat translates to a capacity to access deep breath off the mat. Case in point: uncomfortable, disappointing, and emotional events impact us all throughout the course of life. Even daily stressors can leave us vexed or overwhelmed. The ability to pause, breathe deeply, and observe complex emotions when they emerge goes a long way. Deep breath does not aim to fix, but it functions as a valuable tool for navigating difficult feelings and events. 

The noting Meditation 

A meditation I enjoy integrating into my yoga classes is called the noting meditation. Ideally, you begin exploring this meditation from a still space. Down the road, you can weave this meditation into daily life—while walking, grocery shopping, driving, you name it. 

  • Find a comfortable, symmetrical, seated posture. Whatever feels good and intuitive to you. You can also lie down if that feels best. 
  • Close your eyes and tune into your breath. Begin to take longer exhales. Focus on the rise and fall of the breath—its ever-present, rhythmic shape. 
  • If at any point you become lost in thought—over an emotion, an event, or a worry, for example—note what this is.
  • Without criticism or attachment to the thought(s) or feeling(s) that have entered your mind, set it/them aside. Return to focusing on your breath. 
  • Repeat this pattern of observing, naming the emotion(s) or feeling(s), gently placing it/them to the side, and returning to your breath for anything that appears and takes you away from concentrating on your breath.  

How the Practice—as a Journey—Is Important for Mental Health

Recently I read an article in which Adam Alter, professor of Marketing at NYU remarks, “Many people in Western societies mistakenly believe we have more control over the world than we actually do.” Yoga teaches us how to foster contentment—not complacency—by embracing the fluidity inherent to life. 

In the West, attaining goals and arriving at solutions carries great value. While a level of proactivity is essential in daily life, the pendulum—too often—swings heavily in the direction of fixing or achieving. Yoga supports us in managing expectations and striking a better sense of balance. Witnessing evolution in your practice is always gratifying, but it is not a practice to be critical or become preoccupied with an end goal. There is no state of completion. It can be as expansive and multi-pronged as you would like. Because there is no finish line, that lends us the freedom to be curious about what the practice offers. 

Some days, our yoga practice will feel dynamic and grounded. Other days, we will feel less energetic. We may wobble in postures or feel less zeal for the practice. We do not need to perform; this practice is intended to ebb and flow. Showing up is 90% of the challenge.  

Ultimately, yoga is a tradition that promotes abundance as opposed to scarcity and one that serves as a balm to emotional and physical depletion. With consistent practice, it can alleviate a myriad of physical ailments, including high blood pressure, vertigo, headaches, issues with balance, and more. As intention and mindfulness comprise the base of the practice, yoga can be immensely helpful in managing stress, anxiety, fear, despair, and anger. As a whole, the benefits of yoga remain endless.

Rachel Janssen
Rachel Janssen
Rachel, a native of Chicago and dancer for the better part of her childhood, discovered yoga in 2010. She earned her 200 HR teaching certification from Moksha Yoga taught across Chicago including the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance, and the Ritz-Carlton for years. To deepen her knowledge of the tradition, she studied Ayurveda in depth in India in 2015. The following year, she journeyed to Bali to participate in an Iyengar yoga immersion with the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York. Seeking a renewal to her career in the arts, Rachel moved to the United Kingdom to attend Graduate School. Rachel is an alignment-focused teacher who works with students to establish a fulfilling, grounded yoga practice that elevates their wellness as a whole. She holds substantial experience in teaching Hatha, Vinyasa, and Restorative yoga to students of all ages and backgrounds.