I am always struck by how often celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Uma Thurman and Michelle Williams credit yoga as helping them through painful divorces and break-ups. Divorce, even at its most amicable, can cause an enormous amount of stress, anger, worry, confusion, and resentment--and these are just a few of the negative feelings that a person may feel during a break-up.
In addition to my law practice, I am a yoga teacher and run a yoga teacher training program. I started yoga back in 1998 after asking another attorney in my office what she was doing to achieve her zen-like attitude and healthy fit body. Since that time, the practice has progressively helped me handle the challenge of my sometimes unavoidably adversarial profession as well as learn to better handle personal stressors and my relationships with others.
Amy Weintraub is the director of the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute and a leader in the field of yoga and mental health. She is the author of Yoga for Depression* and has lectured extensively at universities and wellness institutes throughout the United States and internationally. She has also trained many psychotherapists and other health professionals in employing yogic techniques in private and group talk therapy sessions, and is currently working on her book Yoga Tools for You and Your Client**. She recently returned from India, where she was a presenter at the first international conference examining yoga's impact on health and social wellness.
Ms. Weintraub distinguishes yoga from other forms of exercise on mental and physical levels. She points out that on a physical level, yoga focuses on present body sensation and breath. Yoga is distinct from other forms of exercise in that it emphasizes breath work and ones' thoughts as integrated with physical movements.
Jill Camera, head of vinaysa (flow) yoga at Yoga Sutra in New York City where I currently teach, further explains that yoga encourages you to concentrate on your own well-being which, in turn, helps you handle how you react to others. Ms. Camera also points out that yoga reminds you that you cannot change another person's bad behavior, but that it can help you learn to push aside repetitive thoughts and compulsive bad habits.
Ms. Camera adds that couples who both practice yoga can more easily work through a break-up process, and notes that two of the Ashtanga teachers at Yoga Sutra, Constanza and Arthur Roldin, are not only amicably divorced, but continue to teach Mysore (self-led Ashtanga) class in tandem.
In fact, recent studies back Weintraub and Camera's claims. One study found yoga improves mood, self-esteem and better emotional regulation***. Additionally, Ohio State University conducted a study in 2010 that found that yoga lowered stress levels more than other forms of exercise****. That study has been cited by, among others, the National Institutes of Health and Mayo Clinic to encourage people under stress to practice yoga.
On a philosophical level, yogis believe that each individual is "whole," and that we can learn to better deal with trauma, stress and anger by understanding that our troubles do not define us. Ms. Weintraub explains that people will still feel the pain of divorce, but that they can employ thought strategies that allow those negative feelings to pass through their minds as opposed to constantly constricting them.
Ms. Weintraub also notes that group practice settings have great benefits for those suffering an emotional loss or crisis. "There's something wonderful about sangha (the community) of like-hearted and like-minded human beings. If you can go into a class where you see the same people, there's a sense of connection. Yogis believe that a source of our suffering is the false belief that we're separate, alone and isolated."
There are many forms of yoga that incorporate a wide-range of techniques, ranging from gentle breath work and body movements, to chanting mantras and dharma talks (a public discourse by a Buddhist teacher), to vigorous physical movements with little or no emphasis on spiritually-based talks.
Ms. Weintraub notes that if you go to a yoga class and you don't like it, try another form. "If you walk out of a class feeling bad or worse, that's not yoga. Feel the connection or try to discover another teacher or community. Find a teacher that accepts you where you are and inspires you to deepen your connection to yourself and others."
Most people have to deal with challenging child care and financial issues after a break-up and cannot afford to go on a year- long yogic quest for self-identity after divorce like Julia Roberts character in Eat, Pray, Love. The movie justifiably received an intense backlash from those who found it trite and unrealistically self-indulgent for the masses going through divorce.
However, many yogis and studios practice karma yoga (selfless service), and offer discounted or free yoga classes. In fact, Michelle Williams is so grateful for yoga's healing powers after the loss of Heath Ledger that she recently started a program called Yoga For Single Moms Project, which offers free yoga classes and simultaneous child care to single parents. (www.yogaforsinglemoms.com). Many studios such as San Francisco's The Sun Room at Mission Yoga are donation based. (www.missionyoga.com). Also, stores such as Lululemon offer weekly free community classes (www.lululemon.com) and inexpensive passbooks exist that gain annual access to hundreds of free yoga classes in major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. (www.health-fitness.org).
*Broadway Books, 2004.
**Norton Professionals, publication in 2012.
***This study was presented at the January, 2011 conference attended by Ms. Weintraub and was conducted by Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D., Dir. Of Research for the Kundalini Research Inst., Research Dir. For the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and assistant professor at Harvard medical School at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
****Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Christian L, Preston H, et al. Stress, Inflammation, and yoga practice. Psychosomatic Medicine. Feb. 2010.