Yoga, Google and Meaning
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | September 24, 2021
Last night in one of my mentorship groups, one of the folks from Australia told us that the wait list for getting mental health care in his part of the country is 15 months long. 15 months?! Yeesh. I hope you don’t have to wait that long if you break your arm. Clearly the system is overwhelmed.
While we were talking, I got a text. A friend from California reached out to ask if we could talk, she just found out someone she worked with had killed himself. Awful.
A little earlier, my husband came home from a long day seeing clients in his therapy practice, plunked down at the kitchen table and said, “I feel so bad that I have to keep turning people away – I just don’t have any more slots in my schedule.”
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Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that mental health was in crisis even before the pandemic began.
According to the CDC, self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression have more than tripled during the pandemic. This time two years ago, 7.4 percent of adult Americans reported symptoms of anxiety. That percentage is now 28.1. And the depression stat was 6.4 percent two years ago. Now it’s 22.4 percent.
Vicarious trauma in healthcare workers is also a serious issue. John’s Hopkins released a report yesterday. 53 percent of survey respondents reported moderate or severe experiences of pandemic-related stress and 47 percent, symptoms of burnout.
There’s some fairly decent research suggesting that yoga helps folks deal with mental health challenges and regulating their nervous systems.
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An important piece here is agency. When people have a sense of agency, a sense that they have some control over their emotions and their lives, they are better able to regulate their nervous systems and have better mental health.
I heard the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) talking about a rat study where the first rat was put in a cage with a little exercise wheel to jump on whenever it wanted to. A second rat was forced to run whenever the first rat ran. When the researchers looked and the rats’ health markers, the first rat was happy and healthy. But the second rat was miserable, riddled with cortisol, and had health problems.
Same amount of exercise, totally different stress experiences.
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Rat number one had plenty of agency, rat number two had none. Having a sense that you are in control of at least some parts of your life makes a huge difference in your mental health.
Another key factor is predictability.
When you know something is going to be stressful, you can prepare for it. But when you know a stressor is inevitable but don’t know exactly when it will come, your stress system stays on high alert (like the poor forced exercise rat’s).
Australians (particularly those in Victoria) have had numerous shut downs during the pandemic over which they’ve had no control and no predictability. (Please note I’m writing about this from a scientific perspective not a political one, I understand the rationale for pandemic shutdowns. Nevertheless, the mental health fallout is real and should be addressed.)
No agency + no predictability = poor mental health outcomes.
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But agency and predictability are not the only important factors in mental health for humans. Because humans aren’t rats (mostly).
When humans have a sense of meaning and purpose, they are better able to manage their stress.
In 2007, one of Google’s lead engineers, Chade-Meng Tan wanted to create a program for employee wellness. So, he developed a stress reduction course and invited employees to gather and listen to interesting talks to help them improve their mental health.
But it flopped.
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Turns out that high functioning people rather like their stress – it helps them to get things done and they are good at managing it.
So, Tan changed the name of the course to “Search Inside Yourself” and it quickly became a huge hit.
I find the term “Search Inside Yourself” weirdly and almost tragically ironic coming from Google, which has evolved a singular tool that does exactly the opposite by enticing people out of themselves with instant access to every single ragged little iota of information under the sun that you could ever possibly desire.
But even the god-men at Google know that an essential component of being human is our need for the tools, space, and time to look within.
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Yoga practice actually does give folks the opportunity to develop the skill to look within, and to eventually, possibly, find a sense of meaning and purpose there.
When you know who you are, you know what to do.
It’s that basic. And while many people are told by society, their families, or the culture who they should be, most people are never taught how to figure out who they truly are.
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But that’s what yoga is all about.
And there couldn’t be a more important task at this moment in history than figuring out who you are so you can know what to do.
Yes, yoga can help folks reduce stress which can benefit mental health, and that’s great, but there’s so much more going on in terms of the mechanisms of yoga’s benefits. Yoga can help people develop a sense of agency as well as to develop psychological flexibility – the capacity to go with the flow when its impossible to predict stressors (like during pandemic shutdowns).
But perhaps even more importantly yoga helps people look inside themselves and develop a stronger sense of meaning and purpose.
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When I think about all the folks I know who are out there teaching yoga right now, it makes me a little misty. All of you who are slogging away at it during this pandemic. What you do is so meaningful and so important.
You are providing something unique and precious – a deep connection, tools to help folks look inside themselves and develop a sense of meaning and purpose, which may help them not only shore up and protect their mental health during these difficult times, but also figure out who they are and what they should do.
Be vigilant about taking care of yourself right now. Your work is important and you gotta keep doing it, so walk your talk.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that what you do is frivolous. That’s not accurate. What you do is deeply important and meaningful. I believe that in the coming years society will see that this work is much more important and meaningful than we could’ve ever possibly imagined.
I have a retreat coming up October 2-3 called Teaching the Neuroscience of Yoga and I’d love you to join me (I offer live online retreats twice a year).
NOTAFLOF. If you need a scholarship, just reach out to us – firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I love this Kristine. The gift of what is occurring right now is the realization we must look within to access – know – and express who we truly are into the world so we can each reclaim peace, love, and joy for ourselves. Thank you for sharing you!
Thanks Jessica, beautifully put!
We are needed in the world now more than ever but at the same time it’s harder to get our work out there with such a plethora of online offererings!
Will there be a replay of the Teaching the Neuroscience of yoga?
Thanks Suzanne! Yes the workshop will be recorded and if you sign up you can watch it whenever you like.
Excellent! I often read your email, but rarely comment. Thank you so much for this one!!
Thanks Lilly, glad you enjoyed it!
Always so inspiring Kristine. Thank you for giving me the boost I needed to keep going. It IS good work we yoga teachers are doing and it’s desperately needed everywhere in the world.
Thankyou Louise, you got this!
This was so very encouraging Kristine! Thank you! Your work matters to me. I learn so much from you. Please keep sharing your knowledge and wisdom.
Thanks so much Kacy!
Thank you for those supportive and knowledgeable words. I have continued to teach online through our lockdown. It does feel lonely on the mat sometimes looking at the screen and the numbers that do the class have reduced but I will continue to teach even if just one shows up because I believe yoga is a wonderful anchor in this storm. Thank you for your wisdom.
Hey Debbie, I think it’s great that you are continuing to teach. And yes, people are a little sick of the screen, but they are also suffering and need this work right now. You are an inspiration!
Kristine, thank you.
Since the pandemic started I have had my classes limited and at points totally disbanded for times.
Agency is so key here. As a teacher who was employed and didn’t have my own space to practice or continue with students I have felt that my hands were tied.
My own mental health has suffered.
I am thankful for all your encouragement, grateful for it, because it it helping me to come back to my practice.
I am also working toward opening a studio to hold small classes and offer for students to “zoom” in as well when meeting together isn’t possible.
Thank you for sharing Tessa and I’m sorry that happened to your classes – it’s been so tough. Keep the faith though, you are doing important work. Good luck with the studio!
The stigma of mental health issues is sadly and more often than not, pushed aside or neglected. Let’s remind others that yoga is the unity of the body, mind, & spirit and yes, when we have an opportunity to connect with another person, let’s do so with deep compassion and heartfelt love for one another. Yoga has afforded me an opportunity to reach out to others and to try to help people connect with their inner-self. It’s a passion for me. I’m really looking forward to the October workshop and look forward to each and every lesson you share with us, Kristine! Thank you for all you do.
Thank you for commenting Dona. I think you’re spot on about the stigma. We need to continue to break down barriers. xo
Thanks for the shoutout to us in Victoria. My on line yoga classes have been a godsend in the last 18 months.
Thanks Kristine, as someone who lives in Victoria, we have just become the most locked down city in the world – over 255 days – with another 6 weeks to go. Our sense of agency has been eroded, no sense of when these lockdowns will end (until recently we have been told no more lockdowns from Nov 5) but also the level of fear everyone has been carrying.
I am a studio owner and am grateful to the select few members who have come online for the duration of our lockdowns as it has kept my studio afloat. There were some members who were adamant that online wasn’t for them and preferred to wait until the studio re-opened. But what I have witnessed over the past 6 weeks, members have realised that the lockdown wasn’t ending anytime soon and they needed their practice. So attendance numbers are up especially for the Yin and Gentle classes (which Ive started to introduce your work).
For the duration of our lockdowns, we have been permitted 1-2 hours max a day outside our home. One would think that people would be chasing the more dynamic practices, but I have seen the biggest impact in members after class from these slower practices.
Despite not being as physically active, it is evident that everybody is overly stimulated through their minds, and these slower more mindful practices, combined with pranayama & meditation brings them huge benefit – quietens the mind, soothes the nervous system.
Personally, I know how supported I have felt by my own practice in the times when my mental health has started to wobble. I am loving your gentle sequences especially the cross crawl movement.
Im working through your Yoga & Neuroscience Connection and its fantastic. Im loving the bite size presentations – its making the content about the brain manageable. I cant wait for the workshop in Oct.
Being overwhelmed with life and emails, I haven’t been reading your blogs, but I am so very glad I read this one! Thank you so much for emphasizing how important it is as yoga teachers to take care of ourselves! We cannot help others find their own agency and calm unless we ourselves keep our own. And as someone above mentioned, our work is valuable even if we are just helping heal one student at a time!
Thank you for all you do Kaoverii!
thank you for this reminder and affirmation! I am a mental health counselor and am sometimes feeling overwhelmed and ineffective. I also am certified to teach yoga, but am not teaching. I wish I could somehow convey how incredibly powerful a regular yoga practice can be to create that sense of agency and self awareness that is so critical to mental wellness. But beyond that I wish it was easier to access yoga in person. I recently have experienced my yoga studio shutting down due to the pandemic and have not found a place to practice again. Online is not a good fit for me, and I so miss the connections to myself and others I found in the studio. Thank you so much for your wonderful insights, reminders and encouragement.