Contrary to what yoga pants advertisements might make you think, bringing yourself to the mat isn’t always easy. Yoga is a process, one that inevitably comes with ups and downs. It’s simple enough to keep up a consistent practice when everything is going well; but when life get you down, it can be all too tempting to skip yoga in favor of Netflix and ice cream.
Life isn’t always going to be perfect. Even the best-laid plans go awry; our lives are full of disappointments both big and small. No matter how much you’d rather stay in your pajamas, it’s in times of sadness and struggle that it’s most important to make it to the mat.
Here are 8 ways that yoga helps us smile, even during life’s most difficult seasons.
1. Yoga helps us stay in touch with our emotions.
When things get stressful, many of us emotionally shut off. Instead of sitting with feelings of sadness or anger, we have a drink or binge-watch TV until we don’t feel anything anymore. But running away from your feelings isn’t a permanent solution—chances are, the feelings you’re running from will come back even stronger than before.
When we practice yoga, we focus on the connection between our mind and body, and that includes all the difficult, mixed up feelings we carry around with us each day. It’s okay to feel sad—and in fact, sometimes the only way out of that sadness is to move through it.
2. Yoga teaches us that discomfort is temporary.
We’ve all got that one pose that seems to last for hours. For me, it used to be Runner’s Lunge—I couldn’t wait for the instructor to move on to an easier pose. But the asanas that are the hardest to maintain are also the best way to learn to tolerate discomfort, whether that discomfort is physical or emotional.
The most challenging asanas teach us that suffering is temporary. No matter how down you may feel now, those feelings won’t last. The sadness or discomfort will pass.
3. Yoga relaxes your muscles.
When we’re stressed or sad, we tend to carry a lot of tension in our muscles, especially in the hips and shoulders. Aside from the mental benefits of a good yoga session, all that stretching releases tension in your muscles, which can make it easier to relax when things aren’t going right. Plus, it feels awesome!
4. Deep breathing calms your nervous system.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by your emotions, the best thing to do is simply take a deep breath. Yoga takes that principle even further by teaching deep, full-body breathing that can dramatically calm a jumpy nervous system. This kind of deep breathing may even release endorphins in your brain that can help elevate your mood even in the midst of great stress or sadness.
5. Mastering a pose boosts confidence.
There’s no better feeling than mastering an asana that you’ve worked towards for a while. Sometimes the sheer satisfaction of achieving a goal can be enough to drive away the blue—even if it’s just for a little while.
6. Intentions keep you focused on the positive.
Sometimes the worst part of the blues is the “snowball” effect. Something small, like an argument with a loved one, can start a chain reaction of negative thoughts and emotions.
When we set an intention for our yoga practice, we’re making a conscious effort to channel our energy in a positive direction. A positive intention can disrupt that “snowball” effect, and the more you practice this kind of positivity, the easier it will be to avoid that chain reaction altogether.
7. Yoga keeps us grounded in the present.
So much of our stress, sadness, and anxiety revolves around the past—or the future. For many of us, it can be hard to shake off negative feelings from the past; it’s all too easy to keep carrying those defunct emotions around with us when they no longer serve a purpose.
On the other hand, it’s just as easy to let fears about the future get us down. Anxiety about what could happen can keep you down—even if nothing bad has happened yet.
Yoga’s focus on the mind-body connection demands that you stay grounded in the present. Yoga focuses on the experience of the practice, not just the results, teaching us to keep our minds on the present instead of getting lost in negative thoughts about the past or future.
8. You don’t have to smile!
Our society pressures us to be happy all the time—or at least appear that way. Case in point: the question “how are you?” is always answered with “I’m fine,” even when it’s not true.
But this is not the case in yoga. You don’t have to pretend to be fine when you’re actually hurt on the inside. You never have to put on a fake smile and pretend to be some upbeat model on a fitness ad—it’s okay to bring your feelings of sadness with you to your practice, if you need to.
Your yoga is about supporting yourself physically and emotionally, and making sure your needs come first. And that’s something to smile about.