Yoga for Mental Health

Yoga for mental healthAs it is Mental Health Awareness Week, it might be worth looking at what yoga can offer in terms of maintaining our mental health. Yoga is a comprehensive system comprising physical exercise as well as a philosophical framework and lifestyle guidance. It is therefore not surprising that yoga can be used to improve our mental as well as physical health.

There are many health benefits of yoga. Yoga practitioners tend to smoke less, eat more fruit and vegetables, sleep better, report greater interpersonal relationships, and have fewer physical and mental health problems.

What is mental health?

According to Mental Health Charity Mind, we have good mental health, when we are able to:

  • feel relatively confident in ourselves (we value and accept ourselves and judge ourselves on realistic and reasonable standards)
  • feel and express a range of emotions
  • feel engaged with the world around us (we can build and maintain positive relationships with other people and feel we can contribute to the community we live in)
  • live and work productively
  • cope with the stresses of daily life and manage times of change and uncertainty.
How to maintain mental health

There is a component of yoga called swadhyaya, self-study. Through self-study we can understand ourselves better, recognise problems when they arise, and make the right choices for ourselves.

The Mental Health Foundation has published a free mental health booklet based on current research findings. This guide lists 10 steps to help us look after our mental health. These ten steps include talking about your feelings, keeping active, eating well, drinking sensibly, keeping in touch, asking for help, taking a break, doing something we are good at, accepting who we are, and caring for others.

The 5 points of yoga

These contemporary mental health recommendations are not dissimilar to traditional yoga teachings. Though sometimes complicated, the essence of yoga teachings can be condensed into easy-to-follow practical advice, as demonstrated by the five points of Sivananda Yoga:

  1. Proper Exercise (asana)
  2. Proper Breathing (pranayama)
  3. Proper Relaxation (yoga nidra)
  4. Proper Diet
  5. Positive Thinking & Meditation (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana)

Physical exercise not only keeps our bodies fit and healthy, exercising also lifts our mood and helps us balance our energy levels. The NHS physical activity guidelines for adults recommend at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity every week plus a minimum of two sessions of strength training for major muscle groups and joints. If you think yoga only helps increase flexibility, then try holding warrior 3 virabhdrasana 3 for several minutes or go through 20 rounds of fast sun salutations surya namaskar.

The practice of yoga is intrinsically linked with various forms of breathing. The breath is used for executing yoga postures and for flowing through sequences. Pranayama is a dedicated system of breathing routines.  Because the quality of our breath often mirrors our emotional state (we breathe more slowly and deeply when relaxed and more quickly and shallowly when anxious) we can alter our feelings by focussing on a calm and steady breath.

Most yoga classes start and/or finish with a relaxation session. This important element of stillness serves two purposes: Firstly, relaxation allows us to connect with ourselves and disconnect from the distractions of outside happenings. And secondly, relaxation allows us to recover from the strain of physical exhaustion as well as the strain of mental and emotional distress.

For recommendations on proper diet the NHS Live Well website is a good starting point. The basics of good nutrition are quite simple. With a bit of common sense we can easily distinguish between money-making marketing messages and sound health advice.

Mental Health affects the way we think, often resulting in distorted thinking. Distorted thoughts can cause or fuel distressing emotions. Meditation is one of the tools yoga offers to investigate the way our mind works and find ways of directing our thoughts in such a way that they are compassionate, constructive, and helpful. The ‘yoga of the mind’ perhaps is the much overlooked twin of the ‘yoga of the body’.

The missing 6th point

When we feel low or inadequate we often retreat from other people, thus inadvertently worsening our predicament. Yet, no matter how miserable we feel, it is important to reach out to other people, stay in touch with close friends and relatives, be involved in social activities, and ask for help.

Research by Alyson Ross indicates that it is this aspect of community associated with yoga practice that can be beneficial to our social and spiritual health. Yoga could be particularly beneficial for people at risk of social isolation. The same research suggests that yoga can lead to personal transformation and provide coping mechanisms to weather relationship and other difficulties.

In a nutshell, with self-awareness, self-compassion, and commitment to our personal wellbeing we are on the right path to mental health.

“Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of the mind.”
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.2