Yoga for Mental Health

Yoga for Mental Health

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2024 with a theme of movement for mental health.

Physical activity and mental health are closely intertwined. Engaging in regular exercise and movement has been shown to release endorphins, reduce stress, improve sleep, boost self-esteem, and enhance overall mood. Movement regulates emotions and promotes feelings of happiness and well-being. But so many of us struggle to move enough. We get stuck in a cycle of negative or unfulfilling activities or “nothingness” that keeps us in a funk. It’s easier to just stay in bed in the mornings, or to slouch on the couch watching pointless reality TV, or scrolling for hours on Instagram, all the while depriving our brain and body of what it really craves – movement.

Having spent the majority of my adult life working in hospitality – movement was a given. Standing on your feet all day and walking at least 13000 steps on a shift was the norm. However, when I moved into a desk-based role, things started to go downhill. My energy levels were low, my drive and ambition started to dwindle, and I seemed to be more in my thoughts than anything else. Despite being in a loving relationship and having my dream job – I wasn’t happy. Something needed to change so I decided to join a gym. Now let me explain, the idea of sitting on a static bike spinning my legs and sweating profusely, is my idea of hell. The same goes for running on a treadmill for hours or doing HITT classes – Thanks but no thanks. Instead, I wanted to practice something that would help me mentally, physically and emotionally. I took my first yoga class in April 2022 and I have never looked back.

The Philosophy of Yoga:

The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” which means to join or unite. It combines physical postures, breath control, and meditation. It is renowned for its ability to promote harmony between the mind, body, and spirit. Unlike many other forms of exercise, yoga places equal emphasis on physical movement, breath awareness, and mental focus. Central to the philosophy of yoga are the following principles: Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) and the concept of balance

a) Eight Limbs of Yoga:

  1. Yamas: Ethical guidelines that encompass moral principles such as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and non-possessiveness.
  2. Niyamas: Personal observances that include principles such as cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to a higher power.
  3. Asanas: Physical postures practised in yoga to develop strength, flexibility, and balance. Asanas prepare the body for meditation and promote physical well-being.
  4. Pranayama: Breath control techniques that regulate and expand the breath, enhancing the flow of life force energy (prana) within the body.
  5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses, directing the focus inward to cultivate self-awareness and detachment from external distractions.
  6. Dharana: Concentration techniques that develop focused attention, allowing the mind to become still and one-pointed.
  7. Dhyana: Meditation, the practice of sustained focus and awareness, leading to a state of deep contemplation and union with the object of meditation.
  8. Samadhi: The ultimate goal of yoga, a state of transcendence and oneness with the divine. It is a state of pure consciousness, beyond ego and duality.

b) The Concept of Balance:

One of the reasons why I love and practice yoga is the concept of balance. In yoga, this refers to finding equilibrium and harmony in various aspects of life, including the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. It involves recognising and addressing imbalances that may exist within ourselves and striving to create a state of equilibrium.

In the physical aspect of yoga, balance is cultivated through the practice of asanas (physical postures). Asanas help develop strength, flexibility, and stability in the body. By maintaining balance in different poses, we learn to cultivate physical stability and control. This physical balance translates into improved coordination, posture, and overall body awareness.

Mentally, balance in yoga relates to finding a state of calmness, clarity, and focus. Through practices such as pranayama (breath control) and meditation, we learn to regulate and steady the mind. This allows us to silence the mental chatter, reduce stress, and enhance mental clarity and concentration. By finding balance in our thoughts and emotions, we can respond to challenges with equanimity and make more conscious choices.

Emotional balance in yoga involves acknowledging and honouring our emotions without becoming overwhelmed or attached to them. It is about cultivating emotional intelligence and resilience. Through self-reflection and self-compassion practices, we learn to observe and understand our emotions, allowing us to respond rather than react impulsively. This emotional balance helps us navigate relationships and situations with greater empathy, understanding, and calmness.

Spiritual balance in yoga is about connecting with our inner self and the universal consciousness. It involves nurturing our spiritual growth and deepening our connection to something greater than ourselves. Through practices such as meditation, chanting, and self-inquiry, we explore our true nature and develop a sense of inner peace and purpose. Spiritual balance allows us to align our actions with our values and live a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

Types of Yoga:

There are several different types of yoga, each with its own emphasis and approach. Many people think yoga is just a bunch of stretches and forward folds, they couldn’t be more wrong. For myself, I practice Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Bikram yoga. Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding and structured practice that follows a set sequence of postures, emphasising strength, flexibility, and breath control. Vinyasa yoga is a dynamic and flowing style that synchronises movement with breath. It involves smoothly transitioning from one pose to another, creating a continuous and fluid practice. Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga, is practised in a heated room. It consists of a specific series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises. A 1-hour class of Bikram or Vinyasa burns around 600 calories. It all depends what you want to get from the practice, and what your mind and body need.

Benefits of Yoga for Mental Health:

  1. Stress and Anxiety Reduction: The combination of gentle movements, deep breathing, and meditation in yoga helps activate the body’s relaxation response, reducing the levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Regular practice can significantly alleviate anxiety symptoms and promote a sense of calm.
  2. Depression Management: Yoga has been shown to increase the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter often associated with happiness and well-being. The physical postures, combined with breathwork and meditation, help regulate mood and alleviate symptoms of depression.
  3. Improved Sleep Quality: Sleep disturbances are common among individuals with mental health conditions. Yoga promotes better sleep by reducing stress, calming the mind, and relaxing the body. Incorporating a bedtime yoga routine can lead to improved sleep quality and overall well-being.
  4. Enhanced Self-Awareness and Mindfulness: Yoga cultivates mindfulness, the practice of being fully present in the moment. Through mindful movement and breath awareness, individuals develop a deeper connection with their bodies and thoughts. This heightened self-awareness can help manage negative emotions, improve self-esteem, and develop a more positive mindset.
  5. Emotional Regulation: The combination of physical exertion, deep breathing, and meditation in yoga supports emotional regulation. Regular practice can help individuals develop coping mechanisms, reduce emotional reactivity, and increase resilience in the face of stressors.

Final thoughts:

Life gets busy and it can feel like we don’t have time to spend on activities to improve our wellbeing. Being active for as little as 5 minutes can have a positive impact on your mental health and well-being. However you choose to get moving, enjoy it.