5 ways yoga can support your mental health
Whether you’re new to yoga or have a regular practice, there are many ways to tailor your yoga practice to support your mental and emotional wellbeing. The popular perception of yoga is that it is an exercise practice to develop physical strength and flexibility. In fact, it is a holistic collection of practices designed to bring your whole being, mind, body and spirit, into balance. Yoga has become my number one tool for caring for my own mental health and a big part of the therapeutic work I do with many of the clients in my psychology practice.
Here are 5 simple ways that yoga can help to bring your emotional world back into balance.
Grounding refers to our capacity to become centred and steady in the midst of an emotional storm. Like dropping an anchor, it helps us to avoid getting swept away on the tide of an incoming emotion. When we’re consumed with worries, fears, planning thoughts and overthinking our energy moves upwards and becomes very focused in our mind. We might feel distracted or preoccupied, overwhelmed, panicky or anxious. Grounding brings the energy back down into the home of the body, connecting with the solidity of the earth, creating a sense of greater inner stability.
The essence of a grounding practice is slowing down, weightiness, feeling the body making solid contact with the ground. To find this in our yoga practice we move more slowly, more consciously, perhaps work with fewer postures and take longer holds in each. We work with postures that stimulate the legs, and those that keep us in close connection to the ground, we bring awareness to the soles of the feet and the downward force of gravity. Think of practices like tree pose and the warrior series to create a sense of a strong foundation within the lower half of the body, like roots travelling down towards the earth. We spend time in shapes that bring us low to the ground such as squatting, pigeon or seated forward folds. In savasana (relaxation pose) we allow the weight of the body to be fully surrendered, as if melting into the earth, feeling supported by the solidity of the ground.
Times of anxiety, fear, stress or anger also trigger our sympathetic nervous system to ramp into gear, kicking the body into its ‘fight/flight’ response by pumping out stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This can leave us feeling restless, overactive or wired, and ultimately exhausted or burnt out. We might find it hard to sleep or struggle with digestion. Yoga can counter this by gently encouraging the body back to homeostasis, back to the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (our ‘rest and digest’ mode).
Practices ideally suited to this are the more restorative forms of yoga. Begin by taking some simple restful shapes and spending 5-10 minutes or longer in each, allowing sufficient time to sink into the feeling of spaciousness and calm. You might try child’s pose, savasana (laying on front or back) or lying with your legs up against a wall at 90 degrees. You might also try a longer relaxation practice such as yoga nidra, a guided practice which encourages a systematic letting go of external and internal stimuli, moving through awareness of body and breath into a state similar to conscious sleep where the mind is open and receptive and the body can experience ease and wellbeing.
At other times the emotional energy can slump, we might experience dullness, tiredness and lethargy. We may find ourselves experiencing low mood or a heavy, depressive state of mind, with repetitive and ruminative loops in the mind. We can find ourselves in a pattern of inactivity which can lead to a downward spiral where our mood becomes lower over time.
At these times it can sometimes be useful to rebalance the system with some more energising practices. Sun salutes and vinyasa-style flows can be useful at these times, along with perhaps some strengthening practices like core work that help to generate heat in the body, allowing prana (energy) to flow, blood to circulate and the heart rate to increase. You will quickly tell whether your body is responding to the activity by increasing your energy or whether the body is simply saying ‘no’ and asking for rest and it can be important to listen to this, especially if there are underlying physical health conditions or exhaustion. However, research in the mental health field has shown that often the single most effective thing you can do for a depressed mood is to move the body. It does not need to be strenuous, even the gentlest flowing movement can begin to shift stagnant energy, lift the mood and increase vitality.
The field of yoga offers a vast array of breathing practices – known as pranayama – that can help restore the body and the nervous system to its natural functioning. Our inhale helps to energise us through oxygenating the system, our exhale helps to let go of toxins and stress and induce relaxation. By bringing both into balance our system begins to heal and restore.
You might start by simply bringing consciousness to your breath. Notice its qualities - is it shallow or deep, smooth or erratic, slow or fast? Do you have a tendency to hold your breath in times of stress or to over-emphasise inhale or exhale at the expense of the other? How the breath is flowing is a direct reflection of the state of the mind and nervous system. Inhaling fully and deeply and exhaling with an extended ‘Ha’ sound can be a very simple and calming practice which shifts us towards relaxation.
If you’re familiar with the practice of alternate nostril breathing, I highly recommend this as a practice for bringing the whole system back into balance and harmony. Following a pattern of inhaling and exhaling through each individual nostril in turn we activate the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, bringing all these parts into balance. The effects are calming, centring and leave a feeling of clarity of mind.
Perhaps the most important part of a yoga practice is awareness itself. As we move the body or sit in meditation, we bring mindful awareness to the signals and cues our body is giving us, we become aware of the fluctuations of the mind, our thoughts, our emotions, our judgements, our fears.
A meditation practice can help to create a container in which we can observe what is arising in the physical, mental and emotional fields. We can take half a step back from the contents of this and cultivate a witnessing awareness from where we can make wise choices about how to respond.
Meditation teaches us to meet our thoughts and feelings with kindness and acceptance, to step outside of the struggle that comes from judging or resisting our experience and to listen to what it might be communicating. We can learn to sit with feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear or anger and observe them as patterns of sensation in the body. We can breathe with the sensations and remember that it is a passing momentary experience, part of the human condition and not a sign that we are lacking or failing.
I encourage you not to think of a yoga as a one-size-fits-all practice, but to take the time to enquire into what your body and mind need on any given day. This will differ from practice to practice and the art is to begin to use yoga as a way to balance out your system, bringing it back towards homeostasis. To learn more about any of the practices outlined above, or to tailor your practice towards your own specific needs, I recommend working with an experienced yoga teacher or yoga therapist, however you can also begin to experiment on your mat at home. It’s not necessary to know ‘advanced’ yoga practices, but rather to use simple practices at the right moment and with the right intention.
Dr Vicki Connop
Registered Clinical Psychologist, Yoga and Meditation Teacher.