It is important to acknowledge first and foremost that mental health, much like physical health, is a sliding spectrum. Our emotional wellbeing fluctuates from day to day. Our biology, experiences, perceptions and the environment all have impacts on our mental health, and it is important to know what works for us individually in order to maintain homeostasis of mental wellbeing.
Modern life is fast-paced, and our stress response is constantly stimulated as we rush from place to place, facing pressures at work or uni, and being bombarded with an overload of information from the media. In the past, the chemicals released in the fight or flight response (cortisol and adrenaline) would have been depleted when we leapt into action. However, in day to day life we’re being stimulated without discharging the hormones, so remain in a state of stress which takes a huge toll on our mental health.
What the practice of yoga offers is a way to fine tune our nervous system, cultivating the tools to self-regulate in order to return to a state of calm and relaxation. However, we are having to fight the capitalist war on sleep and rest, so any practice which promotes slowing down and being content with the present moment can feel radical; but in many cases, this is exactly what we need.
Our internal environment is so intricately connected with our physical body and health that the two cannot and should not be considered as separate. The brain lives in the body, and the body feeds the brain. Asana (the physical practice of yoga) not only stretches and strengthens the body but also impacts our hormones via the adrenals as the biofeedback loop sends messages to the brain to change stress levels, mood and thoughts.
Neuroscientists have found that working the core in particular has a huge influence on the brain, helping to reduce stress in the body. Putting the body under a certain amount of good stress (eustress) boosts antidepressant neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine which help to boost your mood.
Yoga also helps to improve awareness of the body and movement, improved body awareness (proprioception) means we are more likely to notice when our mental health needs attention and then, through mindfulness, we can observe this experience and respond with our resources. Focusing on your connection to the earth is a powerful practice not only in a yoga class but any time you feel overwhelmed. As stress often causes a disconnection with the body, tuning into your senses and noticing the space around you is a powerful and simple way to return to the present moment.
One of the teachings of yogic philosophy is asteya, non-stealing. This has many interpretations, but I would like to consider it within the frame of mental health: anxiety tries to project us into the future, reacting to a potential threat or danger that may or may not happen, and consequently stealing the present moment from us. Yoga teaches us to recognise the value of our own experience enough to return to the here and now.
Mindfulness is not something to be intimidated by and it is not an absence of thought. Rather, the practice asks you to continually return your awareness to the present moment – over and over, no matter how many times your mind wanders. It is like a physical muscle that requires strengthening and it gets easier with time. Through yoga, we get to know ourselves and build a sense of self-acceptance and trust. The act of accepting ourselves as we are is huge and terrifying – but an enormous relief.
One of my favourite quotes about mental health comes from Jim Carey and is one you will often hear me read in class:
‘You should think of the word “depressed” as “deep rest”. Your body needs to be depressed. It needs deep rest from the character that you’ve been trying to play.’
Allowing ourselves time to rest is crucial; living with mental health challenges is exhausting.
Additionally, breath practices (pranayama) can be incredibly helpful for calming the body and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. By slowing the breath down, the heart rate decreases and you stimulate the vagus nerve. On average we take 23,000 breaths per day. We come into the world on our first breath and leave it on our last. Learning to tune into it and to harness it as a resource is a powerful tool.
Every challenge overcome, every moment dedicated to the practice, is an act of self-care and love that rebuilds one’s sense of power and self-worth. It may be as simple as paying attention to your breath in bed or trying a child’s pose on your bedroom floor. When we begin to trust ourselves again, we can have hope in the future.
Through regular practice of movement, breath and mindfulness, we continue to develop self-awareness whilst establishing clearer neural pathways to our resources. The more we do something, the easier it becomes. In order to be able to cope in challenging times, we need to practise, otherwise we revert back to old reactive habits. We will all experience some level of sadness, grief and depression in our lives and in order to overcome it, we must accept it. The practice of yoga is one way to help us welcome change and challenges.
Yoga is just one of many resources which can aid the management and recovery from challenging experiences, and it is not always the best option. It is important to find what works best for you.