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Yoga for mental wellbeing

Updated: Jan 1, 2021

We've all been there and we can change it

Have you ever had a tight, panicky feeling when you glance at your mobile calendar on your way home from somewhere nice on a Sunday evening? 

When you feel stressed, stop for a minute and pay attention to your breathing. Pay attention to the physical sensations in the chest, the throat, the side ribs, the back ribs and the abdomen. Pay attention to the tightening which is making your breathing more laboured. The key to breaking this cycle is to first accept the signs. Seeing the signs just as they are immediately reduces the sense of panic, creating space for you to think of a way to deal with it. Take a moment and remember how it all started. At what point did breathing become difficult, your muscles got tense and you started to feel exasperated? Remember, our bodies respond to our thoughts.

How you breathe affects how you feel

When I explain to people how using controlled breathing can help you to sleep better or feel better, I often get polite nods without any enthusiasm to know more - perhaps people feel sceptical about using breathing to tame the angst because it's free of charge and doesn't involve talking to someone or taking medicine. But in yoga asana practice, we breathe in a particular way and for a particular length of time and the controlled breathing is happening each time we practice. Yoga asana practice cleverly diverts your attention to physical sensations from doing poses (which can be highly intense at times) whilst what's really holding the space for you to comprehend all the sensations is breathing - typically Ujjayi breath. Be careful how you breathe - forceful, noisy and laboured breathing can become a stressor stimulating the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). Breathe steadily, slowly without force. Take time to get into, and remain in, poses using good quality breathing.

People often experience the following when practicing yoga during stressful times: 1) The mind focuses on the practice through sensations and temporarily forgets about the objects of stress  2) Breathing becomes more robust - the diaphragmatic breathing resumes, the lungs capacity increases, feeling of safety returns 3) Fight or flight response disappears - start seeing stressful situations differently 4) The positive change from the practice lingers for a while - helps with decision making, feel less anxious and sleep better

Your practice mirrors your pattern of thoughts

Watch yourself carefully when practicing. Depending on your approach, you could be stimulating the sympathetic nervous system which orchestrates the fight or flight response. When you get into this state, blood flow and tension increases in the muscles, the heart rate speeds up and blood pressure increases. All these symptoms work in opposition to the benefits of yoga. 

Show up on your mat without expectations or superficial goals. You definitely need an open mind and compassion for yourself. What you did the other day in the class may not be accessible today. That's not important. Your practice should allow you to deal with life. Postures are just the training objects. The practice is meant to provoke you - make you experience every emotion and physical sensation. Once we accept this is the case, we are on our way. 

Face the tasks ahead positively

Yoga is highly accessible and available in various ways. Find your yoga and practice regularly - whether it's restorative, more physical, meditative or a mixture of all of those. Yoga happens when you breathe well and the body becomes free of tension. There is no right or wrong, each person finds yoga in different ways, it's highly personal. Once yoga becomes a part of your weekly routine, yoga slowly becomes a pillar for you to hold on to in a storm or like a shelter you retreat to for comfort. It really is a solace. In your early days of yoga, it is normal to see it as a chore or something you are told to do and causes you hurt when you do. You may have a paradoxical relationship with yoga in the early days - not enjoyable when you are doing it, but feel great afterwards. It is a major challenge to get on the mat but once done, you can face the day positively. Once yoga is firmly set in your life and you understand the real value on the physical and mental health, it is possible to tackle each item on your list without getting stressed. Practice first, face the tasks. 

Sangha - be a part of the community

It means "community" of people devoted to the spiritual search in Bhuddhism.  Spending time with people who have regular yoga practice can nourish your mind. When you keep seeing the same people in classes, say hello to them, ask them how their practice is going. Sharing insight with other yogis is helpful and you can learn a lot from it. It is important to practice both by yourself and in sangha. In each situation, you can learn so much about yourself. 

Svadhyaya - study yourself and listen to your inner voices

It means "one's own reading" or "self-study". Svadhyaya happens on the mat and then beyond the mat. Seeing your tendencies and the pattern of your thoughts during your practice makes you aware of your own ego - this is crucial for development. Awareness of your ego is an excellent thing. Ego isn't all bad - without ego, you won't pass your exam, get a good job, shine during performances and make a breakthrough. Ego happens throughout the day to keep us engaging with life. Sometimes, our ego can come from a negative perspective, making us think and act in a more selfish, needy and grasping way. Sometimes ego makes us miss the boat - feeling of 'I can't continue', 'not meant to be for me', 'I can never do that, 'it's not possible for me'. All of these are the voices of our ego too. These voices are there to keep us safe, however, we need to pay attention that our ego isn't stopping us from developing. Yoga practice offers a safe place to observe our inner voices. 

Seeing all of our good, bad and ugly sides during practice helps us to accept each scenario we might play out. That way, when we stumble into a situation, we can quickly reflect which ego is active, make sense of it, reflect and reset, then choose the right action to improve the situation. This process is definitely the opposite of encouraging depression and obsession which are rife in this day and age. Practice yoga everyday. 

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