A few years ago, one of my older students – age and tenure! – told me that the reason she had initially decided to try Yoga was for her bad back. But, she said, not only did my back problem disappear, I was amazed at what it did for my mind.
Another now-and-then student who really does have to manage her mental health, remarked at how easy it was, to slip into a meditational zone towards the end of the class. “I was just there”, she said. “Usually, when I make time to meditate, it takes me a whole lot longer to get into that zone“.
Yoga is a Mind Thing, Not a Body Thing
It might be hard to believe but traditionally and as a discipline, Yoga is not a fitness thing, it’s a mental health management plan.
First and foremost, it’s about the mind, not the body. But getting to a place where we fundamentally “know” and understand ourselves, can take many years, which is why it’s often compared to peeling an onion.
We discover empathy through life experiences; particularly when we’ve had to work through painful stuff. We may develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and others depending on what we choose to read and to watch, by connecting and, importantly, making time for self-reflection.
Unlike children who tend to react impulsively, healthy adults learn to put a boundary between how something has made them feel and how they choose to respond. Ideally, this means honouring emotions, no matter how difficult they might be, while maintaining a degree of rationality and detachment.
Of course, this doesn’t always happen; we all have meltdowns now and then! It’s also fair to say that plenty of adults (who may or may not have suffered some kind of trauma), never learnt to control their emotions. They still lash out; a bigger, stronger, more frightening version of the toddler they once were.
Others never accept responsibility and enjoy the blame game; forever playing the starring role in their very own melodrama.
Generally speaking though, the majority of humans tend to squash their emotions down, despite the fact that those feelings may end up manifesting in others ways.
For example, over-eating / under-eating or other addictive behaviours, competitiveness / perfectionism, compulsive disorders and chronic pain conditions.
So How Exactly Does Yoga Help With All This?
The thing to remember is that Yoga is all about maintaining a natural PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System) state, also known as rest and digest. This, as opposed to the SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System) dominant state – “fight or flight” – that tends to be a 21st century given.
However, even if we are not conscious of our sympathetic dominance because it’s our “normal”, we are very conscious of our “gross” (physical) body – particularly when it hurts! As we all know, physical pain makes us hyper-aware. Consider how often you think about your toes unless one of them happens to be throbbing.
Physical Pain is a Warning
Physical pain is a SNS warning that something is wrong. But, day-to-day, it’s less likely that people notice danger signals being sent by their mind. This is because moods don’t present with obvious physical sensation and neither do subtle changes in behaviour. Ongoing fatigue, for example, is something we tend to think of as part and parcel of modern life. We get very used to our typical patterns and habits and rarely question things.
All in all, it’s easy to see how we we might plod along, barely noticing the cracks until things have escalated, especially if life is always very busy and hectic.
Consider this; it’s rare that someone suffering from a mental health condition involving paranoid delusions is going to suddenly comprehend they are paranoid and delusional and need to seek help. The associated fear can be so intense that the ability to observe the thoughts rationally and judge them as irrational isn’t a possibility.
It’s only when a person has the power to observe their unusual thought patterns that they can take control. In this way, we really must continually be on our own case and never ignore unusual activity. Put simply, developing and maintaining conscious, cognitive awareness can help prevent more serious mental illnesses forming.
This is why it is so important to stay mind safe. And Yoga helps.
Luckily, we are reasonably intelligent beings! We know that we think and we are even able to think about our thoughts…
That is, we can virtually “stand outside of ourselves” and observe what goes on in there – all those judgements, opinions and belief patterns.
So why do we think a certain way? Is nurture or nature? Are our opinions and viewpoints based on facts? Or are they just subjective ideas?
In the first instance, the physical aspect of Yoga gives us an opportunity to observe our typical reactions via the “gross” body. In reality, this does tend to be the aspect of the self we are fundamentally most familiar with.
Buying into Unsubstantiated Thoughts
Before we’ve even got on to that mat though (if we ever get there), there are often judgments and pre-conceived ideas whirring around. Things like; Am I flexible enough? Fit enough? Thin enough? Will everyone laugh at me? Look at me? And what if I can’t “do” it?
PS, Are my Yoga pants cool enough?
Ah, the “Citta Vrtti” – the stream of blah blah, a space invader that flits from one idea to another, depleting precious energy while increasing mental load. In terms of overall health and wellbeing, Yoga practise helps us get brilliant at ignoring this stuff. When we incorporate Yoga into our daily life, we barely notice its presence anymore unless we choose to tap in.
(And what a lot of judgy nonsense it all is when we really take a look at it!)
For anyone out there who is familiar with Patanjali, ancient sage and the father of modern Yoga, you will know that his first two Yoga sutras read:
Atha yoganusasanam : “Now we begin, here is the practise of Yoga”
Yoga Citta Vrtti Nirodah : “Yoga is the practise of steadying the fluctuating mind”
You see, Asana (physical posture) is not Yoga, but nonetheless, it is an important and relevant aspect of how the entire discipline comes back to helping humans better manage their mental health. Absolutely, Asana and Vinyasa build physical strength and improve suppleness as well as offering physiological nourishment, but more importantly, we learn who we are and start to build emotional resilience.
We do this by working in a way that takes us to our “edge“, observing our reactions and judgements while continually reminding ourselves to relax in an artificially induced stressful situation. The “edge” keeps us focussed. It’s intense without feeling stressful – and most definitely not boring!
This is the mental challenge that I like to call the “sweet spot” or, the place between effort and surrender.
It’s Your Choice! But What Will You Choose?
Lest you forget, you are in charge. You get to choose how far you go, what modification is appropriate and when you need to rest. If you take too much from the buffet table and regret it, well, that’s on you.
Instead, can you let go of the fact that the person in front of you or your teacher appears to have a bit more physical ability or experience and tune in to what your body is communicating? Can you turn your awareness inward? Observe, inquire and allow the flow? And if it happens to be you winning on the mat today, can you laugh at those typical feelings of pride?
Importantly, can you resolve to show up no matter what, provided you can get yourself out of bed?
Essentially, this is Yoga. And when the mind is free from attachment to ambition and expectation, so are we.