Yoga & mental health
Why Yoga? Mary’s Journey
Yoga and mental health go hand in hand. For years yoga has been seen as an ancient spiritual practice from India. It brings to mind phrases such as, but I am not flexible enough for yoga, I can’t meditate, I don’t understand the names of poses.
I found my first yoga class in 1996 in the back of a men’s gym in south east London. I had been advised by a counselor to try it and at 25 yrs old, in the days of no social media, I found a class advertised in the newsagents on the corner. So I gave it a try.
There were a handful of ladies (who I perceived at the time to be old!) led by a normal looking south east London house wife. I found a peaceful calming magic in the room on that day. The exercises or poses seemed to be secondary to the constant referral to breath.
Now 24 years later, here I am, a yoga teacher, grappling with promoting yoga on Instagram and gymnastic style practices. However, there is still magic to be found in these classes. The secret to this magic is indeed the breath and how it leads or dominates our experience of many situations.
Today’s busy lifestyle is tailor made to ‘up-regulate’ the central nervous system, or CNS, leaving us to function in our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). This system has evolved in nature to help us react to threatening situations, so we are only supposed to stay in this heightened state for a limited period of time. However, with the demands of the modern world, we find ourselves spending most of our time in this state … ready to fight or flee. I don’t know about you, but I very rarely come face to face with a deadly tiger on the school run!
So how do we start to ‘down regulate’ and find where we should be, in our parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest). This is the system we should be spending most of our time in. The breath we teach you to use in yoga is step one on how to achieve this. The word yoga means ‘to join’, to join the mind and body with the breath and Yoga is called a practice because, quite simply, that’s what it takes to find the mind body connection … practice.
Yoga & mental health
Yoga helps you stimulate the areas of your body you need to aid you in self soothing. Think about how a baby breathes, it instinctively knows how to do this. But we forget how to do this as we grow and mature. It is ironic that we are supposed to mature and develop but our central nervous system keeps us stuck in an emotional hamster wheel through dysfunctional breathing.
The monkey mind (or the ego) is our other common enemy. Once we enter into breath work we can then address the meditation aspect of the practice, using the Asana (or poses) to help enter this meditation. We use the breath in these poses to help us train the CNS to deal with stress. Note that we are talking about using the CNS, not the intellectual mind, to deal with this stress.
This has been useful to me in therapy sessions, recalling experiences I had been through that had been traumatic for me. I found myself using this breath to help me self soothe. I became fascinated as to how this experience helped me feel empowered.
The Asana, or the poses, of this practice work to move energy through the body. It takes you through all the systems of the body right down to the endocrine and somatic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system is your ‘muscle memory’ and
Experiences in your life can become trapped in this system through the fascia. Through working with an experienced therapist you can start to release these sensations in a safe and supported manner.
Yoga and mental health are bound together. There is no one obvious solution when it comes to self discovery, or, in learning how to be more self aware. However I do feel a blend of approaches can work to progress … not perfect.
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