It is a widely discussed topic and many of my students say that they come to yoga class because they want to work on their mental health. They want to be able to deal with stress better, get rid of anxiety and anxious thoughts and altogether build a more positive and balanced mindset.
How can yoga help you with that and why do I think it is the best way for one to cure their mental health issues?
First lets understand what yoga is and how in yoga we work with both the body and the mind.
As I mentioned in my previous articles before, yoga happens on and off the mat. It is physical, philosophical, spiritual but also quite pragmatic practice. No matter if you trust the ancients and accept that certain benefits will come with certain practices, or you look at current studies and observations between yoga and our health, or you are like me, combine both but mostly rely on your own experiences, you’ll learn that yoga comes with certain benefits and so your practice begins.
You probably will look up yoga classes online or search for a studio in your area and start taking lessons. That is an excellent start, that is where I started years and years ago and got “hooked up” in the world of yoga. I always loved moving my body so for me practicing asanas was great fun. But I have to be honest with you, I did not feel the “big shift” in my physical or mental health just because I got my mat out 3 times a week.
I felt better every time I did, during and right after my practice, but essentially fell back into the bad patterns of thinking. The feeling of helplessness, weakness and lack of self-worth. I never knew I would find a different version of myself within, a version that trusts myself fully no matter what, accepting the challenges and failureswhile still allow myself to think forward and stay motivated. But just bare with me, we will get to that point too.
What are the key concepts and lessons that yoga will teach you that can benefit your mental health? (This is my list using my own experience, it is not the only list you can have and probably you will have your own, but read on if you are interested)
Awareness: Starting with spacial awareness, we start looking at our body and its relation to space not only through our eyes. Kinesthetic awareness is the first step to gain control over our bodies, its shapes and forms. We also learn to appreciate different senses as well as developing better observation skills. We must be able to observe ourselves to better our alignment in each pose. Being able to observe is one of the most important skills, because you will be able to respond and react truthfully to any situation. Moving onto observing your thoughts, realising where you put the effort and what kind of things you are thinking about and how you spend your day will draw you a chart of what you are mostly occupied with. Honestly reflecting on your discovery will literally give you the answers where you might get side-tracked.
Let’s say I feel stressed at work. I would ask myself: is it the load of work? Is it the long hours? Is it the people I work with? Is it me not being fulfilled with what that job offers me anymore? If I find the answer is yes to any or multiple of my questions, that gives me to do something about it. It doesn’t solve my problem. At the end of the day I still have to make the effort, but knowledge allows me to be hopeful instead of helpless and active instead of passive. Knowledge is power they say, and I totally agree with that. The more you learn about yourself, the stronger you are. Of course the theory fails if laziness takes over, but I’m assuming you are an individual that takes action when you can. It is not easy of course, and you may still think you can not do something on your own, but asking for help does not make you any less successful in being mentally strong.
The concept of karma: Though many people think karma is when good things happen to you because you do good things and bad things happen to you because you do bad things, this is a very limited and incorrect understanding of the concept of karma. Karma on its own means “action-reaction”. So everything that has ever happened to you, where you are right now and where you will be in the future is because of certain actions. We have karma we are born with (just think about your family environment and what has happened to you as a child even before you had the control over your actions) the patterns we have imprinted in us from our childhood, from our earlier experiences and so on. How we are acting now and what kind of reaction we get from our environment. During my training as an actress I was taught that actions starts with thoughts. First there has to be a thought and that thought will manifest in an action. This of course is true, that is how we work as humans. You think of eating a piece of toast, and then you go to the kitchen and do it. It is not any different when there are thoughts in our head that we are not paying attention to but sit in the back of our mind (that’s why awareness is so important!). The feeling and thought of dissatisfaction with a situation can manifest in different things. Probably depending on what patterns you were given as a child you may a) be effective about it, realise it and make a change or in most cases b-z) options are endless but thoughts can manifest in distractive behaviour, self-harm, addiction, useless ego, restlessness and constant occupation with something for distraction, constant need for external validation and many other kinds of behaviour that we dislike in others yet still do ourselves. Taking responsibility for where we are, knowing that we are the reason why we are where we are, why we feel how we feel may be challenging but again: will give you something to work with. Because if you got yourself where you are, you can also put yourself where you want to be. Simple as that. Getting the ego out the way is essential for this step, but that is kind of part of the process. Taking responsibility for everything in our lives, good and not so good is something yoga taught me. Interestingly I don’t feel shame when I make mistakes anymore, I simply accept that trials and errors are part of life and learn as much as I can along the way.
Surrendering: As well as encouragement for action it’s important to understand the concept of surrendering. At least for me it was. I am a more rajasic (active) person and can overthink and overdo things because I am so determined to get to my goal. Action doesn’t always serve me, in fact, learning to surrender, accept and not fight against the obstacles between my ideas and reality allowed me to take a deep breath and think outside of the box. To engage in slower and steadier change, to be more stable and grounded. When I say surrender I don’t mean I don’t care about something. It means I did everything in that situation to my best capabilities to get out of the situation (and honestly my best, not telling people how great my effort was while really I was just sitting on my couch watching Netflix and eating pizza). If my efforts failed, I acknowledge my effort still, but then I also accept that there are things I am not in control of, and surrender to be part of further happenings as opposed to leading the situation. Allowing things to happen in a certain moment lets me get back into observation mode and so I will be able to see new opportunities or maybe even save myself and realise that my original idea held nothing beneficial for me altogether and turn my focus elsewhere. The moral of the story is, surrendering is not laziness. It is still an active state but on a more subtle level, and you still have options to work with after surrender.
Trusting and loving the self: because things go wrong. Unless you live in a perfect universe, no matter how hard you try, no matter how well you did yesterday and how long you haven’t had failure for, challenges will come, the empire will collapse and you will feel like you haven’t moved from square one altogether. Getting in touch with love in your heart will serve you well in these moments. Yoga is a spiritual practice, and the philosophy you will learn comes from a spiritual (not religious, don’t confuse the two) background. Reading scriptures, acknowledging the existence of a higher power helped me to learn and practice true self-love. That love that I always felt towards all living creatures, humans and animals alike, was hard for me to practice towards myself. Such a duality within the self, that I could only unite through my love for God (the Universe, higher power, love itself, Allah, you name it, I consider it all the same). Because if God is there, surely he deserves better treatment than punishment from me. By punishment I mean bashing myself all the time and saying I am not going to do better than where I am and think negatively about myself when things don’t turn out as expected (“Oh, that boy doesn’t like me? I must be not worthy of his attention, I must be not enough and so on.” Thoughts that only tire us out, but are really not helpful. What if you unconditionally love yourself still and invest that energy in nurturing yourself and allowing that energy to manifest in something great?). God and the love of God deserves to blossom every moment of my life, to be as great as my circumstances allow it, to help others when I’m tired and to be there for people when I can barely get out of bed. Similarly to realise my strengths and appreciate them, the beauty I can bring into others lives and love myself for it. It is not easy. People I know with great talent and skills constantly bring themselves down and block themselves from growth. If you think you don’t deserve to feel better, how would you practice healing? Healing is already a thought in action! Allow trust from the bottom of your heart, repeat the thoughts in your head and even if you don’t believe it, allow those thoughts to manifest in their best form at that time. Of course there is always room for improvement. That’s why it’s a practice, not a single solution to all problems.
With Karuna Yoga, I want to encourage people to take a step towards healing themselves. Again I have nothing against guided healing (therapy or any other forms of healing) in fact I think they are all great if they help someone, I just simply never had an experience with them so how could I tell you about those forms of gaining mental health and balance? I am here to share my story and teach people about what I’ve learnt. Am I perfect? No. Undoubtedly I have many things to work on, and the more I work on myself the more I discover to add to the list. Do I feel healthy? Yes, I feel I never had this power and inner strength to support me in everything I do in my life. Do I struggle? Of course, who doesn’t? I haven’t descended from Nirvana and live in eternal bliss. Once I do I will write you a blog about that if I have internet access. Do I make mistakes and brake my own rules? Ask me a week ago when I had a hangover because I exceeded my limits on red wine.
This is only to show you, you don’t have to be perfect to feel good. But you have to be aware, responsible, humble and active. All these lessons appear in our yoga practice, along with techniques and philosophical lessons that teach you how to take care of your own mental health.
Mental health and wellbeing depends on so many factors, some of them we can control, some of them we can not. But what’s most important is how we live through moments that are challenging, where do we shift our focus in those moments (on helpful or distracting things? On negative self-talk or positive affirmations?) and how we react to situations. Does the ego creep in or are we taking the responsibility for our current karma and act humble and grounded?
I am approaching mental health differently these days and I say: I choose it. It’s not something that will happen to me, it’s something I have to be very observant about and aware of every day. To consciously make better choices for myself in respect of myself. Because I deserve better (and when I say I, I chose to respect God within). Not fighting the hard days but observe how I got there and make a plan to get out of that state and not make the same mistakes again. This way of thinking gives me the power to shift and change, and gives me security.
Do I think I learnt enough because I feel healthy in my mind? No, of course there is always more to learn and as I said the deeper you dive in your practice, the more you bring onto the surface. But it is fun. It is fun to shed an old layer of skin off and dispose it and shine brighter. It is fun to help people to do the same too. It is fun to make others smile because rain doesn’t ruin your day and you can stay kind. It is fun to look into the mirror and see a sparkle in your eyes shining back.