Yoga for Optimal Mental Health!

With mental health being amongst our greatest health concerns in the West, it may be time to consider the state of your own mind and its affects on your emotional wellbeing.

How well do you manage your emotions? Are you aware of your thoughts and their affect on you? A Radio 4 documentary this week highlights the importance of a mindfulness practice for good mental health. See how yoga can help cultivate awareness and happiness for you and importantly how we can share this with children and young people.

According to the show The Science of Resilience, aired on Radio 4 this week, mental health problems are the biggest health concern amongst the working population. Knowing this, we need to be aware of our emotions to keep our mental health in check, to avoid depression and other stress-related illnesses. We need to learn the techniques and strategies to do this and share them with our children.

In times of stress, the rational thinking part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, cannot function normally because the amygdala, the brain’s reactionary centre takes over, meaning we think and act from a place of stress and anxiety, rather than with clarity and control. This can lead to perpetuated feelings of stress and anxiety, as heightened levels of cortisol are produced. But there are strategies to effectively overcome this, to stay in control of your mind and reprogram your brain in times of trauma. This can be referred to as resilience, meaning that we deal with adverse situations better, but achieving this positive change in thinking can also be called mindfulness, or yoga.

Do you recognise when you’re angry, annoyed, anxious or depressed? Awareness of your thoughts and emotions is the first step in taking control and feeling better. Acknowledging your thoughts and naming the emotions that arise is a great way to reprogram your brain – helping you to change your thoughts, and therefore change the way you feel. Most people are so unaware that they are thinking, they have let their minds control them, rather than controlling their own minds. The physical practice of yoga increases the awareness of the body, helping you to draw your senses inward (pratyahara*). By feeling and noticing the sensations that arise in your body more, you can bring your mind in closer contact with your body and away from external thoughts. Meditation practice helps enhance this awareness of your ‘inner zone’, try this each day:

Sit up tall or lean against a wall. Notice your breathing without changing it. Watch to see when your mind begins to wander, and gently tug it back to paying attention to each breath. Be aware if you are forcefully altering your breathing, and gently relax. With practice your mind remains calmer for longer periods of time.

Some schools are beginning to teach breathing techniques such as this to pupils as coping strategies. It seems they can now be referred to as Resilience lessons, sometimes mindfulness – but we can also call it yoga! Whenever you are aware of your breathing, your posture, your thoughts and sensations, you are practising yoga.

A vast number of young people are suffering from mental health issues, due to a range of reasons including school and peer pressures. If they can be taught effective relaxation and mindfulness strategies (yoga), they can use them in current and future times of adversity. And this is a really important aspect highlighted in the radio feature – drugs may help a current spout of depression/ stress/ anxiety, but if strategies are learnt with how to deal with these effects of the mind, then a set of skills is provided to help deal with future adversity. Economically speaking, we could be saving millions on drugs if more focus was put into providing yoga/ psychological therapy – from school age and up.

Think more about others and less about you… Consider for a moment how much time you think about yourself. Self absorption is one of the greatest sources of angst, particularly with young people but also in the working world. It has been shown, and is practised by Buddhist monks, that thinking more about the wellbeing of others has a greater impact on our own happiness than constantly thinking about ourselves. If we can teach compassion as being a greater skill than competition to young people, and old, then normal, happy mental health would become the norm in the West and we wouldn’t be needing to find ways to fix it.

*Pratyahara: withdrawal of the mind/ senses. Pratyahara is one of the eight limbs of yoga, written by Sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Written over 2000 years ago, it is Patanjali’s Sutras on which all modern day yoga is based.

Comments (2)

  • Tom Mann


    Thank you for this great article Helen. What an amazing change this would make to be taught in schools. Mindfulness is a very power tool and whilst it takes time to learn is incredibly helpful with coping as you mention and this can be such a resource to the young and vulnerable!

  • Jane


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