Yoga philosophy and mental health: dare to go beyond the downward-facing dog
Slow down…take a deep breath…downward-facing dog…namaste.
Gurus, fitness stars and health professionals are recommending yoga as the ultimate stress-buster and ab-building solution…but are we willing to go beyond the matching lycra sets and hamstring stretches to discover the mental health benefits of yoga?
Several studies have reported the benefits of yoga for anxiety, depression and stress but we often oversimplify it — yoga is not just beautiful handstands and tree poses, nor is it a physical practice that will magically change our life. Yoga philosophy teaches that individuals must understand and accept themselves deeply to bring lasting change.
As a researcher in the mind-body interaction myself, I have always been interested in how psychology explores the mind-body connection that yoga is based on. In fact, the mind and the body are one, it is our perception that makes us believe that they are separate.
Could yoga then be used as a tool to improve mental health?
I started practicing the physical aspect of yoga, asana, 15 years ago, with my mother and her teacher. I quickly branched out, experimenting with different styles and even dipped my toes in different meditation practices. In recent years I have felt a pull to dive deeper into the roots of yoga and after much research and studying on my own, I embarked on an intensive teacher training programme in November last year. I studied in the oldest yoga school in the world, located in an ashram on a small island in India. You can see me graduating in the picture below:
What is yoga philosophy?
Yoga is intimately related to the Samkhya philosophy, one of the oldest philosophy systems in India. Samkhya is rooted in the duality of the unchanging consciousness and the changing world: nature, the body, the fluctuations of the human mind. The changing world has three forces: tamas (inertia and decay), rajas (desire and aggression) and sattva (balance and knowledge). A core aim of yoga is to develop more sattva in our lives, through becoming more self-aware.
Moving away from the intricacies of an ancient philosophical text, this duality can simply be interpreted as recognizing who we truly are and the temporary states that we associate with our identity: emotions and thoughts that arise, sensations in our bodies, stories we tell ourselves.
When learning yoga, we start with physical practices, asanas, to strengthen the muscles (bringing awareness to our frequently neglected physical body) and move to more subtle practices, such as pranayama (breathwork) and meditation (bringing awareness to our minds). Once the body is prepared and the breath has been balanced, we can start learning how to work with our minds (or should I say, make peace with our restless minds?).
Isn’t this too new-agey?
Ok, stay with me.
Being present, accepting discomfort, and knowing that feelings are transient are essential requisites to good mental health.If you become aware of each of your inhales and exhales, can you ruminate on the past? When you hold an intense balancing pose for 30 seconds, can you worry about the future without losing your balance? When you go through rounds of sun salutations and your body gets sweaty and your heart is pounding, but you don’t stop, aren’t you creating resilience? When you try to meditate, don’t you recognize the thoughts and emotions that come up and accept them?
To me, this is where yoga and mental health come together on the mat — and I can then take these learnings off the mat into my life, along with the other teachings from yoga philosophy.
So can I just stretch and breathe any issues away?
No, yoga cannot cure any conditions, physical or mental, and should not be used for spiritual bypassing (a tendency to use spiritual teachings to ignore unresolved emotional issues).
Instead, yoga invites us to self-study (get to know thyself, warts and all!), to understand how erratic our thoughts are and ultimately encourages us to take the reins of our minds. It invites us to face both the darkness and light that co-exist in us. After all, yoga means “to unite”. How can you unite parts of yourself that you unaware of?
Why shouldn’t I just go straight into my meditation cushion then?
I invite you to sit in meditation for 5 minutes without moving at all — you will experience the power that a restless and tense body have in disturbing the mind. The physical practice, asana, has an immense value in expanding the body, creating space and releasing tension so that the body does not get in the way of the work we want to do on our minds.
What if I just do the yoga classes at my studio, can I get all these benefits?
An ancient yoga text suggests that you can achieve pure bliss, samadhi, by physical practice alone: simply perform the posture below for 12 years (yes, 12 years!) while you meditate and follow a strict diet.
Alternatively, you can do the daily hard work that Patanjali, one of the fathers of yoga, described as the eight-limb path of yoga. This path helps us lead balanced lives by providing a moral code, hygiene, physical and meditation practices, self-study and lifestyle guidelines to ultimately achieve this pure bliss called samadhi.
Samadhi can be loosely translated as standing within oneself, a blissful state of being. It is a state that is transiently experienced by all of us when we hug a loved one or reach the summit of a mountain; we feel that we are completely at peace and in the immerse in the moment. When we are in the present moment, we are in a complete union of mind, body, soul, spirit and emotions, a step closer to samadhi.
I believe that yoga can empower each and every one of us to do something compassionate for ourselves. Create space in our body and our mind, be comfortable being in silence with our thoughts and watch what comes up, with no judgment. That is a step closer to better mental wellbeing.
Please see one of my all-time favourite free resources, that I keep going back to again and again — Yoga with Adriene. You can also read a fantastic blog on relaxing our bodies and minds with some basic yoga postures here.
After practicing yoga for many years and becoming a certified teacher, the more certain I am that there is so much I still don’t know.
For now, I will keep practicing my long inhales and exhales, learn to move with discomfort in my body and accept that everything, everything, is transient in this life. I might not be able to do a handstand yet, but I have made peace with my monkey mind.
Header image is Carolina’s own photo from a
Hatha Yoga class in Sideman, Bali.