London based Yogi Lucy Lyus explains why yoga can unlock the secret of self -knowledge and calmness
What does good health mean to you? Perhaps being free from disease, or being able to run without getting too out of breath, or eating a balanced diet. These things are certainly important when it comes to good physical health, but equally important – and often forgotten – is mental health.
Mental health is something we all have, despite it commonly being talked about only in terms of problems, such as depression, anxiety or stress. Instead, like physical health, mental health actually exists on a continuum and can be better or worse at different times in our lives. The factors affecting our mental health are often out of our control, but there are things we can do to help us better cope with the challenges life brings our way. These include eating and sleeping well, and taking part in physical activity.
Any kind of physical activity is good for our mental health, but yoga especially can be incredibly beneficial, because yoga by its very foundation addresses the body and mind together, giving them equal importance and emphasising their unity. Yoga is not just a set of physical postures to be worked through; it is a way of bringing our attention to what is happening within, accepting what we find, and creating a sense of self-knowledge and calmness we can take with us in our day-to-day lives.
How it works
There is a growing evidence base for the benefits of yoga for mental health. Several recent randomised control trials, the most rigorous form of research, have shown that symptoms of depression and anxiety can be improved through regular yoga classes.
How yoga improves mental wellbeing can be explained in part by the central role of the breath. All forms of yoga, with their varying levels of intensity, involve the combination of physical postures (in Sanskrit, asana) with focused and controlled breathing (pranayama). Pranayama usually involves deepening, lengthening or holding the breath, which all help to regulate the flow of energy (prana). Prana is our life-force: when it is flowing freely we feel in balance mentally, physically and spiritually.
The deep and long breaths we take in pranayama slow heart rate and lower blood pressure, creating a feeling of calm and relaxation. Yoga is a special time to really think about the breath, something we don’t tend to do in day-to-day life which tends to result in more short and shallow breathing, especially when feeling stressed. Short and shallow breaths tell the body we are in danger even when we are not, initiating a ‘fight-or-flight’ response that only makes us feel more stress. Yoga can help to intervene in this vicious circle by teaching us how to breathe, so we can use more conscious, deeper breathing both during and after the practice.
Physiology aside, practising pranayama also requires intent concentration on the breath, allowing little room for other thoughts to intrude, freeing up some mental space and allowing the mind to relax. Yogis are also invited to concentrate on sensations in the body, promoting a sense of self-awareness that can help us tune in to other physical manifestations of stress or depression such as tight muscles or heavy limbs, again helping to break this vicious feedback cycle to the brain.
All types of yoga will help to calm the mind and body, but restorative, yin or hatha yoga are particularly relaxing, as are the related practices of meditation and mindfulness. There is also yoga therapy, which is a more clinical application of yoga that can be effective for a variety of mental and physical health problems.
Try this simple exercise to bring your awareness to your breath and help you relax:
Sit comfortably or lie on your back and bring your hands to your lower ribs where they meet your abdomen. Take a few natural breaths in and out of the nose to get to know the rate and rhythm, accepting however your breath is in that moment. Then start to gradually lengthen both the inhalation and the exhalation equally, perhaps for a count of three or up to a count of five or six. Without forcing the breath, imagine as you inhale that you are trying to expand the lower ribs into your hands, and as you exhale feel the abdomen relax. Concentrate on the breath and try to keep your mind free from all other thoughts. Keep this going for as long as you feel comfortable, and when finished see if you detect any changes in your mind or body.
For more information visit www.lucylyusyoga.com/