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How We Can Use Physical Yoga for Mental Health

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

In today’s modern lifestyle many of us are driven by a sense of vocational success. We push to get work done in the shortest time-frame possible, we are often chose to work overtime (frequently unpaid). Unfortunately, this regularly occurs while trying to tune-out bodily sensations.

Possibly any of these scenarios may seem familiar- I’m hungry but just need to get this done; I’ve been sitting in this chair for hours on end and my neck and shoulders are getting tight but I have a deadline I need to meet; my *any part of the body* really hurts so I'm going to take a pain killer or anti-inflammatory; I’m exhausted and need to sleep but have a few more hours of work to go. This sort of behaviour can lead us to become numb to what’s happening in our bodies. Over time this can mean that we learn to ignore subtle discomforts until the point that the body starts to shout out for help and we can’t ignore them any longer.

Often, I see people coming to practice yoga because they have postural aches and pains, also because their work is associated with a high level of mental activity and they want a means to quiet this down. The practice of yoga can indeed help with this.

When teaching yoga I emphasise an invitational based style of practice. For example, “you might choose to extend arms out in front or next to your body in balasana (childs pose). It’s in these moments that individuals have the opportunity to feel into their bodies and decide what they would like to do based on sensations that they are experiencing in the present movement. It is here that we can learn to reconnect with our bodies. As we dive deeper into the physical practice of yoga asana, we further this connection and start to engage, or become aware of, more subtle postural and alignment-based muscles.

There is an eloquence to an asana practice, the more we practice the more we experience and the more refined the experience of our bodily experiences become. Its in this process of bodily awareness in which we can find mental stillness; as we move attention away from intellectual tasks into physical activity our preoccupation with the mental realm can subside. But is that, job done? We’ve reconnected with our bodies and have given ourselves a mental reprieve. This in itself is a powerful healing practice. But we do have an opportunity to take this a step further and apply what we learn in our postural practice to our meditative yoga practice.

Operating on a more subtle level relative to the body is the mental activity of the mind, here we find our thoughts and the basis of our adaptive and maladaptive behaviours. Much like bodily sensations it’s not uncommon for us to learn to ignore the operation of the mind. Instead we often find ourselves simply swept up in its processing. Often we become associated with our thoughts and mindlessly let them govern our behaviour. For example, do you ever find yourself repeating negative thoughts, or responding negativity to particular life events and wishing that you could stop. Through the practice of mindfulness, specifically an open monitoring style of meditation we have the opportunity to observe these thoughts and choose how we act when they arise.

The skills of observation we learn when practicing asana can be transferred, with practice, into the skill of observing the operation of our minds. I must say that yoga asana is not the only gateway to learning this skill, but it is definitely one way. The beauty of the practice is that its at least two-fold, yoga asana can pull our attention away from mental processing giving as a reprieve from being engrossed in the minds fluctuations. Once we become more grounded in our bodies we may be able to become more aware of mind based fluctuations.

The mind does not need to be still for one to be practicing meditation. As described above, in an open monitoring style of meditation we simply observe the operation of the mind with the aim of not being swept up in its processing. To take the role of the observer and to notice the triggers or the patterns that lead thoughts from one place to another. It’s in this place that we can practice mindful awareness and ultimately realise that that we have a choice as to how we respond to thoughts.

Its not to say that uncomfortable thoughts or mental activity stops arising. Sometimes with awareness, they do indeed subside, but at least it is here that we can start to observe the subtle operation of the mind and our power of choice over how we respond. This is a practice, much like yoga asana, the more we practice the easier it becomes and the deeper we go. Its in the journey that we have the opportunity to discover aspects of ourselves, from the gross aspects of our bodies to the more subtle nature of mental processing. Naturally, the next question is, how far does this journey go? Is there another subtle layer to discover? It is in our yoga practice where we have the opportunity to dive as deeply as we care to commit into discovering our sense of our personal processing- our sense of Self.

About the Author

Dr Kathie Overeem works one-on-one and in group sessions with people who wish to experience the healing and transformational effect of yoga. She works with clients that have experienced stress, anxiety, complex trauma, PTSD, eating disorders, complex mental illness, and people in alcohol and other drug rehabilitation. Classes are offered online and in person.

To book a private session or attend a group class with Kathie Click Here

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