Yoga and mental health is a buzzing mammoth of a topic that Google has already answered with all the statistics, facts and proof one needs. All I can offer is what I have seen and witnessed from my own personal experience and as a yoga teacher.
Mental health would have a different story if we could see it because in our western mindset we need to see something to believe it. Some things can’t be seen and measured, only felt. We have a tendency to devalue what can’t be proven and therefore, we conclude, that this isn’t important. Or worst of all, not even real.
We encounter challenges within us and then expect to find all the answers outside of us. It is a familiar, repetitive pattern pervading all aspects of our world. For me, when I feel out of control, out of touch with myself, I turn to everyone else besides myself. When I lose trust, self-confidence and have no answers I panic and turn to anyone who does. Usually, these people have a lot of letters after their names, and the amount of time I have to wait to see them is no correlation to how much time they give me. Their answers come in the shape of paper and pills. I have deep gratitude for when their medicine kept me breathing, sleeping and eating. It kept me alive but it never healed me.
Yoga was my medicine. It gave me the insight to keep breathing. How we feel affects how we breathe. An anxiety attack breathes in short shallow breaths in the chest. Relaxation breathing is long and deep in the belly, like when we sleep. Concentration holds it’s breath. Depression isn’t even aware that it is breathing at all.
So if how we feel changes how we breathe, then how we breathe can change how we feel. This is the wisdom of pranayama, the fourth limb of yoga. If you don’t think breathing is important try stop doing it for awhile and see how you get on. Breathing is a skill. By mastering the breath we can guide our emotions instead of letting our emotions overwhelm us. Yoga taught me that the quality of my breath is intrinsic to the quality of my life. No one else can breathe for us, or feel how we feel and this is why we always be, our own most powerful healer.
I volunteered at a maximum security prison to teach yoga. What I remember the most from my time teaching there, isn’t the actual yoga postures. It was how their faces would physically change during relaxation. Sometimes I couldn’t even work out who was who. Perhaps, in that transformative, restorative place, they didn’t know who they were either. There is healing in that. In that moment they were not prisoners. Yoga created the space they needed to remember who they truly are, before they were told who they had to be. They weren’t forgetting who they were but reconnecting with who they could be. That is how yoga healed me and continues to heal me.
Every yoga class for me is a healing circle. My intention is that everyone who comes to yoga leaves feeling better than how they did when they arrived. Yoga is bigger than what happens on the mat. My prescription is to try a yoga class for a few weeks. Find the evidence in your own body. Then stop doing yoga. Find the proof in your own well being. And keep breathing.