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  • Sammie Mason, Love Yoga London

Yoga Therapy for better Mental Health

Mental health issues are common and sadly have been perpetuated further by the pandemic over the last year. NHS England state that one in four adults will experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem each year, with people from all walks of life being affected, at any point in their lives. Mental health problems can range from worries and stress that we all experience as part of everyday life to more serious longer term conditions.

The most common mental health problems include depression and anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). NICE (National Institute for Health Care Excellence), suggest these mental health illnesses affect more people than any other mental health problems (up to 15% of people at any one time in the UK).

Why Yoga Therapy for better mental health?

There are a number of reasons why yoga therapy is a good intervention for those with mental health issues. The yoga tradition does not view mental health as a separate mental, biological or spiritual problem but rather a combination of all of these. Yoga Therapy can work with the mind, body, breath, heart and also with lifestyle factors such as diet, sleep and physical activity; each one invariably influencing the others.

Mental health disorders are often associated with dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. When you are feeling stressed, anxious or depressed your sympathetic nervous system (flight of fight mode) becomes dominant, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol. Being in sympathetic mode is a very intelligent and healthy response from the body if you are experiencing a dangerous situation (such as being in the path of a car, or being chased by a lion), as it enables the body to summon the resources it needs to take quick action to maintain safety. It is intended to deal with 'short term' physical emergencies.

When you are suffering from a mental health condition however the sympathetic nervous system tends to be provoked chronically and the result of this constantly over active system is that over time it can result in long-term damage to both mental and physical health.

A starting point for a Yoga Therapist when working with a client who is suffering from a mental health issue is the breath. The breath is the one autonomic function that can be controlled voluntarily and it plays a crucial role in therapeutic yoga. When the breath changes from short, shallow rapid breaths (which are defining features of being in sympathetic mode), to longer, smoother, deeper breaths (which are defining features of parasympathetic mode), it positively affects every component of the autonomic nervous system, as well as the organs that it innervates. Changing the way a person breathes can lead to major improvements in the symptoms of mental health issues and empower a client to self-regulate on a daily basis, encouraging long-term change.

As well as improving nervous system functioning, Yoga Therapy supports someone suffering from a mental health issue in the following ways:

* Equips you with self-regulation techniques so that when you are feeling stressed/anxious or depressed you are better able to manage this on a daily basis

* Cultivation of psychological and physiological resiliency - developing the ability to bounce back, recover and function well, building tolerance following a stressful event. Yoga can also reduce heart rate and blood pressure, both of which can increase when suffering from a mental health condition. Once both of these measures are regulated, it promotes a physiological resiliency

* Releases muscle tension, brings awareness to postural patterns that might be impacted by tension and tightness in the body as a result of poor mental health

* Development of mindfulness - Mental health issues can often be defined by constant and fearful thinking about the future or the past, mindfulness supports present-moment attention, helps to promote concentration, breaking up rumination and providing a sense of calm

* Lifestyle - there are yogic models and tools which can be used to help identify what are the helpful/unhelpful behaviours in respect to your mental health issues that can be cultivated or changed

The aim of Yoga Therapy is to empower and equip each individual to take their own health and well-being into their own hands, reducing suffering and improving quality of life on a long-term basis.

See below for instructions on a breathing practice that helps to improve your nervous system functioning, calming body and mind during times of suffering.

Abdominal Breathing (also known as Belly Breathing/Diaphragmatic Breathing)

Come to lying (If you suffer from lower back issues, bend the knees and allow them to fall in together). Make sure that you are comfortable and warm. Arms by the sides.

Breathing naturally in and out of the nose.

Take a moment before you begin to take note of where you are starting from today.

* How does your body feel? Are there areas of tension or tightness? Feelings of warmth or cold?

* How is your mind right now? Is it filled with lots of thoughts? Is it ruminating? Is it jumping between the past, present or future?

Take a moment to notice these things without any judgement.

Bring awareness back to the body, notice the contact of your body with the floor. Know that the whole of your back body is being fully supported by the ground underneath. With every natural exhalation of the breath can you let your supported body soften into the ground?

Now place one hand on the chest and one on the belly. Bring awareness to the breath. Can you identify where you are breathing? Are you breathing into the hand placed on the chest, or the hand placed on the belly? (if you are breathing into the chest you are likely in sympathetic mode, if you are breathing into the belly you are likely in parasympathetic mode).

The Practice

Please place both hands onto the belly. Middle fingers touching just above the belly button. On your next INHALE 'bring the breath down' into the lower part of the lungs, so that the belly rises and the fingers move apart. On the EXHALE the belly deflates the fingers touch.

INHALE: Belly rises, fingers move apart

EXHALE: Belly falls, fingers touch

Continue breathing in this way for a minimum of 5 minutes, feeling the breath slow and deepen. The breath should not be forced in any way.

Please note: If you are experiencing a particularly high level of stress and anxiety, it is recommended that you initially undertake some form of physical activity (cycling, fast walking, running, yoga, jumping on the spot etc) to dissipate levels of nervous energy before then coming to the breathing practice.

If you are suffering from a mental health issue and are interested in exploring how Yoga Therapy might be of benefit, please do get in contact with Yoga Therapist Sammie at:

07758 866 834

References 2016. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021].

Heather, M., 2020. The Minded Institute, Yoga Therapy for the Mind, 8-Week Course Manual, Page 6.

Mason, H. and Birch, K., n.d. Yoga for Mental Health. Edinburgh: Handspring Publishing.

Mason, H., 2021. The Minded Institute, Module 2, Professional Training Manual, (2018-2019), Section 8 page 199 - 214. 2021. Common Mental Health Problems. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12 March 2021].

Sapolsky, R., 2004. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

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