Yoga, Mindfulness and Mental Health

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Mental health is as important as physical health says Prince William, echoing what the yoga world has always known: that mind and body are two sides of the same coin, with the state of one affecting the other.

Prince William’s comments, along with those of Prince Harry in his Daily Telegraph podcast, and their support of the Heads Together #oktosay campaign have been widely praised for helping to encourage people to talk about their mental health challenges.
Heads Together is the charity of the year for this weekend’s London Marathon and running is recognised as an activity which can boost your mood and help beat depression. Non-runners can take heart from the fact that doctors believe that just about any physical activity is good for improving well-being, as it causes chemical changes in the brain, which can positively change your mood.

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Yoga should be way ahead of the game here. It has always been about finding mental stillness through physical movement: “Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence” according to the ancient sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras Ch1:ii, but that’s not always apparent nowadays. Look on Google or Instagram and yoga seems to be much more for giving you a rocking hot bod (no guarantees, sorry) or bending yourself into a pretzel. The NHS recommends yoga as a strengthening exercise, with the focus firmly on physical, not mental health, benefits.

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However, my experience as both a yoga practitioner and teacher, is that if you practise yoga there is no doubt you will benefit on both a physical and mental health level, because just like with running, chemical changes occur. We produce mood enhancing hormones, such as serotonin and oxytocin. Yoga stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, putting us into “rest and digest” – as opposed to “fight and flight” – mode, making us feel calm and relaxed. No two ways about it, we feel different; better, more focused, after class.

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But sometimes we need more. Or a different approach. Prince Harry talked about receiving counselling to address his mental health struggles, after bottling up his emotions for nearly 20 years following the death of his mother.
Group therapy such as Mindfulness can also help. A recent study published in Sweden suggested Mindfulness is as effective as individual CBT for treating depression, anxiety and stress. In the UK it’s recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts in the past. Mindfulness can improve your mental well-being by paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you.

In many ways Mindfulness is similar to yoga. Both involve reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience, so being more aware of what is happening in the present moment, rather than simply living “in our heads”. This can help us to be more in tune with life and understand ourselves better, rather than living on auto-pilot, responding automatically to situations according to our ingrained habits and patterns. After all, if your mind struggles to connect even to your own body, how easy is it to connect with others and the world around you in a conscious, thoughtful way.

Like yoga, there are numerous online courses and apps available to teach yourself, but they are best learnt with the help of a qualified professional. At Studio Yoga we teach both, with daily yoga classes and 8-week Mindfulness courses 2-3 times a year. Whichever you chose enjoy the space and time to stand back, start to notice patterns in your thoughts or movements, learn techniques to let go of those which are unhelpful and move forward.