Yoga and mental health are two very, very big topics. The terms themselves mean different things to different people, and understanding of them is widely varied. Cultural appropriation of yoga in the West has made most Americans view yoga as poses, which is only a subset of a subset of yoga in its broader context. And mental health can include everything from a reason for taking a bubble bath to the cause of rampant homelessness and addiction in our communities.
So, to make it both practical and hopefully helpful, let's make it smaller. Not to minimize nor generalize, but to make a personal connection.
With regard to yoga, let's look at yoga practices that you do, or might do. The Bhagavad Gita, arguably the most foundational text of yoga, refers to four paths to yoga - the yoga of knowledge (jnana), the yoga of service (karma), the yoga of devotion (bhakti), and the yoga of practice (raja). Most yoga classes in the U.S. are focused on aspects of raja yoga, the yoga of practice. This is where we find the eight limbs:
Pranayama (breath control practices)
Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
Most people who practice yoga in the U.S. do some asana, pranayama and pratyahara. And many practice concentration, meditation, and the yoga-in-everyday-life yama and niyama.
The primary reference of this approach is found in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. This is a codification of these practices, to create connection through the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. This dovetails really nicely into mental health because it refers directly to the mind.
Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to their community. Mental health is not just the absence of mental illness. It is a positive state of mind and well-being.
So, if for the sake of this post, we don't go down the rabbit-holes of various mental health disorders. And we can think about how these practices above can help support the well-being that helps a person see and utilize their own wholeness (purnam), and can cope with the difficulty of life.
If we stay with the most broadly used practice - which is doing yoga postures - we can see how embodiment can help support our mental health in so many ways, like nervous system regulation, strengthening, grounding, balancing, stretching and relaxing. All of these ways interact with the body can help us cope with and relieve stress in the body, which supports our mental/emotional experience. They can also build confidence and self-awareness, which helps us to be effective in our efforts in work, learning, and love.
Of course breath practice connects directly to the nervous system to help us have access to either calming or bringing our energy levels and vitality up. We know that not every practice works the same with every person, but with some trial and error, most people can find breath practices that feel accessible and helpful to their own situation.
And the same can be said for meditation - that not every practice is right for every person, but there are so many practices to choose from, that with some willingness to shop around most people can find something that helps them feel connected to themselves. Some folks enjoy a guided practice (even just 2 minutes long!) and some will be drawn toward self-led practices that are much longer. But all types of meditation give us some kind of structure with which to approach finding more peace in the mind.
Let's go back to The Bhagavad Gita to glean the lessons that Krishna has for Arjuna about the mind. He says that:
The mind is a powerful tool that can be used for good or for evil.
The mind is restless, turbulent, and difficult to control.
It is possible to control the mind through discipline and practice.
The mind is the key to liberation.
Although people do yoga for many, many reasons, at Unfold we truly believe that this liberation is key. Through practice, we can learn that we don't have to be yanked around by the mind 24-7. It is not wrong that our minds are restless and difficult. It's been that way since before the Bhagavad Gita was written (some time between 5th and 2nd centuries BCE). But part of why we as humans continue to practice it is because we find it helpful.
And that's why Unfold continues to endure to make these practices accessible, online and out in our communities. Because once we learn these practices, they can never be taken away. They exist inside of us. They exist to connect us to ourselves, to one another, and to all of Creation.
If you haven't yet tried out yoga classes at Unfold (or if it's been awhile), try our New Student Pass for just $20. It's a great option for folks who have a hard time finding time to practice, because all of our classes are livestream or on-demand videos. You can practice in the comfort of your own home, saving time and investing in your mental health.