The Benefits of Yoga on Mental Health: Mental clarity
November 12, 2020
Yoga can help connect body, breath and mind, bringing a genuine sense of tranquillity; reducing stress, tension, and helping you sleep.
Do you lack mental clarity in the morning? Do you find that your energy slumps in the middle of the day? Maybe you find it challenging to get to sleep at night? Yoga can help.
We’re living in unusual times, and that’s affecting our ability to function as we used to. Lots of us are working from home and, while there are lots of positives (no commute, spending the day in our loungewear, for example), lots of us are suffering from a growing lack of focus and reduced energy.
Yoga has been around for thousands of years, and I’ve been teaching for just thirteen of those. I’m a relative beginner in the grand scheme of things. But what I do know is how practising yoga affects our energy – both physically and mentally.
In this article, I’m going to explore some of the positive effects of yoga practice, and how it can bolster our state of mind, especially in tough times.
Why I love yoga
I started practising yoga in my early twenties. And I discovered a sensation of lightness that came and remained after I attended each class.
I had a really awful job at the time, and I felt stuck in a rut and unable to find satisfaction in my working life. There were a lot of things not going my way; and it felt like life was grinding to a halt.
My regular class was on Friday evening. In fairness, it was at a time that I’d usually get home and crack open a cold beer to help me unwind from a horrible, stressful week. So – at first – it felt like a bit of a sacrifice.
But after a couple of weeks, I started to crave the class because I recognised how much lighter and more positive I felt at the end of each session.
When I talk about “lightness”, obviously I’m not talking about weight loss, although that can come with determined and regular practice, of course. But when I finished a class, all of the tension of the week seemed to have dissolved into the ether.
And everything felt OK again.
I trained to become a yoga teacher
Many years later, I was still practising yoga regularly. In fact, I feel like yoga had become part of my identity.
So, when the opportunity to train to become a teacher came up, I jumped at the chance. I was told how tough the training was going to be, but that didn’t deter me.
I wanted to share that feeling of positivity and genuine lightness of being I felt each time I left the yoga room.
And the training WAS tough. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, to be honest. I trained in Iyengar yoga, and the expectations of you as a student-teacher are super-high.
On many occasions, I thought about giving up – it was THAT challenging! But I stuck it out because I knew that – just maybe – I could help other people feel the same sense of lightness I experienced after each yoga session.
I started teaching
Eventually, I graduated, and I became a teacher. I took on some classes, and I learned more about teaching as I went along.
This was 2007, and I was also working in a sixth form college – a job that I loved, but one that was far from stress-free.
I had a yoga class on Wednesday evenings at a local gym. It was in a lovely, tranquil room with ambient lighting; a corridor away from the main gym, so there was little interruption.
Wednesdays were my most stressful day at college. For some reason, it was the day when I had the most challenging students (I taught music and music technology) and the day I had ALL of the paperwork to do.
So, I always arrived at my yoga teaching room a little highly wound, to say the least. But, there was something about the ambience of the space – the enthusiasm of my class – that made the opportunity to teach a retreat; not a chore.
And so I’d teach the class for an hour and a half, and I’d walk out of the room with the usual lightness; like the awful, stressful day that had preceded the session hadn’t happened.
I remembered getting to the station to catch my train with a spring in my step, feeling inexplicably happier, calmer, and ready to relax for the rest of the evening.
Yoga Brings Mental and Physical Lightness
So, I had my proof.
Of course, I’d read lots of books about yoga practice, and I’d attended years and years of classes.
But I now had it confirmed in my own head:
Yoga really does offer release from tension and stress – as well as the ability to lift the spirits when they’re feeling low.
How Breathing Brings Energy and Clarity
When we teach yoga in the West, we focus primarily on the physical pose – the “asana” to use the Sanskrit. We learn HOW to extend and expand, and we develop a connection between the physical body and the mind.
But we don’t AS OFTEN focus on the breath.
And – let’s face it – none of us would get very far without breathing.
The Five Kosas – the sheaths of being
The Physical Body
In yogic terms, we have the “physical body” (or the “anamaya kosa”) – that’s the body we feel, extend, and strengthen as we practice the physical pose.
The Energetic Body
Then we have the “energetic body” (or the “pranamaya kosa”) – the breath.
“Prana” is “breath energy”, and through yoga, we learn to associate our breath with energy. We feed the body with energy through the inhalation.
The kosas are sometimes described as being like a Russian doll – each layer has a layer beneath. And while the anamaya kosa (physical body) is the outermost layer, the pranamaya kosa is the layer underneath.
The Mental Body
The next layer is the Manomaya kosa (or the “mental” body). And this is where we start to penetrate the mental health benefits of yoga practice.
The mental body is much harder to focus upon than the physical body. The mental body (or the mind) drifts very quickly. You might be in a headstand and suddenly think about what you’re having for tea.
That’s the mind drifting off.
We train the mind (or the manomaya kosa) to focus on the physical FEELING of the asana. When we practice yoga, we FEEL the stretch, so we focus on the physical sensation of the pose, and we explore ways of expanding that stretch.
But the mental body only truly connects with the physical body through the breath. And it’s for this reason that we learn to LISTEN to the breath because it’s only through the sound of the breath that we learn to regulate it.
The Breath’s Role in our Energy
In yogic terms, the breath contains “prana” – cosmic energy. In real-world terms, you could say that the oxygen within the breath is “prana” – it’s a life force that connects us to the planet and the universe, and we engage in it through inhalation.
When we inhale, we invite energy into the body in the form of oxygen. If we aim to breathe more deeply, we draw the air into the periphery of the lungs: the tips of the bronchial tubes. Blood surrounds the lungs and ingests the oxygen from the air that we breathe, and – in turn – pumps that oxygen around the body to feed every cell of the living body.
Oxygen is essential to our continued existence, of course – but on a more subtle level, the oxygen we breathe percolates into every living cell, giving that cell the energy for optimal function.
And in yogic terms – like water seeping into dry earth, prana percolates into every cell providing a stimulating sense of energetic well-being from the core, radiating out to the skin.
The Other Two Kosas
Once we’ve integrated the physical body with the energetic body (the breath) and integrated the actions of both with the mental body, we have the Intellectual body and the Blissful bodies. But these are a subject for another blog post.
Yoga brings Mental Clarity
So, through the connection of the body, breath, and mind, we develop a distinct sense of lightness that flows throughout the body; providing mental clarity, physical wellbeing, and a calm tranquillity that helps you through the bad times (and helps you sleep at night).
For more information about the benefits of yoga, you could check out my podcasts at MikesYogaPodcast(dot)com, or perhaps consider joining a live class over Zoom.
SupportRoom is here to help whenever you’re feeling stressed, concerned, or anxious. And if you feel that you could be suffering from a mental health condition, we’re here to help with qualified therapists who can provide support through our discreet, innovative platform.
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Blog written by Mike Heath
Mike Heath is a qualified yoga teacher and a full-time copywriter. He writes the majority of the blogs for SupportRoom. Mike teaches online classes and has a podcast which you can download for free from MikesYogaPodcast.com. Mike also teaches a range of pranayama sessions which help to integrate and assimilate the breath into an energising practice that clears the mind and rejuvenates the nerves.