Mentally Fit: How Yoga Looks After Your Mind

Many people come to yoga because of its excellent ability to improve all-over fitness, strength and flexibility, and recent research has shown that you don’t even need to get really sweaty to get fit with yoga – slow, restorative yoga can have a marked impact on weight loss and cardiovascular health.

This is because fitness is not just about sweat and burning calories. It is also about the relationship we have with our bodies, our ability to sustain ourselves through the stresses and strains of our lives. Good cardiovascular fitness is super important but so is our mental vigour.

So how do we get mental fitness? Through allowing ourselves a regular slot in our lives for relaxation! And I mean regular, not just when we feel burnout approaching.

If you only react to stress when it becomes a problem it is going to be so much harder to shift. You know what they say about prevention being better than cure…

Whilst I’d love to tell you that lying on the couch with a glass of wine and a good film will do the trick, I’m afraid we need to switch off the TV to really gain mental wellbeing. By coming to yoga you can do a great thing for yourself every week!

So how does yoga help you feel better?

  • Yoga makes us feel good. Recent research has shown that yoga encourages the production of oxytocin (the same hormone that we produce when we fall in love)
  • The practice of physical postures (asana) helps us to release physical tension which is calming to the mind as well. Additionally, this process of learning to relax and let go in yoga reflects into our daily lives and we can start to accept and let go of other things which trouble us
  • The breathing part of yoga (pranayama) helps us to feel balanced and calm but it also increases the amount of oxygen we take into our lungs. Oxygen is essential to good mental health and clarity of mind so learning how to breathe properly is key to enhanced mental wellbeing

Here’s a reminder of an exercise, that we regularly do in my classes, that you can do at home – combining both a posture and breath-work – to keep that mental fitness high between your yoga sessions:

Mountain Pose (Tadasana) with Vertical Alignment Breath

Mountain Pose is a master posture that we practice repeatedly in all classes. This simple pose can instantly make us feel better, more secure and more confident. Combined with Vertical Alignment Breath we can feel steady, calm and clear in the mind too. Breathe in and out of your nose throughout this practice.

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart
  • Allow your shoulders to relax, close your eyes (or soften your gaze) and focus on breathing
  • Stand firm and feel your feet solid on the floor. Try to balance your weight evenly across your feet. If you wish you can visualise you have roots growing from your feet
  • Soften (but don’t bend) your knees, switch on the muscles in your thighs, buttocks and pelvic floor
  • Draw your belly button in towards the base of your spine and lift and lengthen out of your hips
  • Roll your shoulders a few times and then let your hands rest by your side
  • Feel the back of your neck lengthening and the crown of your head lifting towards the sky
  • Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed and focus on your breath, breathe easily for a few breaths
  • Now draw your breath into your heart
  • On your next out-breath visualise the breath passing down through your torso, through the legs, feet and out into the earth beneath you
  • When you are ready to breathe in, visualise drawing the breath up through the feet from the earth, through the legs, torso and back into the heart
  • When you are ready to breathe out take the breath up and out through the crown of the head and into the sky above your head
  • Breathe in and draw the breath down from the sky above, through the crown of the head and back into the heart
  • Breathe out from the heart, down through the torso, legs and feet and into the earth
  • Continue breathing in this pattern for at least one minute, but see if you can stay for longer, connecting to the earth, your breath and your body
  • Take a moment to stand and let your breath return to normal and to see how you feel.

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