If you only ever looked at bendy, lycra-clad yogis on Instagram, you might be intimidated by the practice. But yoga's not meant to be about competition, elitism or beauty. This mental health week, we'd like to remember and celebrate what yoga is really all about: mental stillness and calm.
We spoke to yoga teacher Sacha Kent, who works at the Cowdray Hall wellbeing centre, about how yoga can enhance your mental health.
"In my 12 years of teaching yoga I have heard so many people put off the idea of giving it a go due to ’not being good at it’, to being ‘embarrassingly stiff’ or ’so inflexible’ as though this was the point of yoga," she said. "All the publicity of yoga folk in extreme positions with dancer bodies paints a very skewed and distorted image of yoga. The purpose of yoga as laid out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, written in approximately 400 AD, is ’the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.’"
Practicing yoga with a gentle, grateful mindset can make it an extremely relaxing, centring activity. If you can do the moves and try the poses without judgment of yourself and without comparing yourself to anyone else, it can be a seriously empowering, even relaxing thing to do. It should give you time to focus, reconnect with your body and learn to appreciate what it can do. At its best, it's meditative and peaceful.
I do yoga twice a week and it's totally transformed my body and health
"People come to yoga, whether consciously or subconsciously, as a way to feel better on all levels," says Sacha. "They may think it is just for their stiff hips or sore lower back, which if skilfully taught it will definitely help, but these physical symptoms alone are often manifestations of our emotional state. Yoga is about healing the whole being. It is a philosophy and approach to wellbeing that knows there is no distinction between the physical and the emotional."
So you can improve your flexibility and work on your strength in your yoga sessions, but there should be an extremely lovely side-effect: a sense of peace and restfulness. The best teachers will approach yoga from a mental health perspective as well as a physical one.
"Find a teacher who incorporates breath, mind and body at the heart of the practice," says Sacha. "The unity of these three creates harmony in the self and will help to calm the overly busy, anxious mind, the mind that cannot switch off, the mind that cannot rest into sleep, the mind that is reactive and impatient, critical or exhausted."
Yoga should help quieten your racing mind as well as soothe your tense body. Sacha and her contemporaries believe that we all know within ourselves how to be still and calm and free. We just forget how to achieve that, when we get stressed and busy and overwhelmed. "By practicing yoga time and again, we can access this stillness more and more easily and come back to it and it provides an anchor which we know is always there.”
Sounds good to us.
There's a free eventon International Yoga Day at Cowdray Hall with classes, a talk and a film on 21st June.