Yoga and its valuable role in mental health

Yoga usually generates images of people’s ability to get into incomprehensible positions. However, there is far more to yoga than the postures. In fact in Ashtanga yoga, postures are only one of eight elements that make up the science of yoga, the overall goal of which is to obtain awareness, clarity and control over the body and the mind.

In this way we can look at yoga as a very useful tool to use against mental health issues. I hope that I can use my own experience to explain how I think that yoga can be such a useful tool in dealing with mental health issues.

I have experienced a problem called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD); a negative thought pattern that the brain can develop in order to give the person false perceived control over their external environment.

For example, in the past if I had a bad thought about someone getting ill, or a plane crashing I would make myself do a physical action to undo the thought I had just had and therefore relieve the bad thought. In this way my mind got used to relying on a faulty and ineffective process in order to deal with negative thoughts and stress. Western medicine aims to treat OCD with a combination of medication in order to block the negative thoughts and talking therapy to try to determine why the  problem developed.

In yoga we begin our practice with the Pavamana mantra the words of which can have incredible strength and power. The first verse contains the words ‘Mrityorma Amritam Gamaya’ which translate to mean that when bad things happen you should not pay attention to them, you should only pay attention to the good things and those that will benefit you. The verse asks ‘What is the point on focusing on the bad?’ This line made me think about all the time I had wasted focusing on negative things when really there was no benefit to me in doing this and I could instead be focusing on positive things that would help me to develop and achieve more.

Through positions in yoga we work on achieving stillness in the body and thought breathing exercises, concentration and eventually meditation we can learn to achieve stillness in the mind. Once we have stillness in the mind we are able to focus on only the relevant thoughts that will help us and not those that are irrelevant and unhelpful (such as those thoughts that are revealed in OCD sufferers). When we are able to focus on the relevant we can obtain a more objective view of what is happening when unhelpful OCD thought patterns develop and we can recognise them as just that – unproductive thought processes that will be of no benefit to us. Overtime our mind will learn to build new, more helpful thought processes and the OCD will completely disappear.

In this way yoga can be such a useful tool for OCD sufferers to be able to gain control over the mind and obtain an objective view of mental processes. The person can be selective in those ideas that they choose to act upon and those that they choose to disregard, therefore developing a stronger, clearer mind and actions.

Gemma (200 Hr TTC May 2017)

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