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Yoga for Mental Health

Mental illness is a common topic of conversation between myself and my friends and family, and I consider myself extremely lucky to be surrounded by open, courageous people who are willing to share their stories and experience. This isn't the case for most people. One in four of us are suffering from a mental illness at any one time, and there is still so much stigma surrounding the health of the brain and our emotional fitness levels that getting the most useful support isn't always easy.

I was recently given the opportunity to train as a mental health first aider. Throughout the training the topics of mindfulness, breathing exercises and physical exercise came up again and again as remedies for mental illness to be used alongside support and therapies available from both the NHS and the voluntary sector. One section of the course was a practical application of a basic calming breathing technique, inhaling for four counts, exhaling for eight counts. The instructor knew by this point that I was a yoga teacher and asked me to take this exercise with the group. It became obvious quite quickly that in a normal cross section of people not voluntarily showing up to yoga and meditation sessions, the idea of breathing to a count still seems a little weird.

It struck me that we are still discussing mental health by talking about mental illness. Of course we need to discuss mental illness, but are we neglecting to protect the health of our brains when we're feeling good? Do we all put as much thought into investing in our emotional resilience each day as we do our physical health? Is there even any separation between physical and mental health? In my personal experience there's still a lot of negativity and guilt associated with the things we need to do for ourselves. Taking time to rest, to journal or to meditate each day can still be seen as "wasting time".

Just as we are advised to be aware of changes in our bodies that can signal a physical illness, we need to give some time to considering our emotional lives and learn to pick up on the warning signs that things are out of balance. Just as with a physical illness, a mental illness is easiest treated if caught early. Zen yoga is hugely helpful with this. It gives you the focus and calm to tune into your internal life. It is a mindful practice which brings together physical movement with emotional themes and breathing. Yoga means "union" - the combining of the elements that our modern lifestyle works so hard to separate - physical movement, energy, breathing, mindfulness. It is non-prescriptive and adaptable for every body and mind, of every age and fitness level. And it is protective. Maybe if you practice yoga you'll struggle less with health problems of all kinds.

So if you're a regular at Nomad classes and you notice me talking about emotional intelligence, mental health, mindfulness, breath awareness, nervous system calming and holistic health practices a little more than I used to, use the opportunity to check in with your own inner balance. Then help me spread the word!

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