Yoga and Mental Health: How I Overcame Depression and Anxiety

It’s not been easy for me to write this. In fact, I started writing it years ago whilst I was in Australia, ironically the thought of posting it made me very anxious, so I didn’t and it’s been sat in my drafts until now! I hope in sharing my story to wellness it gives hope to others, to know that being well again is possible. When I was struggling with my mental health, I wish there had been more information out there for me, so that I didn’t feel so alone & I could become well again, sooner. Although I am out of that sour place now, I still struggle with anxiety and low mood from time to time, the difference is I now know how to manage it, using the tools I learnt through my initial struggle.  I hope by reading this it will help you in starting to develop your own set of tools.

Inspired by all the awareness being made about mental health issues recently. I wanted to share my own story of how yoga, amongst other things, help me overcome anxiety & depression. Also, it is my belief that yoga is an ancient methodology used to overcome anxiety.

Before delving into the depths of my mind and my path to wellness, please take a moment to read the disclaimer found the bottom of this page*


‘Yogas’ citta vrtti nirodhah’ : – ‘The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga’. – Patanjali – ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali‘, 1:2

I was diagnosed with depression & anxiety in the summer of 2006. I got better between six months to a year later. It was a very dark time for me, it was like my feelings were switched off and I couldn’t experience pleasure. I remember that summer going to Reading Festival, seeing all my favourite bands, camping with my friends but feeling nothing, the music was just noise. The anxiety I experienced made me super erratic, unstable and ruined my sleep for around six months. That said I don’t want this article to be negative, instead – I want to focus it on how I overcame depression and anxiety, in the hope that it might help others. At the end of summer 2006, whilst undergoing alternative therapies it was suggested that I try yoga. At the end of the summer in a tangle of worry, I packed up my things and moved into halls at Uni. Shortly after getting settled in I googled where I could practise yoga nearby and my yoga journey began…

I feel it’s important to note the things that I feel helped me to get better (other than yoga). As ones road to mental health is a very personal one and these things may not work for everyone, but they certainly worked for me. It’s also worth noting that often it’s not just one thing in particular that helps you to get better, but several things combined. Here are mine, in no particular order:

  1. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
  2. Taking St John’s Wart
  3. Yoga
  4. Moving away from my home town
  5. Reiki & Massage
  6. Hypnotherapy
  7. Diet
  8. Meditation

As you can see Yoga on its own wasn’t the only the only thing that helped me get better, but it did play a big part. I knew at the time it was an important tool I could learn how to use and take with me anywhere, this appealed to me. Also, after practising yoga for a short while, the benefits were all the proof I needed – I found it gave my mind more clarity and focus and it helped physically iron out aches and pains in my body.

Despite being a yoga teacher, there are still mysteries in the practise of yoga that I do not fully understand or that I am even aware of, but the ones I do understand and that helped me with my mental health are written below:

1) Pranayama (breath control) – When you’re in a panic, you might hear someone say “Take 10 deep breaths”. The way you breathe is closely linked to your mental state and has a profound impact on your well-being. In yoga there are a number of breathing techniques, the most common is Ujjayi Breathing – this breath is characterised by creating control over the inhale and exhale by creating a slight restriction at the back of the throat. The aim is to make the exhales as long as the inhales. During a dynamic, Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga yoga class, you’ll be asked to breathe like this throughout. So imagine not just taking 10 deep breaths, but breathing deeply and in a controlled way for a whole hour or more! You’ll feel as clam as a Hindu cow!

2) Asana (physical postures) – Stretching and releasing muscles relaxes them, in some ways resetting them. Doing stretches in a sequence over a period of an hour and your whole body will feel relaxed. The body is closely linked to the mind, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had a sore tooth! So if we can relieve the body of discomfort, we can calm the mind. Surrendering into postures, also creates a positive feeling of letting go. Doing all these stretches and bending yourself into weird shapes, requires a lot of concentration. This acts as a focal point for the mind, stilling it further.

3) Prana (life force) – It is believed in yoga philosophy that both Pranayama and Asana move subtle energy (prana) around the body. Prana is the same as Chi in Chinese Medicine & martial arts. Unblocking, releasing & moving energy. Whilst depressed and practising yoga I would often feel these blockages in my abdomen, some poses would relieve these blockages.

4) Parasympathetic nervous system switch on – Practicing both Pranayama and Asana switch on our Parasympathetic system. The rest and digest part of our nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is opposed to your Sympathetic nervous system, which is the flight or fight part. Switching on the Parasympathetic Nervous system has a whole host of benefits from better digestion to anxiety relief & physical injury healing. In a yoga class, going into this wonderful state is one of the many benefits.

5) Meditation – Is a huge part of yoga. In fact thousands of years ago, yoga was created to prepare the body for long periods of meditation. Yoga is also sometimes referred to as a movement meditation. Meditation has a myriad of benefits: improving contentment, happiness, compassion. Apps like ‘Head Space’ & YouTube videos can bring meditation to you, or you can search for meditation classes in your area. Your yoga teacher should know the basics of meditation, even if they do not teach it themselves.

6) Diet – is another big thing that had an impact on my mental well-being. After all, you are what you eat! Eating bland-looking and processed food for long enough and your mental health will take a knock. Eat brightly coloured, fresh food, healthy food and you’ll feel fresh and uplifted! Eating healthy for good mental health, is key to a prolonged state of well-being. Yoga’s sister science Ayurveda contains ways to eat for your body/personally type.

7) All of these things together – when you’re in a yoga class, focusing on your breath, the posture you’re in, your gaze (Drishti), your muscular contractions (Bandhas), what the teacher is saying etc. Being aware of all of these things together, I can assure you bring you right to the present moment! This in itself is an act of mindfulness, and as a Psychotherapist once said to me “practising Yoga is mindfulness”.

All of these things essentially helped me to chill out, creating much needed balance in my life. Allowing my thought-flooded anxious mind to settle down, and allowing me to take stock and listen to thoughts. So that I could use what I had learnt in my CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) sessions, to identify and change my negative thoughts. This also allowed me to become more mindful, and allowed me to add mindfulness techniques into my life, like self-worth, acceptance and compassion.

From this mental stillness and space created from my practise I came to realise that life is in a constant state of flux and, from this, Yoga then became more and more of an integral tool to help me deal with not only the lows, but also the highs in life, and it helped me to maintain a more positive state of being. It is because of this journey that I am a yoga teacher.

My path to well-being is not something that has an end. It needs to be constantly maintained, constantly managed. If you get into yoga, you must continue to practise to continually feel the benefits. For example if I do not practise yoga for more than a few days – my mood drops, my body becomes stiff and I become grouchy!

It is important to know when to catch yourself feeling down, to come back to the things that made you feel better. For me, those are: Yoga & mindfulness, eating healthy food, exercise and talking/spending time with friends and loved ones. And remember if you’re ever in a pickle: “This too will pass”, just like everything else has.

I hope this helps anyone who might need it.

Links to mental health awareness heroes and organisations:

https://www.mind.org.uk/
https://youngminds.org.uk/
https://www.mqmentalhealth.org/
https://www.mindaustralia.org.au/
http://www.sane.org.uk/
http://www.samaritans.org/
https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

With love and light,

James

*Disclaimer: This post contains my experience of how I personally overcame depression and anxiety. Overcoming mental illnesses are different for everyone. Yoga sometimes isn’t for everyone and has different impacts on people. Any information that you take from this article is at your own risk. I don’t claim to be a mental health professional or expert. If you feel you have a mental health problem seek help from a qualified professional before following any of my suggestions.

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