Not just a physical practice…

Two of my classes I teach are at York Mind, which is a charity to support people who are living with a mental health condition. This is a space where people aren’t judged and can go to a yoga class to bring a sense of calm to their mind, to build strength and flexibility in their physical body and help regulate their emotions in a safe environment.  I have seen students, who come to Mind develop their yoga practice but also witnessed them move through their Recovery, which I’m sure at times is not an easy journey.

For some, mental and emotional health is a difficult concept to understand. To put into context: Imagine falling off a bike and breaking a leg, the physical body needs time to recovery. Just like any one of us can experience stress or worry which can lead to a mental health condition such as anxiety and or depression. The mind also needs time to recover from this and we need time to ‘build ourselves up again’.  But because we can’t see it doesn’t mean there is nothing to fix.  Nowadays we are encouraged to take control of our own health and well-being. This is where yoga can be such a valuable ‘gift’.


In class I am always encouraging students to think yoga is not just a physical practice in order to build strength and flexibility in the physical body but it also helps bring more clarity to the mind and balance our emotions; this is why you may feel happier and calmer after class. When we are stressed or anxious the sympathetic autonomic nervous system kicks in preparing the body for ‘fight or flight’. The heart beat quickens and the breath becomes rapid and erratic. This stimulus sends a message to the brain where the limbic system, responsible for instinctive drive thinks that it is under attack and therefore loses the ability to analyse whether the situation is actually threatening. All logical processing has taken a back burner and we have lost all rational thought and the ability to regulate our emotions. For some this behaviour can occur in everyday life, such as opening a credit card bill, managing family life or being late for appointment.

This is where the phrase ‘take a deep breath’ can come in to play. The breath is perhaps the most important tool in a yoga class and as BKS Iyengar said ‘as long as you can breathe you can do yoga’.  If we take a conscious effort to control a slow diaphragmatic breath we will engage the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system which is responsible for slowing down the heart rate and therefore the whole body has the opportunity to unwind. When we feel relaxed we have access to a deeper sense of connection, compassion, intuition and concentration. The breath can also encourage us to practice mindfulness by drawing awareness to the inhale and exhale which helps focus on the present moment.

Even though yoga is not recognised as an intervention with the Department and Health  NICE guidelines for depression and or anxiety I see weekly evidence  in my classes at Mind, that students leave more relaxed and calmer by dedicating that hour just for themselves to calm the mind and body.  A few students leave me testimonials once in a while such as ‘Yoga is like medicine in a bottle’ and ‘at the end of the class I feel like I have just had a massage, I feel so relaxed’.

If you  are feeling a little fraught with life or you know someone who is then perhaps yoga can be a coping strategy to help take control of the mind, build strength and flexibility in the body and help regulate emotions by becoming more content in the person we are or want to be.