What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word Yoga?
For most yoga practitioners, the first thing that comes to the mind when we utter the word Yoga is Asanas or a series of practices to still the body and slow down the mind. They are powerful, but we are dumbing down the essence of yoga if we restrict it to a mat. What about the remaining 23 hours when we are off the mat or are travelling and have limited time for an elaborate yogasana sadhana?
Having started my yoga journey with Jnana and Dhyana Yoga, I have experienced the many benefits of Yoga for many years even before getting into physical asana practice. I share some ways yoga besides asana practice helped me enhance mental well-being, hoping it inspires you to expand your universe of yoga and make it a way of life (which it truly is!)
But before that, let’s look at what affects our mental well-being in the first place:
- Too many thoughts – Studies say an average human has over 60000 thoughts in a day – assuming 16 hours of waking time that’s about 62 thoughts a minute. Most of us spend our days living in our heads because this chatter in our heads never stops.
- Too many negative thoughts – The problem is not just that we think too much but that we suffer a negativity bias. We are inherently wired to think unfavourably about our situations and the people around us.
- Too many repeated negative thoughts – The third problem is that we get stuck in these repeated thought cycles mostly related to the matters of the external world – material possessions, wealth, social status.
Many yoga practitioners experience this in the initial years of their sadhana. They get on the mat, they do their practice, and they feel good. But this good feeling lasts about 10 seconds or till the time they get out of their Shala and turn on the phone to resume their interactions with the world. It’s because the conditioned and compulsive mind goes back to business as usual immediately. We get stuck in the trifecta of overthinking, negative thinking, and vicious cycles of negative thoughts in no time.
To tackle this and improve our mental wellness, we need to reduce the number of thoughts, improve the quality of thoughts that we have and change the default direction of our thoughts.
Reduce the number of thoughts.
A busy mind leaves us feeling empty and drained. So the first and most important thing we need to focus on to improve our mental well-being is slow down the pace and reduce the quantity of thoughts.
Some practices that help in reducing this pace –
A. Karma Yoga- Seva – If you pay attention to your thoughts long enough you’ll realise there’s a central theme to it – I, Me, Myself. Most of our thoughts are survival-oriented and ego-driven to protect our interests, get more of what we like, and avoid things we don’t like. Karma Yoga or selfless acts and service where we are not the focal point and are not direct beneficiaries of actions can help us reduce the overemphasis on our interests and thereby our thoughts.
B. Pranayama – There’s enough evidence in scientific research today to prove that the breath and the mind are interconnected. Regulating the breath and using deep slow breaths with deep inhalations and complete exhalations can slow the mind.
प्रच्छर्दनविधारणाभ्यां वा प्राणस्य ॥३४॥
Patanjali shares in Chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutras that one helpful technique to quieten the overactive or disturbed mind is to practice slow and regulated breathing that lengthens inhalations and exhalations. He goes on to say that this can effectively reduce the unpleasant consequences of an overthinking mind.
C. Meditation – The sixth (Dhyana) and the seventh (Dharana) components of Ashtanga Yoga are great ways to bind the consciousness and focus on a single object. We cannot achieve this state without reducing our thoughts. Meditation helps reduce anxiety and creates space between stimulus and response. We can meditate wherever we are by simply choosing a single object to focus on – it can be our breath, our footsteps when we are walking, or a chant we can tune in to on our commute.
Improve quality of our thoughts
Instead of circling down the vicious cycle of thoughts riddled with fear we need to improve the quality of our thoughts by reinforcing our faith. There’s an entire branch of Yoga dedicated to this and that is – Bhakti Yoga or love for a figurehead – call it God/Supreme Creator/Cosmos. Any concept we can devote ourselves to completely and surrender has the power to purify our thoughts.
There are 3 fundamentals to improve the quality of the mind:
Brahmacharya – sense control. As long as our senses are running on overdrive, we cannot dedicate our lives to any other cause but our sense gratification. Practising sense control is an important step in the practice of Bhakti Yoga.
Ahimsa – Non-violence. Not just about violence or taking arms but following the principle of non-violence manasa (in the mind), vachaka (in our words), and karmana (in action). A key practice of Bhakti yoga is to develop love and acceptance for everybody.
Satyam – That which is true. This is often misconstrued as telling the truth but it’s much beyond that. To practice the principle of Satyam is to live truthfully in alignment with one’s convictions. This means living true to our beliefs and value systems
Change the direction of our thoughts
Most of our thoughts are by default directed towards the external world and material things. To improve our overall mental well-being we must start focusing inward and inquire about what’s permanent and impermanent. Once that distinction is acquired, we will naturally focus our time, energy and attention on that which is permanent over what is transient.
To change the direction of our thoughts we must pursue the path of Jnana Yoga. Inquiry to question what’s real/unreal, permanent/impermanent is powerful in changing the direction of our thoughts. Taking time frequently to invest in Svadhyaya or self-study to delve deeper and contemplate the bigger questions immediately relieve us from smaller worries and stressors.
Let’s stop dumbing down the power of yoga to a few poses on the mat and wield it effectively to feel more at peace with ourselves. When we can employ Yoga as our very way of being, life unfolds and blossoms in many ways beyond just enhanced mental well-being. Try it out for yourself and let me know your experiences from experiments with Yoga.
Author – Shwetha Sivaraman
Shwetha is a Podcaster, Self-Awareness Coach, and founder of Being Meraklis. She is an avid seeker always curious about maximising life and helping self & others unlock their fullest potential. Get on the mat with her to tap into your inner wisdom – https://engage.beingmeraklis.com/satori-yoga-for-mental-wellbeing