“I invite you to explore the idea of bringing your left knee into your right thigh…just explore it, don’t judge it…”
As she beckons us, the radiant yoga teacher with tattoos walks slowly around the room, weaving in and out of yogis.
She has a very confident gait, slow but purposeful. She walks with purpose. She talks with purpose too.
We all listen.
She’s beautiful and wears her confidence and bad-ass-ness as badges of honor.
She is a weathered soul. She chose this path for a reason. She has had several previous lives—I am sure of it. She is someone who can teach me not only about yoga, but also about life’s struggles. She can teach me about pain, about love, about acceptance. She can teach me about suffering and joy.
She can teach me all through metaphors, too.
Yoga teachers are like therapists. Yoga is made for mental health—the language, the music, the soothing environment, and the Buddhist philosophy. What we learn on the mat, we can choose to take with us wherever we go.
Yoga equals self-love and self-acceptance. It helps to quiet the hamster-wheel mind. It gives me a break from the elusive “good enough” chase. I don’t have to be good enough when I am on the mat. I just have to be.
I’ve struggled with some form of depression and anxiety my whole life. I have always sought out emotional security from external sources–alcohol, food, drugs, and men–until I finally learned that I could only give that security to myself. Yoga has been a way for me to come home to myself. It helps me to remember who I am in the times when it is easy to forget. It is a spiritual, emotional, and physical practice.
It is the only practice I have found that fulfills me entirely and feeds my soul.
There’s something different about loving your mind and body simultaneously. It teaches us how to self-nurture. This is a form of self-care that is underrated. When my forehead is pressed against the mat and I am tightly knit in child’s pose, I am safe. I am home.
Spirituality was introduced to me through yoga. In one of my first yoga classes, I remember the teacher saying a prayer for our loved ones at the beginning of the class. I remember her prompting us to set an intention. I prayed for a family member and, at the end of class, I recall feeling like I had actually giving that family member some of my love and energy.
I was recently asked: “How do you know when you are happy?” At first, I found it to be a backwards question. Typically I am accustomed to talking and thinking about what leads me to happiness. Then, I responded: “When I practice yoga regularly I know I am happy.” Shortly after answering, the question made sense to me. It isn’t about what I think makes me happy, it’s about me connecting to myself. That’s where the genuine happiness exists.
Here are seven ways yoga improves mental health:
1. It teaches us to sit with uncomfortable feelings.
Ever hear a yoga teacher say “Breathe through the pose”? Yoga never tells us to avoid a pose that is challenging; it simply tells us to explore it. When we avoid uncomfortable feelings, we often form addictions. Yoga teaches us how to face discomfort, how to sit with it.
2. It teaches us to judge ourselves (and others) less.
This is the Buddhist way—less judgment of thoughts, and more being. Negative self-talk is detrimental to self-esteem and mental health. Acceptance is practiced in yoga. Some days you will be able to do challenging poses, some days you might not. Some days you might be more flexible than others. This is the nature of life.
Yoga tells us to accept all of it without judging ourselves in the process.
3. It teaches us to be present.
Perhaps the most challenging thing to do is to stay present in the moment. Pay attention to your life. Actively listen. Engage. Think less about the future and think less about the past. Lao Tzu says, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
4. It teaches us to be comfortable in our body.
Yoga is for everybody. When I go to yoga classes, people of all genders, ages, races, and body shapes surround me. The peace and acceptance in the room breed self-love. I learn to love my body in whatever state it is in- bloated, achy, tired, weak, strong, energized—all of which I have felt in a yoga class.
5. It helps us with acceptance.
The most difficult yet also simplest principle of all- accepting where we are at each and every moment. It’s not always self-love and celebrations—sometimes it’s simply being okay. Other times it’s beingokay with not being okay. When we are on the mat, we accept the self that we bring to the world for that day.
6. It builds self-esteem.
Like any form of physical exercise, yoga builds self-esteem. The more we practice, the stronger we become. The stronger we become physically, the more we feel like we can tackle life’s other challenges head-on.
7. It teaches us about breathing.
Any good yoga teacher incorporates some talk of breathing in their class. Breathing gives us life—literally. Breathing energizes and restores us. It reduces anxiety, calms us.
Author: Ali Mariani
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: matthewragan at Flickr