Features Muse

Body Over Mind

Seren Hughes looks at how the practices of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can improve our mental health

We live in a fast-paced society where information from not just those we know, but the whole world is at our fingertips. It is easier than ever to compare and compete with others. Social media presents us with posed, perfect glimpses of other peoples’ lives. Celebrity culture is obsessed with the influence of certain individuals due to their position in society and paints these mere humans in a godly hue. Technology is constantly improving efficiency, speeding up everything we do and disconnecting us from our actions. Our education system 

focuses on exam results and encourages high performance as the only way to succeed in life. There is a heavy expectation to look a certain way, lead a certain life, and succeed in a specific field. Under the weight of all this, it is unsurprising that one in four people in the UK suffer from a mental health problem every year. 


Of course, not every mental health issue is serious- many people suffer from moderate anxiety due to the pressures they face. There are also those who feel lonely, or down when its dark and cold outside, or get stressed around exams. We all have times when life is not easy.


Mental health issues often do not go away. Instead, those suffering must learn to cope, especially those with anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Some of the most widely recommended coping mechanisms, are mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. Even for those not affected by a mental health problem, these practices can have the same benefits of destressing and relaxation. These strategies refocus thought away from the mind, 

to the body. They are about getting back in touch with the physical reality of being a living, breathing human in the present moment.


Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation: which is which?


Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation are often advertised as separate practices, and they are, but they are also all entwined. A yoga practice involves mindfulness and meditation, and meditation involves mindfulness.


Yoga is a 5 000-year-old practice which is about harmonizing the body with the mind and breath through breathing exercises, yoga poses or asanas, and meditation. The word yoga means “that which brings you to reality”. During yoga practice, all thought should be on how the body feels and on maintaining the breath, with no room for any other worries. There are many different forms of yoga. Dynamic and power yoga are more of a workout, Yin Yoga and Yoga Nidra are the complete opposite, focused instead on deep relaxation. And, of course, there is everything in between: Ashtanga, Bikram, Hatha, Iyengar, Vinyasa,  and so on.


Buddhism teaches that meditation is the most important way to work through worries, fears, and emotions. There are various techniques, all used with the aim to calm the mind and develop positivity, clarity, and concentration. In meditation, you sit comfortably and tune in to how your body is feeling. Often, breathing techniques and a mantra are 

used to focus the mind. 


The breathing techniques used in yoga and meditation encourage mindfulness and an awareness of the sensations in the present moment. In practicing mindfulness, you acknowledge your thoughts in a way that almost distances you from them. You notice the sounds and smells around you, as well as the feeling of your body touching the 

ground, and the feel and sound of your breath filling and emptying in your lungs. It is about 

being mindful of your body in all its physical being. The charity Mind says that mindfulness aims to help you feel more calm, more self-aware, and more kind to yourself. 


The medical benefits of yoga and breathing practices


The first documented evidence of yoga being used as therapy occurred in the late 20th century in India. Today, doctors and counsellors often recommend yoga, mindfulness, or meditation as a first point of call for managing stress, anxiety, or insomnia. Yoga and deep 

breathing is proven to relax the body and relieve stress because it calms down the nervous  system and slows down the fight-or-flight response. Furthermore, yoga lowers the heart rate and blood pressure. Stretching also reduces muscle tension, strain and inflammation, thereby reducing physical stress. Listening to how your body feels during different movements and postures can help you feel more confident in how you feel, helping with self-esteem. In focusing on the body rather than the mind, those with anxiety or insomnia can learn to make their worries manageable.


Yoga does not merely benefit those with depression, anxiety, or insomnia. Researchers are also investigating the effects of yoga on other mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addictive behaviours, attention-deficit disorders and even autism. Yoga psychology experts say that the main objective of yoga is to reach an inner peace, and that the true practitioner will be free of any worries. Of course, not all of us can devote our lives to the practice of yoga, but the lessons learnt in stress reduction in a weekly practice, once applied to everyday life, can help ease our worries and help us cope with stress.


I spoke to Immy Culshaw, who was an inpatient in various mental health hospitals around the UK due to her anorexia. She was hospitalized on and off over the course of five years, from the age of 15 to 20. Immy took yoga classes in a few of the hospitals, one of them, in Southampton, was particularly effective. Immy said that the class was extremely gentle, taking them through a series of gentle flows and stretches, and that “it was all to do with not pushing ourselves or trying to compare ourselves with others”. The classes had to be that gentle, as those in the serious stages of anorexia are kept away from exercise. Immy had nothing but praise for the woman who led the class, describing the sensations she felt in the classes as “transporting her into another world” from which she would not return until the teacher rang a bell to return her students to reality. However, the classes were not always helpful, as she felt that in other places where she did yoga, the classes could feel competitive. Nevertheless, for Immy, the yoga classes were the only opportunity she had to “get out of her mind” and escape from all her stress. Today, Immy is out of hospital, starting a new life in London, and hoping to continue practicing yoga. 


Words and experiences from yoga teachers in York


York is full of yoga studios with countless fantastic yoga teachers. I spoke to a few. 


Mandie Lou teaches Hatha yoga at the University. She begins each of her classes with words of welcome, sometimes an anecdote, and themes the class, helping root the session not only in her life, but connecting that to those of her students. Next, she guides her students into meditation by teaching a breathing exercise to help focus the mind. Mandie’s classes are popular for her personal touch and for the meditative aspects.


Mandie says that for her, “yoga is so much more than exercise, it is definitely an integral part in maintaining a healthy mind.” Her practice began in university, as a way to alleviate stress and anxiety. She started attending a regular class and realised quickly that yoga was helping her mental state. She said: “yoga offered space to clear my head, get out of my  thinking mind, and see things from a new perspective.”


“Yoga allowed me to understand the power of my own breath, and continues to teach me how to slow down, listen to my body and be present in the moment. I find deep clarity of mind and relaxation through my practice, and love how it naturally becomes moving meditation. It is my intention to share these aspects of yoga with my students. My practice 

is always inspired by kindness to the self and others. I feel this is the most fundamental part 

of yoga.”


I also spoke to Rob Leadley, who teaches Ashtanga, Dynamic Balance, and Yin Yoga in York and at the University. Rob spoke about his own journey into yoga: “Prior to taking up Ashtanga I had been suffering from panic attacks and anxiety. This  became so serious that while giving presentations as an account manager for the Royal  Mail, sweat was literally dripping from my face!”


“It was at this stage that I decided to seek help and was referred for a course of psychoanalysis sessions. One of the tools of the sessions was a technique named ‘Progressive Relaxation’ in which the muscles are tensed and then released, allowing the mind to understand the difference. I found this so beneficial and looked forward to the end of my work days when I could practice the technique. This sparked my interest in finding a yoga class that would suit not only my physical but emotional needs.”


Rob found the yoga practice he wanted when an old friend returned from learning 

Ashtanga yoga in Mysore, India. He went along to the demonstration and found a practice which combined everything he yearned for: the physical, emotional, and spiritual. Heentered into a diligent practice, then trained to be a teacher and left his job at Royal Mail  to teach yoga. Originally, this was meant to be temporary, but more and more opportunities presented themselves, such as one to ones, instructing at football clubs, and here at the University.


Rob told me that for him, the benefits of his practice are as follows: “Ashtanga yoga moves the body through a full range of movement, forward bends, backbends, twists and inversions. But it’s the slow and repetitious breathing technique that gives me a tremendous feeling of euphoria and as I lie down in Savasana (relaxation) I feel a real sense of bliss.”


“Ashtanga yoga came to me at a time when I was really struggling with mental health issues. Not to say that I am completely fixed as I do get the occasional feelings of anxiety, but I am in a far better place than I was before my journey into yoga began. Ashtanga appealed to me - but there are so many different styles to choose from. No two bodies or minds are the same and it’s important to choose a style that suits your needs and in doing so, implement a regular practice into your schedule. We all get stressed, but that little bit of extra discipline to practice on a daily basis can make all the difference.”


“I hope that your journey can be as transformative as mine.”


Personally, I have suffered from anxiety for my whole life. When I came to university, it got particularly bad, and I developed insomnia. I started going to Rob’s yoga classes every week. I know the anxiety will never go away, but I have learnt to live with it and reduce its impact on my life, through the deep breathing exercises I learnt from yoga. The same goes for my insomnia. I tried sleeping tablets, herbal remedies and sleep hypnosis. I even removed caffeine from my diet, but the only thing that truly helped me through the night was practicing meditation and breathing exercises until I fell asleep. In controlling and relaxing my mind, I finally learnt how to switch off again.


Instagram famous yoga teachers and their work for mental health 


In our technological age, social media has a part to play in every aspect of life, including yoga. Instagram has become a hub for a new breed of yoga celebrities. These people have hundreds of thousands of followers and post photos and videos of their yoga poses and practice. Arguably, these picture-perfect yogis, decked out in their over-priced yoga kit can be just as toxic as the rest of social media. However, many are increasingly addressing 

the posed nature of their accounts and raising awareness of mental health.


Morgan Tyler, the woman behind the account, findingmorgantyler, has acknowledged that Instagram is now a “hustle”, all about maximizing our time using a screen, and is often staged. Her job is on Instagram, and yet where once she did everything to ensure she gained followers, now she says her “main mission is to continue to support [herself], but in a way that’s as transparent and human as possible”.


Jessica Olie, another yoga Instagram personality, uses the platform to acknowledge her own mental health struggles: her father is terminally ill, causing her to feel grief; she has anxiety attacks; and is a perfectionist. She shares her coping mechanisms through her page. She also shares quotes and poems from others about loving yourself and letting things be. Jessica does not always advocate yoga as the perfect method to relieve mental health 

related issues, but her fame from her yoga practice and teachings mean that her words of support and openness become part of the dialogue around yoga.


Sjana Elise Earp, much like Jessica Olie, shares her experiences with social anxiety. Many of her posts are similar to intentions and mantras set out at the beginning of a yoga class as a constant reminder, wherever you are, to care for yourself. People like Jessica, Sjana, and Morgan are ensuring yoga does remain relevant to mental health, rather than becoming too aesthetics-based, like much other Instagram content.


For years, we have said “take a deep breath”, but now, with the rise of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, that phrase should be plural: “take deep breaths”. As technology advances and we make our lives busier, distancing ourselves from our natural selves, it makes sense that there has been a turn towards yoga as a way to slow down and reconnect with the physical, embodied reality of our lives.


Like any growing trend, the obsession with yoga can be toxic. Yoga models are often skinny and white; the practice can be aestheticized and distanced from its spiritual origins through social media; classes are often expensive and is seen as middle-class; and it does not work for everyone.


Yet, away from all the hype, an individual’s true and personal practice of yoga, mindfulness, or meditation can help relax the mind, whether it be troubled by an upcoming deadline or a more serious mental health problem such as anxiety. It is telling that many yoga teachers’ journeys with the practice began with a desire to improve their mental health. Hopefully yoga, mindfulness, or meditation could help yours too. 


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