It seems humans have worried, ruminated and attempted to calm the mind since the beginning of recorded history. With the introduction of texts like the Vedas and the various strands of yoga sutras thousands of years ago, practices were shared in order to help calm the ‘fluctuations’ of the mind, focus thoughts and energy, and develop a sense of connection and calmness. If they thought they needed a way to calm the mind back then, what would they have thought of today’s world? What are the benefits of yoga for mental health and where can we start?
One of the main focuses of pranayama, the steps to meditation and meditation itself, is to free the flow of prana or subtle energy, and allow the mind to become something liberated and free. The yoga postures too were intended to free the flow of prana around the physical and subtle channels of the body, enabling greater ease of movement, and therefore allowing more energy to be directed towards the workings of the mind.
This ‘free flow’ of energy is something many of us crave, but find it difficult to obtain. Whether it’s the physical flow of energy that allows us to move without pain and make it to 4pm without needing a nap or a double espresso, or the more subtle flow of energy that allows us to think clearly and let go of unnecessary thoughts, we’re probably all trying to do something to help the flow of energy along. Most of us however, probably find blockages in that flow on a regular basis….
Mind – Body – Energy Connection
Yoga is a holistic system that encompasses physical, mental and energetic wellbeing. What that means is that no parts of us are isolated and individual. We’re totally interconnected beings, connected both to ourselves and the world around us. When one part of us has an issue, it’ll affect another part of us. When something changes in our external environment, our internal environment needs to be able to adapt.
As many of us have probably experienced, when we’re dealing (or not dealing) with anxiety or a mind full of thoughts, this has a big impact on everything else within and without us. The ancient Chakra system has always known how important the flow of energy is, and just how connected the physical and subtle parts of us are too. Svadisthana Chakra for example, is an esoteric ‘wheel’ or ‘vortex’ of energy located around the pelvis. This wheel of energy is closely linked to the element of water, and has a direct correlation to the glands, hormones and organs of the genital and pelvic region.
The ability to ‘go with the flow’, find pleasure and ease in life, to cultivate relationships and a creative ability are all aspects of Svadisthana Chakra. If the subtle energy in this place is ‘blocked’ however, it’s likely a person will experience hormonal issues and anxiety, difficulty with relationships both intimate and plutonic, a lack of sensuality, the need to control, and also a body that finds if difficult to move in a fluid, relaxed, undulating manner.
Moving from the subtle to the physical world, and we’ll probably notice that just having worries in the mind can cause things like digestive issues, aches and pains, headaches, low mood levels, differences in hunger and elimination, difficulty sleeping and a depleted immune system. This just all goes to show how we are a whole, and caring for the mind is just as important as caring for the body. Digestion specifically, is something yoga and Ayurveda are passionately concerned with. It’s not just physical digestion we’re talking about here though – it’s digestion of both food and thoughts….
Different diets and fasting regimes have been implemented for thousands of years in order to have a clearing and re-setting effect upon the body. “A healthy digestive and eliminative system is absolutely fundamental to good physical and mental health” says Dr. Swami Karmananda in his book Yogic Management of Common Diseases. “Whenever we use the eating mechanism for purposes such as the satisfaction of emotional needs, to relieve frustration, as an outlet for greed and so on, we have commenced to travel the road to sickness, disease and physical decay which first manifests as digestive disturbance.”
Whilst Dr. Karmananda’s words are [[abrupt]], it’s true that we don’t tend to use the nutrients in our food properly when it’s eaten with a stressed out mind. The mind then, is the first place we need to think about when considering digestion and nutrients.
Yoga and Ayurveda identify different types of digestion in the body and mind, related to aspects of Pitta Dosha – the energy of fire, transformation, action and assimilation. Regarding the mind, pitta governs the digestion of our experiences and thoughts; it links to visual and mental perception, courage and understanding, Just as fire can turn raw food into cooked or wood to ash, so too can the energy of pitta turn ideas to action, and help us to perceive reality, understanding things as they really are.
Opening The Fridge and Observing The Mind
How many thoughts do you have in your mind right now? If you were to observe your mind in the same way we might open the refrigerator door and peer through the shelves, would all the objects in that fridge be fresh and ripe, or would there be a few mouldy containers at the back, a few old condiments pushed out of sight, and a strange smell of something not-quite-right? Is there one big object on the middle shelf that is taking up so much room, there’s no space for anything else? Is that object something that is helping you or harming you, and how long has it been there for?
Simple questions like this can help us identify the current state of our digestive health. If the mind is full and we hold on to worries and things that really don’t serve us, it’s a little like leaving things in the fridge for too long; they start to turn from something nutritious to something toxic and look frankly a little scary….
If there’s something troubling you at the moment, imagine what you’d do if you had indigestion or a build up of toxins in the body – you’d probably take action to do something about it. When we have a worry or a self-sabotaging pattern of behaviour however, we usually try to think our way out of it, and that doesn’t always help…. Anxieties, chronic worries and ruminations are thoughts that have become habitual and undigested, so as Jerry Sternin – the creator of the Positive Deviance approach – wisely said; ‘It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting’. Take a step back from what you’re experiencing in the mind, and approach it from a different direction. If we’re interconnected beings and affected by everything inside and outside of us, even the smallest change can start to make a difference.
So, if you’re feeling a little congested in the mental department right now, consider acting upon it – talk to someone you trust or someone with expertise in the subject, do things to help the rest of your mind and body such as deep, calm breathing, eating healthily, learning something new or being creative, and getting outside to move regularly. Just as the refrigerator goes through periods of being full and clear, we too can take action to observe when the mind is full, and take time to clear out what has become old, stale and no longer needed….