Have you ever had a mini melt-down when something doesn’t go as expected, felt overwhelmed or anxious, or found it hard to stop being angry about something?
Do you wish you were a calm, collected superhuman who lets problems slide off their back like water from a duck’s feathers? Well the good news is that you can, and the tool you need is yoga. Yoga is not just a practice for building flexibility and strength. It is also a tool to help you build emotional strength and resilience, and there are many different layers to yoga that can benefit your mind.
Breathe fluidly during practice
The practice of breathing is such an important aspect of yoga, more important than the poses themselves, and can eliminate accumulated stress and negative emotions. By regulating the breath throughout our yoga practice, we begin to stabilise a breathing pattern that eventually gets carried off the mat.
Pranayama, or breath regulation, such as Kapalabhati, the practise of holding the breath or Nadi Shodhana, also known as alternate-nostril breathing, has been shown to have a phenomenal impact on our health and wellbeing. Nadi Shodhana can decrease blood pressure and aid in creating a sense of ease and calm by igniting the parasympathetic nervous system, and can benefit anything from insomnia to anxiety and panic attacks. Kapalabhati, on the other hand – a pattern of releasing inhalations in a series of short, explosive exhales – is a brilliant practise to increase concentration and mental function.
When our breathing is short and rapid, it is easy to become overwhelmed, since our stress hormones kick into gear and our heart rate rises, making us feel stressed. Comparatively, when we practise slow, deep and fluid breathing, we nourish our parasympathetic nervous system – our “rest” mode, which in turn drops the heart rate and initiates a state of calm, making us feel more relaxed.
Practise going deeper into poses
When a situation starts to feels very uncomfortable, the natural reaction for many people is to quit and to run away from the feeling. Have you ever gone for a long run having not practised for a while, and felt the aching sensation in your quadriceps and hamstrings, the unbearable breathlessness? This is the epitome of a challenging situation where it is so much easier mentally to escape by stopping than it is to continue with those intense feelings.
In yoga, the poses (or asana) act as the physical challenges that come our way in life, and we can choose how we react when we are in them. We often back out of poses when sensation becomes too intense. For example, we slightly straighten our legs when our thighs begin to burn during Chair pose, or drop out of handstand when we feel our arms shaking and the fear that we might fall into a heap on the floor.
For many people, the challenge is at its peak when practising hip openers or hamstring stretches. The sensation grows in intensity, the beads of sweat start to form on the forehead, the breathing gets short and rapid, the urge to fidget is unbearable. But staying with these uncomfortable feelings is exactly where the practice of building emotional resiliency lies.
In Yin yoga, the poses are held for up to five minutes to challenge the body and the mind to stay with the intensity of sensations. With each exhale, we release a little tension, a little more gripping, we surrender into our mat. This floods our awareness with sensation, building our tolerance (both physically and mentally) to stay in the midst of challenge while increasing our energy and emotional strength. Each time we successfully navigate distress we become more capable of doing so again.
Practise relaxation and patience
Life moves at an extremely fast pace and unless you are sunning yourself on an island all year round, the chance to relax and slow down is often a rarity; there is barely any time for stillness, reflection and presence.
It is easy to become inpatient, to want to speed things up and get results quickly, to get the job done. But in doing so, we check out from the process and lose sight of our experiences as they happen. Our lives seem to be zooming at 100mph and there is just not enough time in the day to get things done, making us more stressed and impatient. In yoga, the practise of moving with ease through each posture and of learning to relax fully in Savasana at the end is a challenge in itself, but a greatly rewarding one that can help increase emotional strength.
Our postures should be ease-filled and steady, as should our lives. Rather than impatiently wondering when the next pose will be instructed, we train ourselves to become more patient and to slow right down to experience the full depth of the pose we are in. In Savasana, full body relaxation, it is all too easy to get lost in fantasy and to check out, rather than using this time as a luxury to practise conscious relaxation. The next time you are in Savasana, try to continuously practise deep relaxation using your breath, whilst remaining conscious of your emotions and feelings without giving them any power or strength to take haul of your mind.