Yoga & Mental Health
To have good physical health, we are obliged to take care of the body. For good mental health, we are obliged to take care of the mind. Many of the methods for mental health have parallels with good physical health. Deposit good food into the mind, keep it active with topics and ideas that inspire, understand the way in which it functions and we are heading in the right direction. Mental health also requires some more ethereal, less tangibly quantifiable, more subtle techniques and practices to develop extraordinary mental health, to unveil mental clarity, mental stillness, and mental strength, which are all housed within a quiet, compliant mind.
As a young triathlete my idea of physical health related to my body fat measurements, my VO2 Max (maximum oxygen uptake), my power to weight ratio. My training buddies and I gauged our physical health by how much we could do, and how well we recovered. Three, four and five hour bike rides were normal weekend fair, iced with a two hour run and a pool session. The body was an instrument to be tested, challenged and sometimes beaten into submission. We had an idea of what good health, or even tremendous health was. Whilst this is not the only way I gauge good health now, at the time, it did give us a yardstick to work towards.
As a young man the idea of mental health was not even on the radar screen of my consciousness. I thought I was smarter than most, and rarely felt down or unhappy. But on reflection, I can see I was enveloped in arrogance, dominated by lustfulness and had a significant level of selfishness. Whilst these traits are rarely grouped with the characteristics of poor mental health, I now see that they are signposts of a disturbed mind, less than good mental health. We currently link the negative emotions, moods, feelings and thoughts as contributors to poor mental health, yet an array of hot and spicy flavoured emotions and thinking can also railroad mental health.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes mental health as “the state in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Having being a student and trainer of my mind for some time, I concur with the WHO. Additionally, yoga and my yogic practices are showing me that there are realms of mental health that exceed the above standard. Whilst the realms of mental health may not be accessible to all, the principal strategies may assist all beings, no matter their position on the mental health spectrum.
When we begin a program to increase our physical health we face challenges and setbacks. Parallels are evident in the road to good mental health; some of these challenges appear even more insurmountable than the physical challenges. The significant mental challenges appear more challenging due to a lifetime (or many lifetimes) of neglect in the workings of and control of the mind. A good percentage of us are now given an excellent opportunity to be educated, some take that opportunity by the scruff of the neck and fill their mind with useful information; however few of us are taught how to use this instrument called the mind. Our minds can be full of helpful and relevant data, but when it comes to understanding the functionality, we are lost at sea. We have reams of data, but when our hard drive overheats, we are unable to reboot cleanly. Yoga philosophy gives us methods to minimise overheating and repair our hard drive individually or with a little guidance from the help desk.
Yoga asserts mental health is the product of a well regulated, well governed and aware mind. Yoga teachings also propose the mind to be an instrument, a mechanism for manoeuvring in an earthly incarnation. It clearly suggests that something more exists beyond the thinking mind. The sacred verses of Yoga contend that mental health is the result of having an understanding of our inherent nature, the ability to subdue and direct the ego, whilst minimising our attachments and aversions. Becoming aware of the ego, our attachments and aversions exposes the minds tendencies and deep seated behaviours. These revelations reveal the source of disturbance in the mind and may unveil tonics to alleviate and uplift the mind.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know why we think what we think, why we lose it with a certain person and not others, why our minds look for constant stimulation and justification, who we are trying to manipulate and who is manipulating us? Imagine the joy of walking through your day undisturbed by the behaviour and attitude of others. Imagine having a mind that can remember when you want it to, advise us when we need it to, direct us when we ask it to and remain quiet and aware while awaiting further instructions. This may sound farfetched, but it is achievable to those who are willing to invest in regular, wholehearted effort towards regaining control of the mind. Just as it takes work to reveal rippling abdominal muscles, or have an immaculate immune system, it takes training, diligence and awareness to have a pristine mind.
The great minds
Mental health seen through the metaphysical eyes of the great yoga sages was experienced as simultaneously equanimous and aware. The mind is clean, compliant, ready to engage in the world, however not beholden to the world. The Yogic mind is aware of its temporary nature, understands its role in life and willingly applies the tools of its trade. The yogic mind sees life unfolding at many levels and perfection of the melodrama of incarnation. It sees the gross and the subtler levels of each exchange and delights in the play of the day.
The blueprint for mental health left behind by the yogis, saints and sages is as user friendly today as it was when they shared it. It does not require a giant intellect; it has techniques for all shapes and sizes of mind. It does not require an app, a download or a multitude of devices and fancy gadgets. It may require a period of instruction from someone whose mind has a level of serenity and power, but mostly it requires simplicity, regularity and a willingness to do what your intuitive nature is guiding you towards.
“Prolong not the past
Invite the future,
Don’t alter your innate wakefulness,
Don’t fear appearances.
There’s nothing more than that!”
Quality of the Yogic Mind and excellent mental health
- An awareness of the state of the mind.
- A stable, compliant mind able to fulfill its role and duties.
- Sensory awareness and control.
- A mind able to see its strengths and opportunities.
- A mind able to embrace, adjust, reorient to ongoing change.
- Unfettered access to the stored data and the clarity to reflect on it with discernment.
- The ability to see upcoming/rising disturbances and circumvent them.
Physical health has core principles that are necessary for fit and the not so fit. Simple things like, move more than you chew, hear your heart beat daily, lengthen it to strengthen it, move it or lose it, all give us sense of what is required to acquire physical health. Mental health also has core principles which require implementation for the minds governance. Again simple things like: think about what you are thinking about, beyond this emotion is stillness, be here now, as you think so you become (so be careful what you think about), feelings float by us on a morning breeze. Although the physical and mental things which lead to good health are simple, they are not all that easy. If they were easy we would all have crystal clear minds and strong and supple bodies. However, the simplicity of these methods to health of the mind and body is crucial because it allows everybody, in some way, at some time to embrace them and experience their essence, if we so choose to implement them.
Whether we sit at the beginning, middle or end of the mental health spectrum, the Yogic practices will assist our journey to clarity and strength. The training program to arrive at good mental health is founded on an awareness, attention, concentration and meditation. These foundations are built overtime and require dedicated daily time to fine tune them, as the training and reorienting of the mind is undertaken. Good mental health is also under pinned by serving others, being in the present moment and thorough understanding of the nature of this world and our roles within it. May your mind be easeful, helpful and graceful.
Love & Strength