Ashtanga Mental health Yoga

How Ashtanga Yoga helped me to manage anxiety and depression

Believe it or not, there was a point in my life about 18 months ago when I didn’t think I would ever get out of bed again.

Yes, me. Rowdy, happy, sociable, confident, outgoing me!

Over the course of a few months I moved through an exhausting wave of emotions from severe anxiety and panic to feelings of hopelessness and despair, eventually sinking into depression.

Very few of my friends or family members know that I have suffered with my mental health so it will probably come as a shock to some reading this. But I also know everyone will appreciate how difficult it can be to talk about, especially at your lowest points. Sometimes faking a smile is easier than trying to explain why you’re sad.

I know what you’re thinking: “Why, Nat? What do you think caused it? Did something bad happen to you?”

But depression is not sadness caused by an event. Depression and anxiety are medical conditions that can affect absolutely anyone, no matter what their life situation and no matter how confident/bubbly they are!

Why am I writing this? Certainly not for attention or pity, but simply because it was through reading countless stories from other sufferers that I was inspired to do the things that started to make me feel better. If this story can do that for another human being out there, it will have been a post well-worth being written (more so than any of the other drivel you’ll find on here ;))

How I learned to manage my anxiety and depression

A very common symptom of anxiety is to become over-identified with thoughts in your mind and starting to feel either anxious about the future or obsessive about the past.

This is where I lost my way. I was so caught up in negative feelings from the past that I was in a constant state of suffering. Even though the events that caused me pain in the first place had long passed, the suffering continued because I was focused on the past instead of the present.

So it became obvious to me that I needed to learn how to bring my awareness into the now, into the present moment, a practice known as mindfulness.

1. Mindfulness meditation

To practice mindfulness is to be completely present with what’s happening right now, not judging or identifying, but simply observing. It’s not a method of getting rid of thoughts or emotions (that’s impossible, believe me I tried) but the practice of watching them come and go as if you’re an external observer.

I read absolutely everything I could get my hands on about mindfulness; books, blogs, scientific reports, the lot. Everything I read on “how to be mindful” kept coming back to the same advice….

Focus on your breath

This is a very common form of meditation, something I had always been a bit sceptical of because I had the closed-minded misconception that meditating was “weird and spiritual” (poetic words taken from my own journal).

I downloaded an app called Headspace, which is full of resources to help you start a mindfulness practice to improve and maintain your mental health. Not a hint of “weirdness” or “spirituality” in sight.

It has a series of amazing audio tracks which guide you through some very basic meditation exercises. All you need is ten minutes, a quiet space and a set of headphones. In fact, you don’t even need a quiet space – some of the exercises are specifically for when you’re commuting on a busy tube!

The exercises train your brain to stop identifying with your thoughts and feelings, and instead to simply observe them.

Imagine you are sitting peacefully on the platform in a train station and loud trains start to pass by. Instead of jumping on the trains you just observe them passing, remaining chilled and unaffected on your platform of peace. With practice, this is how you will learn to relate to your thoughts – as passing trains you are observing, rather than scary trains that are taking you away to God knows where.

I can’t tell you how much this helped me in my hours of need. I would sometimes even do several Headspace tracks a day as it was the only time I felt close to normal again. Over time it became easier to apply the mindfulness techniques during everyday life, I didn’t have to sit with my eyes closed every time I felt a little panicky.

2. Ashtanga yoga

“Ah,” I hear you cry, “but if that’s the case couldn’t you just sit and breathe? Why do you need yoga?”

Yes, in theory, of course you can. Many advanced practitioners can sit for hours and hours in meditation and have no need to move in order to reach a peaceful state of mind.

But for many of us who are not used to just sitting with our thoughts / were not brought up in a monastery, this can be very challenging, for two reasons:

  1. If you’ve ever tried to meditate you may have found that your mind just won’t shut up – you will start getting lost in thoughts of the past or the future like “what’s for breakfast”, “did I leave my straighteners on this morning” etc. and this can be the opposite of relaxing.
  2. It’s difficult physically to sit in one spot for a long time! You might think that sitting at a desk all day prepares us well for meditation, but you’d be wrong. We need to develop strength and openness in our muscles in order to be able to sit upright for long periods of time.

I’ve found Ashtanga yoga to be a great solution to both of these problems. When you are focused on the physically demanding postures whilst also maintaining awareness of your breath, you’ll find it very difficult to think about anything else. You are essentially present/mindful/aware throughout the whole practice. (Read more about the benefits of Ashtanga yoga here).

You will also develop the physical strength and flexibility required to sit still in comfort for longer than a few minutes so that you can begin to lengthen your meditation practice.

When I settle into savasana at the end of my practice (the bit where you get to lie down and relax) I find that my body is so exhausted that my mind actually starts to be quiet for once and I’m left with 10 precious minutes of complete calm and peace.

The more you practise this, the easier it will become to enter that state of mindfulness at any point in your day.

The science of yoga for anxiety and depression

Being a science nerd, I wouldn’t have been able to identify with these kinds of practices unless there was some sort of evidence to confirm the results. And believe me, there is a TON of it: I spent my worst days hidden under a duvet pouring through it all!

Others have explained it much better than I ever could; this article by Harvard Health presents an overview of the research, great for anyone non-medical like me.

headspace science

The science of meditation – image from Headspace

This article talks about the specific research results of a Harvard neuroscientist who studied how the volume of certain areas in the brain are affected by a yoga and meditation practice.

Spoiler alert: the useful parts of your brain that deal with memory/learning/ emotional regulation ACTUALLY GET BIGGER when you meditate. The part of your brain responsible for the flight or flight response (including anxiety and stress) ACTUALLY GETS SMALLER when you meditate regularly.

How cool is that?! It’s like you’re doing a physical workout on your brain and shedding unwanted fat (the overactive fight or flight response) and building useful muscle (the memory and learning centres).

Headspace have also done a fabulous summary of scientific research on meditation on their website. 

So there you have it friends. First-hand evidence, my very own account of how yoga and meditation helped me to manage my anxiety and depression. PLUS all the scientific evidence you need to support it. If that’s not enough to convince you that you should at least give it a try, then I don’t know what will be!

Even if you’ve never encountered any problems with mental health, there is no harm in giving your mind some TLC, just like you do with your physical body even if you don’t have an injury. I think nowadays in the west, when being surrounded by stresses and stimulation is considered to be completely normal, we don’t notice when everything is becoming a bit too much until it is too late.

If you start looking after your mental wellbeing now, you’ll ensure you have a healthy, happy mind that’s ready to face whatever life may throw its way.

Nat x x x

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  • Reply
    December 11, 2016 at 11:15 pm

    While there is valuable information in your blog post, there is also a glaring contradiction. You refer to the non-judging aspect of mindfulness AND have included the very judgemental quote that only lazy people can not practice ashtanga yoga. That quote reeks of narrow mindedness because many people can not do ashtanga yoga for reasons that are unrelated to laziness. Thank you for the sections of your blog post that were useful.

    • Reply
      Ashtanga Yoga Girl
      December 12, 2016 at 7:41 am

      Hi Chia thanks for your comment.

      I do see how that quote could seem contradictory if you’re not an Ashtanga practitioner – the media focuses largely on the physical aspect of the practice and gives a false impression of what is going in. The focus in Ashtanga is actually the breath, everything else can be modified to suit the individual.

      Of course the full primary series is unsuitable for some bodies but there are always modifications that can be made so that it’s more accessible. E.g. recently I was practicing with a pregnant lady whose practice was completely different from mine! And a guy who had been practicing for 30 years but is now 75, his practice was very different too. I’m modifying my practice right now for a knee injury but we were all still practicing Ashtanga there’s no denying that!

      Maybe a more welcoming quote would be something like “Ashtanga isn’t for everyone, but if you do fancy it, where there’s a will there’s a way!”

      What do you think?

  • Reply
    January 3, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    From how I’ve always understood it, what Guruji meant is that if you are willing to try, you can do some sort of Ashtanga practice, as it’s a breathing system.

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