A while back I published a post about how Ashtanga yoga helped me to manage anxiety and depression.
You may have heard the statistic that one in four people will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. But the response I received to that blog post really brought that figure to life for me.
I was overwhelmed by the response from friends, family and strangers, not only in support of me speaking openly about the subject but from people who were also suffering and found some comfort in reading my story.
Some felt inspired to give yoga a try after reading my post, which was wonderful to hear as I know from first-hand experience how healing it can be.
But I also know that Ashtanga yoga isn’t for everyone. Where I see a powerful, cleansing and disciplined practice, others might perceive it to be rigid, aggressive and repetitive. Everyone is different, every body has different needs and that’s the great thing about yoga: there are so many styles that you have the luxury of picking one that feels right for you.
So in this post I wanted to step outside of the Ashtanga box and explore another style of yoga that I have been practicing recently. It’s the complete opposite to Ashtanga in so many ways, but one thing they do have in common is the amazing effect they can have on your mental wellbeing.
I first started Yin yoga in Bali where I was lucky enough to study with some extraordinary teachers. Since then I have been reflecting on how much this gentle practice can improve our ability to deal with discomfort, both physically and emotionally.
So what is Yin yoga?
Yin is a gentle and slow form of yoga, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s easy.
In a typical 90 minute Yin yoga class you will only do a handful of postures but you will be holding them for a long time, some as long as 10 minutes!
The atmosphere in a Yin class is very conducive to relaxation, often accompanied by soft candlelight and gentle music.
The postures are all passive, i.e. you don’t engage any muscles to try and push yourself further into the posture; you simply allow gravity to do the work for you. This allows you to access deeper layers of connective tissue called fascia, which is hugely beneficial for flexibility. In this post, however, I want to focus more on the psychological benefits.
If you’re a fidget like me, after about 2 minutes your mind will start telling you it’s time to get out of the position, but that’s when your resolve has to kick in! For the final 3 minutes or so you will probably be in a lot of discomfort (but absolutely no pain – otherwise you should exit the posture).
When you feel discomfort you will likely want to readjust your position or maybe tense another muscle to distract you from the sensation. You might even be tempted to hold your breath through it. But your teacher will pose these questions to you:
What would happen if you just stayed still, exactly where you are? What if you just let your awareness rest in the discomfort? As you exhale deeply, can you send your out breath to that area of discomfort to relax the muscles further?
The physical and psychological benefits of Yin yoga will only start to fully reveal themselves to you once you learn to remain still in the postures for long periods of time. So once you have found a vaguely comfortable (okay, bearable) position, you should commit 100% to stay there to the end.
Side note: yoga jargon
- To “let your awareness rest somewhere” means to focus your attention on that place. For example if you feel discomfort in your hamstrings when doing a forward fold, don’t try and think about something else, actually explore the feeling in your hamstrings consciously.
- To “send your breath somewhere” means when you exhale, focus your attention on the muscles you are trying to relax and imagine they’re relaxing. Imagining that it’s happening will actually relax the muscles, or at least it will make you aware of any tension you are still holding on to.
Why would you put yourself through that?
Whilst there are physical benefits of stretching the deep layers of connective tissue (fascia) in your body, let’s think about the psychological impact of “sitting with discomfort” as I like to call it.
Our minds are programmed to avoid discomfort. Most of the time this is a good thing; it can prevent us from physical and emotional harm.
But for some of us suffering from mental health issues (rumination, worry, stress, anxiety) the mind can start to overreact when it encounters discomfort, often to the point where it impacts our daily life.
For example, one of my most frequent anxiety symptoms was tightness in my throat, kind of like a lump you get if you’re about to burst into tears. Whilst feeling like you have a lump in your throat is uncomfortable and annoying, the sensation itself is harmless.
But my mind didn’t like to be uncomfortable and so it would overreact, trying to conjure up ways of avoiding the feeling, creating resistance in my entire body. Cue a string of panicked thoughts along the lines of “oh my god I have a lump in my throat again, how do I get rid of it, why has it come back, what if I never get rid of it, I’ll feel like this forever”.
What would happen if, instead of trying to move away from that sensation of discomfort (which clearly creates tension and resistance in my body and mind) I actually just sat there and observed it? What would happen if I allowed the discomfort to be there and just watched what happened? Can’t be any worse than the way I was dealing with it before, right?
Well, I’ll tell you what happened! Once I had learned just to watch this lump in my throat and stopped resisting the discomfort, the sensation slowly started to dissolve.
Another way to look at it is like this: Visualise that your anxiety (or any uncomfortable sensation) as a baby version of yourself crying because he/she is upset about something. Would you greet a poor, crying baby by pushing it away and trying to silence it aggressively? No!! You would take care of it, hold it in your arms and rock it gently until it started to fall asleep.
If we can learn to reposition our relationship with physical discomfort in this way through yoga, we can then use the same techniques to deal with emotional discomfort in a more positive way.
When I started practicing Yin yoga a few months back I kind of wished I had stumbled across it earlier, when I was really struggling. But that thought inspired me to write this post!
For anyone struggling with worries, stress or anxiety, the best advice I can give you from experience is to learn to become comfortable in discomfort. Life will always be full of ups and downs so if you can become comfortable with uncomfortable sensations, you’ll soon start to find that things don’t faze you as much anymore. Yin yoga is a great way to learn and practice this technique.
Not to mention the practice is so insanely relaxing, it leaves your whole body feeling like it’s melting into the floor.
So what are you waiting for? Go sign up for a class!
If you have any questions about Yin yoga (or anything!) please just get in touch 🙂
Lots of love
Nat x x x