The conversations around mental health have been amplified in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, as people adjust, or don’t, to a new, socially distant work-life model. Yoga is proven to be a powerful way to support your mental health.
Yoga works on the body, breath and brain to create a sense of holistic well-being. The poses stretch, strengthen and lengthen the body, helping to release built-up tension, leaving you feeling lighter and calmer. Smooth, rhythmic breathing can reduce anxiety. When we slow the inhale and lengthen the exhale, the body and mind move from the fight or flight state into the rest and digest state. Finally, yoga increases the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid (Gaba) in the brain, a chemical that helps to regulate nerve activity.
So as you move, stretch, and breathe, your brain starts to calm down. Focusing on your practice generates a sensation of centredness and balance.
There are many postures and breathing techniques that move you from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system, so even a short practice, when done regularly, can improve mood, reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, and restore balance. Here are six to try.
This technique is also known as square breathing. When you feel overwhelmed, anxious or disconnected, this breathing exercise steadies you by supporting a gentle shift into the parasympathetic nervous system. Close your eyes. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Count steadily to four in your head. Feel the air enter your lungs. Take a moment at the top of your inhalation. Then count to four as you exhale. Continue this for several rounds. When you get into the rhythm, you can hold your breath for a count of four.
This posture increases the flow of thyroid hormones in the blood, which makes us feel lively and energised. It also enhances melatonin, which contributes to a sound and restful sleep.
Lie on your back with your legs extended and hands relaxed alongside your body.
Place your hands underneath you're thehips, palms facing down. Bring your elbows closer towards each other.
Inhale, press your forearms and elbows into the floor and lift your chest to create an arch in your upper back. Lift your shoulder blades and upper torso off the floor. Tilt your head back and bring the crown of your head to the floor.
Keep pressing through your hands and forearms. There should be very little weight pressing through your head. Keep your thighs active. Press outward through your heels. Hold for five breaths.
To release the pose, press firmly through your forearms to slightly lift your head off the floor. Then exhale as you lower your torso and head to the floor. Draw your knees into your chest for a few breaths, and then extend your legs and rest.
A common yoga class posture, this gentle inversion that restores energy as it brings oxygenated blood to the upper body and calms the mind.
- Start on your hands and knees, with your palms grounded and the middle fingers pointing forward.
- As you exhale, lift the hips towards the ceiling and rest on your feet. Relax your neck and gaze towards your knees.
- Draw the elbows in towards each other and rotate the shoulders to bring the armpits parallel to one another.
- Slightly bend both knees, elevating the heels. Then press down through the palms and lengthen the sitting bones up towards the ceiling, creating a V shape.
- Continue to work down evenly through the palms, lifting the sitting bones to the ceiling. Gently direct your stomach towards your thighs, while simultaneously drawing the front of your ribs in towards your spine.
- Take five to 10 smooth and easy breaths here.
This is an active and empowering posture that wards off anxiety by improving concentration and balance. It also releases tension in the shoulders, legs and back.
- From a standing position, (tadasana), bend your knees slightly, then shift your weight into your right foot and cross your left thigh over your right. Try to hook your left foot behind your right calf or ankle.
- Extend your arms out to the sides and cross the right elbow over the left, then either press the backs of the hands together or get your palms to touch.
- Hug your legs together and sit back as if on a chair. Lift the spine long.
- Lift the hands so the elbows are in line with the shoulders. Hold for 20 seconds to one minute.
- As you exhale, unwind the legs and arms and stand in tadasana. Repeat on the other side.
Resting pose with raised legs
Put your feet up and reclaim your balance in this deeply restorative pose, which allows the mind and the body to relax. The easiest way to do this is to lie in bed and put your legs up on the headboard.
- Walk your feet up the wall until your body is in an L-shaped position.
- Let your arms rest on the sides or place one hand on your stomach area and one hand on your heart.
- Focus on your breath – taking a deep, slow inhale and exhale through your nose.
- Stay in the pose for as long.
Supine bound angle
This posture puts the body at ease and invokes inner calm because it slows the breathing, lowers blood pressure and quietens the nervous system.
- Lie on your back and bring the soles of your feet together. Place cushions under your knees or hips for support, if needed.
- Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your heart, focusing on your breath.
- Stay in this pose for up to five to 10 minutes.
- Then inhale while lifting your knees away from the floor, and exhale while extending the legs back to their original position.
Yoga should always feel good. If any of the practices feel uncomfortable, stop. Always work within your own range of limits and abilities and, if you have any medical concerns, talk to a doctor before practising yoga.
Nerry Toledo’s full guide to postures and breathing techniques that boost mental well-being can be found at, www.nerryfit.com