Yoga Practices for Mental Health Awareness Month

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Please Note: I won’t speak on specific mental health disorders because I am not a mental health expert of any sort. This is just my own personal experience with my own mental health journey and how yoga helped me, with hopes that it may help you. Resources are shared at the end of this blog post.

Growing up in a Southeast Asian household, we did not talk about our feelings. We did not verbally express love, happiness, anger, or pain. We avoided any conversation that involved vulnerability, openness, or feelings. Rather than confront the issues, we avoided each other. As an adult and as I continue my practice of svadhyaya (self-study in sanskrit), I realized I’m emotionally stunted and my tapas (self-discipline in sanskrit), will be to work towards being less avoidant and confront my feelings and any challenges that come my way.

I talk about feelings during Mental Health Awareness Month because I realized that a samskara (mental impressions, blindspots, psychological imprints) of mine is me running away from uncomfortable, painful feelings and moments instead of allowing myself to feel, process, and let them pass through me. This actually led for them to be buried within me, within my body and in turn affected my mental health (which in turn affected my physical health).

My therapist also told me that some feelings could also eventually dissipate. Some feelings also gets buried, which lay dormant, and after certain triggers, would re-emerge. For me, rather than addressing them, the cycle of avoidance (my samskara) would come up at this point. My tapas, the difficult work that I need to do for personal growth, is to allow myself to sit with and feel the feelings and then to let it pass. This processing of emotions reminds of me the five Vayus, which might help in offering a step-wise approach in processing emotions.

Processing Emotions with the Vayus

The Vayus translates to “wind” in sanskrit. They are part of our subtle energy body. Just like in Chinese medicine, where life energy is called “chi”, in yoga, life force energy is called “prana“. How prana moves through our bodies is where the vayus come in.

  1. Pran is internalizing the feeling, sense where you feel it in your body.
  2. Samana is assimilating, equalizing the emotion.
  3. Vyana is circulating, allowing the feeling to move through you.
  4. Udana is upward moving energy, expressing your feeling(s).
  5. Apana is downward moving energy, letting go of the feeling.

Our aim is to notice where there is stagnation, where are the blockages? Where are our feelings getting stuck? Observe so that we can effectively allow our emotions and feelings to flow through us, rather than remain dormant until the next conflict pops up.

How Does a Yoga Asana (Movement Practice) Fit In?

Sometimes, it’s hard to notice if there are feelings to feel. I think for some, it will be much easier to notice the sensations in your body first and then see if there are emotions tied to it. For example, when I feel angry, I feel heat in my chest and my face. When I feel anxious, I feel my heart racing in my chest and I feel out of breath. For both anger and anxiety, there is a sense of contraction in my body. For joy and love, I feel expansive, openness, and lightness in my body. In your body, these sensations may feel totally different.

Yoga asana is about how you feel in the postures, not how you look. In your next yoga practice, I invite you to choose a slower paced practice (such as yin, restorative, gentle) and to bring your focus to the sensations in your body and to how you feel in each posture.

Maybe you feel some irritation when you’re sitting in chair for a second longer than you want to. Maybe your body feels light in down dog. Maybe you feel blissful as you lay in savasana, or maybe you feel anxious. Maybe you feel bored while doing some neck rolls. Notice without judging the sensations and feelings. Become the observer of you, your sensations, your feelings, and your practice.

Now, take this practice of noticing off your yoga mat and into the world. Now, notice that. What is it like to be a witness? An observer?

Suggested Yoga Practices for Mental Health

Svadhyaya is Studying & Knowing Yourself

Let’s talk more about svadhyaya (which is part of the niyamas) for Mental Health Awareness Month. Svadhyaya is self-study. It means to know yourself. It means to be aware of your conditioning, your upbringing, society’s impact on you, your family’s impact on you, even your nervous system’s impact on you. It means to discern who you truly are at your core vs. who you are based on your conditioning vs. what is a story that was created. Without knowing ourselves, how can we truly know others?

Using avoidant me as an example: in order for me to recognize that being avoidant was detrimental to the adult-me and my relationships and for me to want to change that, I needed to trace that all the way back. I then saw it was how me and my family handled our conflict. It served when I was younger, but if I want a relationship now that feels connected, I need to work on my avoidant tendencies. In order for me to even change, I needed to be aware that it was an issue in the first place. It serves to trace back and evaluate where the root is. Our samskaras are difficult to identify, but possible with continued tapas (self-discipline) and sadhana (personal practice in sanskrit).

Through svadhyaya and learning about the boxes that I placed myself in, led me to practicing self-awareness, self-compassion and self-acceptance. Being kind to and knowing myself in this way, allows me to be less judgmental towards myself and therefore others. It expanded my capacity for compassion and acceptance. The more I know about myself, the more I am aware of my habits and tendencies that can cause stress & trauma to myself and others and then hopefully break the cycles of intergenerational and ancestral stress and trauma.

What are some of your practices that help with your mental health? Share in the comments!

Recommended Books

  • Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma by Dr. Gail Parker
    • No experience in yoga is necessary in reading. I’m especially enjoying reading about the nervous system. She ties yoga concepts to race-based stress & trauma, allowing for true healing.
    • With all that is going on this year (specifically the largest Civil Rights Movement and the rise in violence against AAPIs), I think this is worth the read especially if you’re feeling lost on how to move forward from all the stress and trauma related to racism.
  • The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele
    • Also, no experience in yoga is necessary in reading. She covers the first two limbs of yoga. If you’re interested in diving deeper in Svadhyaya and Tapas, this is a good one to read.
  • More books that helped me with my svadhyaya, spiritual journey, and personal development

Other Resources to help with Processing Emotions

*Shared by my dear friend, Canh Tran (Liberation Healing Seattle)

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