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The Yogic Perspective

Yoga and Mental Health

Our definitions of mental health relates to absence of maladaptive behaviors (violence, phobias, and compulsions) and freedom from symptoms  like anxiety, depression etc. We tend to view a healthy person as one who conforms to normal social expectations of behavior – can maintain relationships, keep a job, is friendly, etc. These definitions are limited because they relate to the norms of the culture or society in which they are formed and, more importantly, they take no account of any ideal state of mental health.

In the Bhagavad Gita (2:62-63) it is said:

“When a man dwells upon the pleasures of sense, attraction for them arises in him. From attraction arises desire, the lust of possession, and this leads to passion, to anger. From passion comes confusion of mind …and the ruin of reason leads man to destruction.”

Balance is the essence of true mental health

Mental health could be defined as ‘a whole balanced person, living a life which is in harmony with themselves and the universe around them’. If we choose to view it in this way, then social success has little meaning .

Balance is the essence of the yogic ideal – and here we are considering the notion of energetic balance. When energy is blocked and not flowing freely, this manifests as the state we call depression. When energy is scattered, it manifests as the condition we call anxiety. When energy is out of balance and the person is out of touch with reality – as it is commonly experienced – and in touch with a different reality. When it becomes difficult to function on day-to-day levels, it is labelled psychosis.

What, then, do we mean by balance? We may be considered balanced if we can move from one situation to another, adapting ourselves where necessary. To be quiet and introspective at times and, at other times, allowing the energy to flow outwards and to make contact with the world. When there is a mental imbalance, we often find that the energy is ‘stuck’, with too much or too little energy going into the world or into ourselves. When we work with yogic practices, we try to bring the whole of our being, our mind, body, energy (prana) and spirit into a more harmonious and balanced state.

Pranic imbalance

According to Swami Niranjanananda, “Pranic imbalance is a relatively new concept. We have been geared up to look at ourselves from the physical and mental viewpoint. However, yogis have attributed the cause of most of the mental, emotional or physical imbalances as originating in the pranic body, the pranic structure.”‘

In yoga, we understand the pranic structure as broadly relating to these polarities:

  • The energy flowing in ida nadi is passive and mental – it has an introverting tendency.
  • The energy flowing in pingala nadi is active and vital – it has an extroverting tendency.

In one case there is excessive thinking, introversion and parasympathetic activity with insufficient access to energy. In the other case a person has anxiety/panic attacks the energy is scattered, there is often hyperactivity, the sympathetic nervous system is continually overactive and consequently the person becomes unable to respond to real threat or crisis.

The effective practices of yoga are different for the two groups, but there are common practices suitable for both groups. Thereafter, yoga practices are many and varied; a program can therefore be tailored to meet the needs of the individual with particular mental health difficulties.

For those who experience depression, the more dynamic yoga postures (asanas) and breathing techniques (pranayamas) are indicated, as well as balancing practices such as alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana). For those who are experiencing anxiety and maybe manifesting panic attacks, the more introverting and calming practices are best, together with practices to balance the energy.

Often people with mental health difficulties come to yoga with the belief that they need to practice meditation and that this is the panacea which will resolve all their difficulties. In the short term, this is not true. Only when some balance has been restored by the practices of hatha yoga i.e Asanas and Pranayamas  and maybe relaxation, does it become possible to practice meditation. Then it is possible to gain insight into, and resolve, the underlying causes of the condition.



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