Yoga and Mental Clarity: Why the Practice Works
Mental clarity is what we all strive for to function well in life. It is the foundation of so much for us. Yet the care we place on our Mind is minimal at best for most people. Rather, we invest the time and energy into our body (also important) and forget (or don’t realise) that we are not just this physical form. This is why many new students to yoga find the practice so revealing. Connections appear.
The pieces of the puzzle start to move into place. A sense of wholeness is tasted.
Mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression cause suffering – this is their commonality. They also lead us to feel fractured, separate not only from our self but the world we live in. Disconnection.
This is where Yoga can help.
As a society we have come to expect ‘quick fix’ solutions for all our suffering, however mental health is really a process that involves self empowerment and effort to make change. That is, we need to do the work to resolve our own suffering (often along with the assistance of other medical modalities). We can’t just leave our wellness to chance, fate or medication.
In creating mental health, the vehicle we do it through is the Mind. It is like a muscle. How we use it will have an effect and this is why Yoga is a valuable practice.
Yoga affects the entire human system, not just our physical form.
In this ancient philosophy, the Mind is one of the five layers of the human system – which immediately tells us how important it is. It is referred to as Manomaya (mano – mind, maya – layer) and just like our body and breath – we need to feed it appropriately. We can choose to engage with positive stimulus or negative stimulus. Where we direct our attention will have a consequence. A good amount of discernment comes into this process. Deciding what is right or wrong for us and the outside influences we engage in isn’t always easy. Stepping away from the pull of the tide to find your own foundation requires courage and faith. If the foundation we are coming from is fear, these choices will be difficult to make.
What happens if we live life without awareness that there is a choice for us?
Mental challenges arise when we identify with the contents of the mind as being who we are. We may attach to an identity that is not our truth, believe a rhetoric that is flawed or engage in lifestyle practices that keep us falling back into the loop of suffering over and over. We become stuck. The ancient yogis would say we are perceiving life from the place of avidya (wrong understanding).
How do we know when are operating from avidya?
The fascinating aspect of avidya is that we may not know we are in it until we are out of it. We only have one lense to see through – the lense of the Mind via our senses. If this is clouded or unable to view things clearly, we don’t have another reference for being, feeling or receiving information.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offers many observations that confirm if we are perceiving via avidya. And it is a state we are in more often than we may like to believe!
These accompanying states are called klesas (causes of suffering) and are listed below.
- we feel the heat of raga, (a desire) for something we do not have or an experience we need to keep repeating – often to our detriment.
- we put up restrictions around people, ideas, actions that we are uncomfortable with via dvesa (aversion) – we refuse to engage or receive, instead we reject.
- we operate from abhinivesa (fear), our sympathetic nervous system always switched on anticipating the next thing that might happen to us, being fearful of our steps in life or even the choices of those around us.
- we see our self as the ultimate authority – asmita(the ego) becomes blown out of proportion as we become attached to our opinions, lifestyle, job, ideas – we may forsake relationships with others because we can’t see any another point of view.
These causes of suffering (klesas) can be present in three stages for us – dormant, barely visible or fully manifest. They often merge together, feeding off each other. Ideally we want the klesas to be dormant but it does take constant effort for this to be the case. The inner work we do will reinforce how they do or don’t dominate our life and practices such as Yoga will assist us to have clarity around them.
Which brings me to the concept of Yoga as a path to inner freedom. We hear this all the time but what does it really mean? The ultimate goal of Yoga according to the Yoga Sutras is kaivalyam (liberation). It is a state where we become unaffected by the pulls of the material world and find evolution as a conscious being.
This may seem out of reach in a single life time but we can certainly use the mind in a way that gives us a taste of the path and affirms for us that we are heading in the right direction. It starts with the practice.
Yoga can move us out of avidya (wrong understanding) if we have the right practice for us, the perseverance to continue along the path despite any obstacles that may pop up and the willingness to cultivate vairgayam (non-attachment to results).
Yoga shows us that the more we come back to honouring our own needs, the greater clarity we create for our self. It is really that simple.
(I have to make comment here that not all yoga practices will necessarily benefit us in this way. If we are being pushed beyond our limit, the practice brings fatigue or agitation, or we are not receiving an ‘inner balance’ from it – then bringing clarity to the mind may not be an achievable path. Our reference is always coming back to ‘What feels right for me?’ Self empowerment.)
We may be preoccupied with the physical aspect of achieving a pose that our body may never be capable of or caught up in the pain we are experience after a strong class. This is a form of avidya and is definitely not the yoga as defined by Patanjali or the yoga masters of a previous age. Yet unfortunately this perception has crept into our modern day yoga classes through an attitude of ‘striving’ or pushing ourself – something we already have too much of in society!
Which leads me to why appropriate yoga practice works in creating mental stability – we are with our self, on a mat, using our own body, connecting with our essential life force (our breath) and being asked to follow a sequence or movement that draws us deeper inwards with each move and breath. The body is merely the physical container of the experience but what takes us deeper is focus and inner awareness – using the muscle of the Mind.
As we learn to navigate poses that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable, we are truly being asked to choose for our self – what is right versus wrong for us. We are not being asked to draw information from ‘out there’ but just be present here at this moment. In this process there is a natural stripping away of all that is superfluous and unnecessary. The Mind opens up to a new awareness once we can eliminate other distractions.
True mindfulness is the essence of yoga practice – not a separate concept. Of course we slip in and out of this. Our senses are strong. We might notice a smell, hear a sound, remember an event and off we go down that path again of learning how to draw our self back to the moment on the mat. As we use the muscle of the Mind again and again, we begin to draw in other elements that support us:
Abhyasa (practice) – the foundation. The word ‘practice’ suggests we do something continuously over time, with a positive attitude and that we don’t give up because we feel the goal is far away. Progress never happens of its own accord – we actually have to put in the effort to bring about changes in our own thinking, however painful the resistance can sometimes be. And sometimes the first resistance is taking the step into ‘self care’ – laziness or fear of change can be some reasons to stay stuck.
The Breath. Science is catching up with something Yoga has long understood – using the breath in a full and conscious way can affect the Mind. A few long exhales can begin to clear the muddiness, release resistance and reform the communication line between body and Mind. It is proven that engaging in certain breath practices stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve. When we can connect these two entities (body and breath) we begin to form understanding and intelligence about our own thoughts, feeling, capacities. Breath creates clarity for the Mind to choose what to do next.
When Yoga evolved it came out of the concept of union with self, not the outside world. We live in the world but when we only listen to what is ‘out there’ we are never guided by our own instinct and knowledge. I wonder how much this affects our mental health overall? Social media is one example of how we can fall down the rabbit hole of outside influence.
I watched David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on Our Planet’ on Netflix recently (a sobering reality of the destruction we have made on Earth in such a short time). I was struck by a comment he made. “We don’t need intelligence to save the world, we need wisdom.’
Intelligence can be learnt but wisdom is the culmination of experience over time when we have been able to reflect and understand the consequences of our actions. So if we are constantly making bad life choices and never learning to step out of the pattern, change won’t manifest. Suffering will keep prevailing.
This self reflection of the path we are moving along is what practices like Yoga can offer if we remain steady and committed. They are a valuable tool for mental health. It is a small step in the movement along the path to kaivalyam (liberation). The more we use the muscle of the Mind, the more we gain!
When we can understand our self a little more clearly our actions in the world become positive and geared towards a collective understanding of what is the best action for all. This is where we put Self in the context of a ‘big picture’ and begin to feel less isolated and separate from the world we live in – another important aspect in attaining mental health. Connection.
The essence of the yoga practice is about drawing us back to our own nature, inner awareness and ultimately peace – gaining mental clarity and wisdom as we move inwards toward the centre of the spiral (the heart).
This ethos sounds do-able in theory but cracks appear in the practice because we have senses that are always drawing us to the outside world (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). It is important that we connect with these as they give us information about how to act but what happens when let ourselves be led by them without restraint?
This is why yoga practice plays such an important role in reigning in the senses. The vehicle (the Mind) we are driving on the mat has the choice to take charge and engage in the practice or be lead by distraction – and the practice of moving in and out of these two states is where the real work is being done.
Abhyasa (practice) and vairgyam (non-attachment to results) are fundamental elements of the practice according to the great sage Patanjali. This basically means that the more we do something with the right attitude, over time, it becomes effortless. If we can keep using the mind in a positive way, the messages that feedback will benefit our mental state. They may even imprint a new pattern (samskara). And the process has come to fruition.
During yoga practice we let go of expectation and just ‘do’ – we create a space within our self that doesn’t grasp or expect result. This is where the ‘magic’ of the practice unfolds. There is an element to it that cannot be explained but the effects can be felt.
This place of ‘being’ offers grace, acceptance and the sense that wherever we are at this moment is enough. And it connects us with back into our innate wisdom – where the true ability of the Mind can come to fruition. We choose.