'Yoga saved my life': why yoga is essential for mental health

Ananya Kumar (name changed) speaks about how she fought depression and the important role that yoga has played in helping her heal mentally and physically.

My life has been full of ups and downs. My father’s untimely demise affected me deeply and I had a hard time coping with the sadness and stress that I was going through. Nevertheless, I went on with life, graduated, got a job and got married soon after. As the role of a wife demanded a high level of maturity and responsibility, the initial years were turbulent.

My husband’s job abroad required him to stay away for some time and this led to separation anxiety. I felt alone and my stress and anxiety levels peaked. I started counselling sessions and was prescribed medication for depression.

The healing process was slow and gradual. However, my husband’s steadfast love and support, the guidance I received from my family members, a year of medication and regular visits to the doctor, helped me in the process.

Healing with yoga

I, along with my husband, enrolled in yoga sessions taught by a certified instructor. This has played a great role in bringing discipline and stability to my mind and life. It has helped me control my emotions, and also explore the creative side of me, which I never knew existed.

My health has improved drastically. Yoga asanas like the butterfly asana, dhanurasana (bow asana) and bhujangasana (cobra pose) have helped me by regularising my menstrual cycle, which had been affected by all the medication I had to take. Breathing exercises such as Pranayama have helped me cope with the anxiety brought about by Covid-19 and the lockdown scenario.

Here are some yoga poses I practise to stay calm and healthy:

  • Marjariasana (Cat stretch): Massages the digestive organs and activates the digestion process. It also improves blood circulation and calm the mind.

  • Balasana (child pose): Good for the nervous system, it helps to relieve neck and back pain and release stress.

  • Sethu Bandhasana (bridge pose): The bridge pose asana should ideally be practised in the morning. It gives your heart, chest and shoulders a good stretch, helps relieve stress and anxiety and is good for curing headaches.

  • Ananda balasana (happy baby stretch): Idea for beginners, this pose stretches the whole body, especially the back, spine, groin area, inner thighs and hamstring. It compresses the stomach and massages the digestive organs. Ananda balasana also lowers the heart rate, helps calm your mind and ease stress and anxiety.

  • Shavasana (corpse pose): A favourite of mine, especially when I feel drained out, Shavasana is an easy yoga asana that requires you to lie down flat, focus on your breathing and bring your awareness to parts of your body. It's meditative, helps reduce blood pressure, calms the mind and is rejuvenating.

  • Face yoga: I practise face yoga to keep my skin glowing and to massage and lift lines and wrinkles that come as I age. It also helps improve blood circulation, relieve stress and get a good night’s sleep.

I have learnt to keep my cool in any situation thanks to Yoga. I have started to love myself more and have realised that in order to love others, I need to give myself equal importance.

Along with yoga, I also exercise and focus on my diet. I cook nutritious food and advocate the benefits of healthy eating. As a family, we have stopped binge eating, binge shopping and have curbed our desires, turning wastefulness into savings.

I also always try to save a few hours every day for myself, which I keep aside for yoga and for practising my hobbies.

It’s being thirteen years and I am now a proud mother of two beautiful girls. The journey has been difficult and it is far from over. However, I have come out happier and my experiences have moulded me into a much stronger person, who does not get as affected by irrelevant emotions.

Different styles of yoga

Derived from the Sanskrit word 'Yuj,' which means to unite, yoga focuses on the development of the body, mind and spirit. Experts say that regular practice of yoga can help fight a number of health problems such as mental health problems, diabetes, hypertension, reproductive disorders, cardiovascular problems, stress-related disorders, among others.

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Here are five popular styles of yoga that you can try out, and their health benefits:

Hatha Yoga: One of the oldest styles, and among the six original branches of yoga, Hatha yoga refers to the practice of yoga in its physical form – introducing one to different postures and movements. When done properly, Hatha yoga benefits the body and mind on various levels. At a spiritual level, it helps in mental wellbeing, calms and de-stresses the mind, and improves concentration and focus.

At a physical level, it helps improve flexibility, strengthens and tones the muscles, helps relieve back pain, increases stamina, strengthens the liver, helps improve the immune system and remove toxins from the body, improves cardiovascular functioning and helps in weight loss.

Ashtanga Yoga: Ashtanga Yoga refers to the eight limbs outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra. It is practised as a series of poses done in order, linked together with breath. While it is similar to Vinyasa yoga, the main difference between the two is that in Ashtanga yoga, the same postures are always followed in the exact same order.

This physically demanding style of yoga helps build strength and immunity, detoxifies the body, helps with weight loss, tones muscles, aids in blood circulation, lubricates joints, massages internal organs, promotes self-awareness and improves concentration.

Iyengar Yoga: Founded by yoga guru B.K.S Iyengar, this is a form of Hatha yoga that focuses on alignment and precision in the practice of asanas and breath control.

Iyengar yoga is based on the traditional eight limbs of yoga, as mentioned by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. It enlists the help of props such as blankets, bolsters, blocks, straps, etc. to ensure precision.

Iyengar yoga helps to relieve blood pressure, provides relief from back and neck pain, improves balance and concentration, relieves anxiety and stress, helps fight depression, and improves immunity.

Kundalini Yoga: Influenced by the Hindu school of Shaktism and Tantra, Kundalini yoga focuses on awakening the Kundalini energy (likened to a coiling snake located at the base of the spine) through regular chanting of mantras, practise of pranayama, stretching, meditation and performing yoga asanas.

This form of yoga is said to help strengthen the nervous system, expand lung capacity, purify the bloodstream, alleviate stress, awaken the mind and senses, aid in the functioning of the digestive system and nervous system, fight cardiovascular illnesses, relax the mind and help build confidence.

Prenatal Yoga: Meant for moms-to-be, prenatal yoga focuses on light and simple postures and breathing techniques to help relieve pain and stress during pregnancy and childbirth.

When performed correctly, and under the supervision of a certified prenatal instructor, it helps calm the mind, keeps the body fit during pregnancy and after childbirth, builds core strength and helps prepare the body for the childbirth process.