Can I work on my mental health without yoga?

A journalism friend of mine, who also is a mental health expert, talks regularly with journalists about the topic of wellbeing and often shares with them that he doesn’t like yoga. At all. When he discovered his trauma years ago and got in touch with people who could help him, they would always advise him to start practising yoga. He tried, but it was not for him. And I understand.

I completed four yoga teacher training and I still like outdoor running more than yoga. But, I learned how to run in a yoga way, meaning that I keep in touch with my body and I make use of my breath to make the running go easier. And of course, I would be lying if I would say I never practice yoga, but it is particularly the anatomical lessons and the philosophy behind yoga that helps me in other parts of my life that I like so much about it.

The functional approach to yoga

It’s called the functional approach to yoga where you dive deeper into body differences and the fact that we’re all different. Instead of assuming sitting up straight in the lotus position is the only way to get enlightened, the functional approach teaches you that you might never reach the lotus because your hipbones aren’t built for that position. And yes, I did see people cry in teacher training when they were confronted with the limitations of their bodies.
The cover of a yoga magazine tends to have this slim, blond, flexible person showing off a difficult pose whereas most of the poses come from gymnastics in the nineteenth century. The oldest yoga poses are mostly seated and lying poses, focusing on the fascia around the joints with the goal of being able to sit longer in meditation. 

The idea behind the practice of functional yoga is to embrace the fact that you have limitations in your body and to learn how to work with them. Getting to know your body through this type of yoga is beneficial for all other exercises you are doing. And in general for your health. In that sense, the functional approach focuses on root causes and solving problems for the long term. It is not focusing on showing off on the mat or impressing others with your flexibility.

Besides that, there is a yin and yang in everything and most of our daily life exists of yang activities: using muscle strength and focusing on doing. It is especially in our busy lives important to bring some yin in sitting, lying, stretching and letting gravity do its work. Or, in other words, focusing on being. Our body is very intelligent, we can heal a lot of things by using less force instead of more.

The woo-woo image of yoga

In the same way as yin yoga, a meditation practice can also bring more yin to your life. If you resist meditation, you actually resist being with yourself because that’s what it is. Sitting still and observing what is going on inside of you can be very confrontational. And again, meditation isn’t for everyone. The theory behind it though makes a lot of sense to the challenges we face in our daily life. Observing craving and aversion helps you to not get occupied by unfavourable thoughts in your head. Meditation is not about stopping thoughts from entering your mind, it is about you being an observer of your thoughts and instead of identifying yourself with everything that comes to your mind, you will be able to wave thoughts goodbye without giving them the attention they ask for.

Yoga and meditation have gotten a woo-woo image throughout the years. One of my yoga teachers who is a renowned practitioner once said in a retreat that she doesn’t like to call herself a yoga teacher anymore. She now calls herself a holistic life practitioner, or something like that. The reputation of yoga has been taken over with empty marketing talk in some cases. You need to wear the right outfit, eat the right food, and follow new retreats and teacher training in tropical locations. There isn’t much attention to the foundation of yoga, the ethical rules and how to apply the practice in your daily life.

So yes, you can work on your mental health without yoga. The theory of yoga can be found in philosophy as well. But the combination of embracing change, becoming an observer, and creating a distance between who you are and what you think, is best learned through embodiment. And especially yin yoga is the perfect – but not only – way to do that.