Downward Dogs, Child Poses & Mental Health

Despite a robust body of evidence citing its numerous health benefits and recent popular media exposure, yoga still resides somewhere between trendy exercise and mystical meditative mojo only achieved in far flung Instagram-worthy locations or expensive hardwood studios. While those truths still remain, yoga isn’t limited to those simple stereotypes and just may be the most effective—and efficient–exercise around for both mind and body health. Research is increasingly supporting what practitioners of yoga have known for a long time—moving and breathing with purpose works wonders on the mind and spirit. For young people dealing with mental health issues, yoga can be an ideal way of helping cope with the challenges they face each day.

Yoga (a sanskrit word loosely meaning to unite or in reference to a method of discipline) goes back thousands of years, originating through oral tradition in India.The sage Patanjali and his teachings are collected in the 195-statement Yoga Sutra, the philosophical underpinnings of facing the challenges of being a human being and foundation of modern yoga.

The basis of this philosophy varies in practice, but yoga teaches us to find peace through awareness, which can be found with stillness and breath, precious moments difficult to experience in our modern society. What most people associate with yoga are physical poses and challenging stretches (“hatha yoga”), but the true purpose of yoga’s physical process is to prepare the body for mindfulness and proper breathing, both necessary for unifying the body and mind as one conduit through which we gain awareness of ourselves and the environment around us.

But what does this mean in reality? Just a bunch of downward dogs and planks? Partly. But it is the intent of practice that largely determines one’s experience “on the mat” and ultimately guides us on the path toward any gains in mind and body. Today, yoga is as popular as ever but still remains somewhat mysterious to those not familiar with its benefits or in some cases,dismissed as an activity for women in expensive gear at even more expensive studios. The reality is yoga can be practiced by anyone, anywhere. For young people struggling with mental health challenges, this can be transformative. Try sitting still for one minute. It’s hard. Try breathing normally for a minute.In and out. Deep breaths. It’s harder than you think. This is only for a minute. Now do it for two minutes. Five. Ten. You get the idea. One minute of deep breathing will offer more of a release than most anything else you could do for yourself.

Yoga has grown in popularity in the last few years, perhaps due to its increased accessibility and having its supposed veil of mystery lowered a bit due to the rise in mental health awareness and activities related to stress reduction and increased meditation.Yoga isn’t the only way to improve your mental and physical health but it packs a punch, both in terms of time and effort. Twenty minutes of beginning poses and movement each day can have a tremendous effect on one’s mood and physical well being. Yoga can help anyone feel better, regardless of age and gender or athletic experience. It can be done virtually anywhere. I recommend getting clothes you can forget about once you’re in practice (no need for expensive brand name gear although there are plenty of quality choices available). Most critical is a good mat. Other than that, yoga requires very little gear or expense.

Studios remain a point of contention given their sometimes hefty fees, but if you can find a relatively affordable situation where you can practice with others and have an instructor you enjoy and helps you grow, it’s worth it in the long view. Yoga can be done individually (there are some excellent tutorials online and great apps associated with yoga) with very positive benefits, but the effects of practicing in a larger group or community brings with it another level of connectivity not possible alone. We are built to move and breathe yet most of us either don’t do it or don’t even know how anymore. Young people are no exception. A stereotype persists that young people are naturally “in shape” and have little need for movement. This is no longer true and the current generation of young people may move less than any generation in recent memory.This is not a positive trend and one which can be crippling when coupled with mental health struggles. Young people need to move and move often, but not everyone is cut out for organized sports. This is where yoga can offer true, unique value. And it’s accessible anywhere.

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