What have yoga’s ethics got to do with mental health?

What have yoga’s ethics got to do with mental health?

“Authentic yoga has always had its focus on the high ideal of mental health and spiritual realisations.” (Georg Feuerstein, 2007, Yoga Morality)

When it comes to mental health, yoga is lauded for its relaxation and mindfulness. The other commonly-cited benefit, of course, is physical activity.

Lesser known, but perhaps more powerful for making sense of your life, is yoga’s philosophy. This includes inquiry, and ethics.

Now, in case you think “morality” is a conversation for your grandmother, the very essence of what it means to be a good human being has popped up in places like Alain de Botton’s The School of Life and The Thought Collective in Singapore. Renowned yoga teacher Donna Farhi might frame the question as “Is my yoga practice really making a difference?”

If your experience of being a better person through yoga extends as far as being a bit nicer from the juicy glow of a vinyasa flow, an effortless next step is to get to know the 10 Yamas and the Niyamas named in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Often described as the first two limbs of yoga practice, the Yamas and the Niyamas are the ethical precepts which describe how we should be with ourselves and others. They include stalwarts like truthfulness and non-harming (which sound straightforward, until you look more closely). In a broader sense, Karma Yoga invites us to partake only in actions that are true and just.

This integral aspect to our yoga practice opens us up to a conversation about what it means, simply, to be a good human being.

My asana practice (yoga postures) have made me fit and strong. Relaxation has made me calmer, meditation has focussed my mind. And now?

While less pain, or reducing stress, can be enough to draw someone to yoga, it’s usually not enough to continue long enough to see the full benefits. They need to be open to a deeper motivation. They have to be open to having a conversation with themselves about what is meaningful to them. That is, clarity about how they want to live.

Sometimes that takes time to find, and it certainly evolves with time.  As teachers we must always hold the question for when they are ready. Without that inquiry, the pain – and with it, the anxiety of being alive – is at best kept at bay.

With that inquiry into who they are and how they wish to be, their practice and they way they use their body aligns with the way they feel the world can be. That is an immensely healthy place to be.

Finding Yoga was invited by St John of God Murdoch to run a yoga clinic for Mental Health Week. The theme is that being active is good for your mental health. In a previous post for Mental Health Week I shared a guided relaxation. 

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