Navigating through university abroad can be overwhelming. So we got some mental health tips from a Yoga Instructor on why and how to maintain your wellness.
Mental Health has become more and more of a focus to help manage the stresses of our Modern World. Your mental health covers the functioning of your cognitive and emotional wellbeing – how you think, feel and behave. The ancient science of yoga is a system that helps you to train these functions of your mind so that you can better deal with the pressures of your everyday life and cultivate more awareness and peacefulness of the reality at hand, whether it be university, navigating a new country, or making big decisions. These simple practices of yoga and mindfulness were originally used to help you to expand into your greatest potential so you can work productively and are then able to make a contribution to society around you.
You take the time to wash the clothes you wear, the dishes you eat with, clean your teeth, wash your hair and organise your inbox. All this cleaning, but how often do you stop to clean your mind?
How often do we overlook the importance of wiping clear the lens we filter every moment of our lives through? The yogic teachings of meditation and mindfulness are key to helping you feel clear, vital and stable. It is the founding step to managing your mental health and living with a greater sense of emotional control and calm.
Why is it important to have a healthy mind?
Not only is your brain the most powerful muscle in your body and the most high powered and complex computer network known to man, it is also the home to the physical system of your mind. Your mind is the lens through which you process everything. It is the control centre of your life that regulates your thoughts, emotions, reactions, decisions, will power and all physical sensations – we have even uncovered that there are no ‘pain receptors’ in your body, pain is created solely in your mind!
When you suffer from mental health issues the mind feels out of your control. A part of the more primal functioning or survival instincts of your mind is to look for ‘danger’ and make you hyper sensitive to anything that can be a threat to your well being. When this part of your mind is not tamed or has been over stimulated through experiences of stress from moving out of home to another country, or pressures from studying, your amygdala starts to over function and the mind will begin to constantly draw you to thoughts of the worst case scenarios. This is what worry and stress are. When the mind starts to create negative fantasises about the future, i.e when you’re running late to something important like work or an exam and you begin to think – what if I don’t make it in time? What if there’s nowhere to park? What if I can’t remember what I studied? What if I get fired or fail the exam?
Your social interactions can also cause a strain to your mental health. As humans, we were originally tribal creatures and the primal functionings of our mind subconsciously view not being accepted by ‘the tribe’ aka those around us, as a threat and a factor to stress about because it made chances of survival in those times low. So training yourself to be aware of your internal dialog, your responses and interactions in your communities and social experiences can train your mind from jumping into the survival mode and looking for everything that could go wrong allowing you to be more at ease in your environments, to be more peaceful and relaxed with your housemates and classmates.
How can yoga help you achieve good mental health?
Mindfulness and meditation are the internal teachings of yoga. All the complex shapes you see are just tools to help capture your attention and guide it inwards. It’s hard to be thinking about the exam you’re stressed about when you’re trying to focus on balancing on one leg or the heat building in your hips from a long held chair pose! Cultivating a regular mindfulness/meditation practice is the most potent way to increase your conscious awareness, release thought patterns and habits that are no longer serving you and has proven to be so effective it rewires the stress responses in your brain, toning the whole nervous system.
It’s well known that humans are creatures of habit. Good or bad. Productive or destructive. You tend to practice and repeat the same actions day in and day out whether you’re conscious of it or not. The most effective way to cultivate a mindfulness practice and strengthen your ability to choose where you place your focus is to make it a daily habit. Maybe it’s getting into the routine of waking up 10 minutes earlier to set your mindset for the day or taking 10 minutes in the afternoon to check in on your mental state to settle any tension or worries you’re holding.
Your mind on Meditation
We live in an age and culture where we are conditioned to be constantly stimulated. So it can take some time for the mind to down-regulate. One of the most helpful things I ever learnt about meditation was understanding that the mind will naturally move in cycles so that tension can be released. The idea that you are supposed to sit there and think of nothing is not quite the case so let go of some of your self judgements about ‘doing it right’.
Once I understood that it’s natural for the mind to move through cycles of releasing, reviewing and rehearsing the future, your nervous system is able to imprint the calm state of being you have cultivated in your meditation practice. So when you are actually out in your day it becomes easier to allow the mind to flow while your awareness anchored into the meditation technique.
Mindfulness practices for beginners
Mindfulness uses simple practices that get you to tune into your breath, pay attention to bodily sensations and practice acceptance of the reality that is apparent in the present moment. These practices give you a point to anchor your awareness to. So every time you catch the mind wondering you observe where your thoughts are going when you have space and lovingly guide it back to the point of focus. These practices then help carry your everyday life as your ‘awareness muscle’ strengthens you are better able to focus on the tasks or experiences at hand whether that’s being able to listen to your friends or lectures without your mind wandering off or focusing on your exam and harnessing the power of your undivided attention.
“One of the most powerful things these practices taught me is that you are not the voice in your head but the person listening.”Eliza Giles
Mindfulness also helps you to drop the judgement. The more you practice watching your thoughts, the more aware you become of the themes and tones that they carry and are able to see if they are helpful to you or not. We all know that we can be our harshest critic. One of the best practices to help get rid of the negative self talk is to practice mindful compassion. Say you get a mark you’re not happy with in your exam. Your mind starts to spiral into all the things you could have done better or what you should have done instead, imagine someone who you feel really tenderly or lovingly towards (I always use my little sister). Imagine they had done the same thing, would you speak to them the same way you are speaking to yourself? Or would you soothe them, offer them encouragement and support? You should start practicing talking to yourself like that.
Research has shown that practicing mindfulness exercises can help to rewire and re-shape our brain to improve our ability to respond appropriately to our life experiences rather than get stuck in the stories of self doubt and self defeat that can surface under the moments of pressure we feel.
Mental Health tips to help you start practicing mindfulness today
- Set aside a small amount of time (5-10 minutes) to check in with yourself and start to learn about the content and quality of your thought patterns.
- Practice compassion – speak to yourself like you would a loved one.
- Let go of the judgement, remember it is your mind’s job to constantly think, remember and birth ideas. So don’t worry if it is ‘busy’ when you start to practice, focus on the awareness that you can observe these thoughts from and let go of the idea of doing it right – it’s a practice!