Yoga, psychology and mental health



Yoga, psychology and mental health

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What is mental illness? 11 misconceptions

What is mental illness? 11 misconceptions

What is mental illness? I was just finishing university when I started Googling that question. I had been told my friend was ill, but I didn’t understand what a ‘mental illness’ was. And the internet didn’t help. I couldn’t find any wheat, only vague speculations […]

What is Ashtanga yoga?

What is Ashtanga yoga?

Yoga makes up one of the six systems of orthodox Indian philosophy, and has a long history, pre-dating the existence of Lululemon Athletica and reaching back roughly 4’000 years. In the first known yoga manual (thought to be written in 200 BC), a sage named Patanjali […]

Why yoga is the perfect antidote to mental health disorders

Why yoga is the perfect antidote to mental health disorders

The emerging yoga mat-ed, kale-inspired, coconut water-drenched fitness and well-being trend doesn’t always show its close links to the field of mental health – or mental health problems. But behind the move towards positive living, clean eating and fitness, is the move away from mental health struggles, which often comes hand in hand with poor dietary choices and lack of exercise. One exemplifies wellness, and, societally and culturally speaking, the other represents un-wellness – or illness, as in the term mental illness.

These are two ends of one spectrum.

Yoga can help as at any level of mental health, high or low.

Yoga, or more specifically, the Ashtanga yoga system, is so closely linked to mental health because the ultimate goal of yoga is freedom from suffering. In the Bhagavad Gita (an ancient yoga text), the purpose of yoga is described as a ‘deliverance from pain and sorrow.’ But this is the practise of the eight steps (moral oberservances or yamas, internal commitments or niyamas, yoga postures or asana, breath work or pranayama, external sense control or pratyahara, concentration or dharana, meditation or dhyana and freedom of consciousness or samadhi).

See my post What is Ashtanga yoga? for more clarity on the 8 steps

Below we will look at the research studies into the effects of yoga on improving mental health. You’ll notice that I include research on meditation, because I am a sincere believer of the 8 steps of Ashtanga yoga. This is important because yoga isn’t just exercise, it is a system to cleanse the physical body and focus and calm the mind.


A number of studies have looked a the effects of yoga on mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia (Broderick et al, 2007), however, they provide only positive or ambivalent results and call for more research to be done. I think one of the main problems is that they are researching the effect of asana (physical postures) on mental health conditions, rather than yoga. Since, I have said many times, in the West we tend to only be familiar with this exercise-based component of yoga, rather than yoga as a larger spiritual system. I think there needs to be greater clarity around what yoga actually is, before its effects can be properly researched.


Since the 1970s, meditation has been studied as possible treatments for depression and anxiety (popularised by John Kabat Zinn) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapies, however these are seen an independent approaches rather than falling under the umbrella of yoga. ‘Mindfulness’ is somewhat a watered down, bite-sized version of the 4th and 5th step of yoga, pratyahara and dhyana, and meditation is the 6th step (dyana).


A study of male veterans who scored highly for depression prior to attending a hatha yoga class twice a week had a significant reduction of symptoms have on finishing the 8-week programme. This was presented at the 125th American Psychological Association. But again, this is the physical practice of yoga postures (asana) rather than the whole system of yoga.

Eating disorders

A recent study by Kristeller and Hallett explored a meditation-based intervention for Binge Eating Disorder and found that meditation training may be an effective component in treating BED. Meditation, or Dhyana, is the 7th step of the Astanga yoga system. In this stage, we move past the illusory self concept and dissolve our sense of time and space.


In general, it is important to keep in mind that Western society has a fractured understanding of the whole of the yoga system, and research into its benefits reflect this. Research usually takes one limb of the Ashtanga yoga system (either the postures or meditation) and studies it’s effects in isolation. An approach like this can only dilute results, and not paint an accurate picture of how yoga can help with mental health disorders.

This raises the question: if all the 8 steps (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi) were integrated as they were originally identified and intended to be practised, would this improve results?

This isn’t me saying that I think practising sun salutation A and B will solve all the world’s problems. But I am saying that integrating the ready-made 8-step system of Ashtanga yoga into the recovery process makes a lot of sense, given the original healing purpose of yoga. And it has a lot less side-effects than psycho-pharmacological drugs (at least, I’ve never had weight-gain, bleeding gums or mouth spasms from practising yoga, but I suppose there is time yet.)

Perhaps it is through application of the whole of the moral, psychological, physical and spiritual Ashtanga yoga system that approach that more definitive results can be reached and the true power of healing through yoga can be tapped.

Photo credit: Gabriel Nunes on Unsplash
5 signs you are reaching ‘Pratyahara’ in your practice

5 signs you are reaching ‘Pratyahara’ in your practice

Pratyahara is the 5th limb of yoga, and can often be the forgotten limb. We bring our life into order by practicing the yamas, the niyamas bring us emotional balance, and the practise of asana builds both strength and flexibility. After the practise of pranayama […]

How to cleanse your body with asana

How to cleanse your body with asana

‘Asana’ is the third limb of the Ashtanga yoga system, and the most well known. ‘Asana’ directly translates to ‘to take one’s seat, but really relates to the practise of yoga postures. When we talk about ‘yoga’ in the West, we are actually talking about […]

Finding emotional balance with the niyamas

Finding emotional balance with the niyamas

More and more people are turning to yoga to keep fit and de-stress, but yoga is more than just the physical postures. This is because yoga wasn’t developed 4’000 years ago specifically for the purpose of dealing with the modern strains of social media, busy commuting or the black hole of London rent prices (although it definitely helps).

The ancient goal of yoga was freedom – or moksha – meaning liberation from pain and suffering – be that at an emotional, physical, mental or spiritual level. This was done through developing an 8-step system – the system of Ashtanga yoga.

The practice of yoga postures (or asanameaning, ‘to take one’s seat’) is actually the third step, with the first two being yama (practical disciplines to bring your external world in order) and niyama, which are practices to bring calm to your internal world (cultivating emotional and mental ease and relieving tension).

This idea comes from Patanjali’s yoga sutras (an ancient yoga manual) and reminds us that we all have this state of peace within us, but because we engage in certain (unhelpful) thought patterns (known as ‘chitta’) and actions, which disturb our mind and so lead us away from this state into pain.

The reasoning is that our natural state of being is like a calm and clear lake, and these disruptive thought patterns are like throwing handfuls of stones into it. But since  we have been throwing stones all our life and watching other people throw stones, we think the natural state of being is disturbance and disruption, whereas if we made the conscious commitment to throw one less stone at a time we would begin to see the stillness of the lake reemerge.

Only after you bring your world and mind into some sort of order are you then ready to build your strength through asana. It is very easy to only practice the physical side of yoga – to turn up to class, get the stretch, breathe deeply and go home. But if you are a yogi interested in tapping the real potential of the yogic path, it is important to see that asana is only one element of a deeper and more powerful system.

Internal observances for emotional balance

The niyamas are the essential internal observances we need to commit to in order to reduce and eventually eliminate the disturbances of our mind.


Saucha translates as purity – purity of intent and of habit. Are your choices self-destructive or acts of self-love? Do you deny yourself the things you want or need or engage in self-care? Do you respect other people or take advantage? Are the people you spend your time with a source of inspiration (and not of love-sick poetry or tortured art) or are they hand in hand with you on a downward spiral?

Buddhism teaches us that our outer world is really a reflection of our inner world and you are the creator and source of the events that happen to you, good or bad. If you are busy undertaking actions that end in problems for yourself and others, you’ll create that emotional and mental disturbance which continues to obscure that sense of inner stillness.


This niyama means contentment and relates closely to Eckharte Tolle’s The Power of Now. Tolle teaches us that the past and the future does not exist, and believing in them or constantly spending our time ‘in them’ is what causes us suffering. To live in the past is cling to the illusory nature of identity and to  live for the future is to cling to the promise of salvation. Both are illusions and longing will always take us away from the sense of contentment we seek.

During yoga, practicing santosha means connecting with each pose and breath in the present. Out of the studio, santosha is remembering that all we need we have right now, and that what is meant for us will not pass us by.


This means discipline, or it is thought of as ‘building internal fire.’ This means practicing doing that which does not come easily but is good for you. In yoga terms, it might be setting time aside early morning for self-practice or carving time into your night time routine for 20 minutes of meditation.

In life terms, it means perhaps you might be in a negative situation and you need to tap into your internal well of strength to leave it – be it a job, housing situation or relationship. Tapas is about letting go of immediate gratification and looking at the bigger picture, moving away from easy and doing what will enable you to flourish in the long run. If we do not commit to tapas, we create situations in our life that result in pain and misery and continue to perpetuate that mental and emotional discontent.


This means to learn the lessons from your mistakes.  They’ll keep repeating until you do. It translates as self-study and the end result is growth. Without introspection into our deeper psychological motivations, we are doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes in different forms, reliving the same patterns with different people in nightmares that have already happened.

When we practise svadhyaya, we increase our consciousness and are able to make more adaptive choices the next time around. But don’t beat yourself up about going wrong, just do it different the next time you have the chance. Therefore we are constantly growing, evolving and expanding our consciousness.

Ishvara pranidhana

This one took me a long time to really understand. Since it translates as ‘surrender to the divine’, I interpreted it intellectually as understanding that All is One – that there is a higher power at work. Although this can be a useful interpretation, in my times of high stress when I’ve been upset that something hasn’t worked out the way I wanted it to (like losing a loved one, a relationship or my treasured iPhone 4), I eventually realised that any anger or any action taken based on anger is a violation of this principle.

This is because the surrendering is not to a God concept, but surrendering to the will of the world, accepting that all is meant to be as it should be. This means giving up the fight against present reality, and enables us to release mental and emotional discontent or disturbance. We give up hope for a better past and trust and accept the everything is unfolding as it should be.



I’m not writing about these practices because I’m an expert in them or because I am particularly good with my emotions (ask my ex-best friends), I’m writing about them precisely because I struggle to keep a level head (heart?) under stress and because reminding myself of the niyamas helps to ground me.

By practicing the niyamas both on and off the mat, we work at releasing emotional and mental tension and find a clearer mind in which to practice the physical postures. Once we master yama, niyama and asana, we can then move on to the next stages with a deeper and more centred practise.

How to apply the yamas in everyday life

How to apply the yamas in everyday life

The true purpose of yoga isn’t always obvious in a yoga class. This is partly because of the focus on what sells (what – a hot, yoga-shredded body isn’t the purpose of yoga?!) and because trying to cover the vast wealth of information on this ancient […]

20 ideas for building a meditation practice

20 ideas for building a meditation practice

Meditation is becoming an increasingly common practise, with many having tried it and most people having heard of it. But though many have tried it, not many people stick with it. Somehow it still isn’t really integrated into the modern lifestyle. If you have found it […]

Astrology for December 2017: Sun in Capricorn

Astrology for December 2017: Sun in Capricorn

Transit astrology involves charting the movement of planets, comets and particular points of the sky to changes in the feel of the world around us. Maybe one way of looking at is perhaps the material world is only one dimension, and our emotional consciousness is really our experience of the movement of the wider universe around us.

Whatever way you look at it, quite often when I’ve been feeling things and I simply don’t know where the emotion is coming from, or out of control events are happening in my life and I’m searching for a reason to understand why they’ve happened the way they have, I often find that some planet or comet will be in a difficult aspect to another in my natal chart and the astrological meaning of this aspect will help me frame it.

For example, years ago I was struggling more emotionally and mentally than ever before, and looking back at the astrology of this struggle, I saw in 2011 that Pluto (the planet of destruction and hard-won truth ) was making a conjunction (moving past) my natal (meaning the planets were there at the moment of my birth) Uranus, Saturn and Neptune (planet of change, lessons and illusion respectively). It was also opposing (difficult aspect) my natal Jupiter (planet of optimism).

Similarly, over the past year I’ve had either unpredictable relationships or relationships separated by long distances (or both) and I realised that fit exactly with Uranus (planet of unpredictability, distance and sudden change) opposing my natal Venus (planet of relationships). Clarification: this sort of reading requires looking at where the planets are presently in relation to where they were at time of your birth.

That is to say I’ve noticed connections like these, connections that can’t be reflected in the general popular horoscope reading in newspapers – only a more detailed telling of the astrological picture can yield far more useful insights. It may be difficult to believe (and argue) that the planets control or cause behaviour (as the popular criticism goes) but maybe they are simply, to use Jung’s concept, a synchronisatic mirror.

Lastly, planetary aspects involving natal charts require a personal reading, but the following will give a general but still detailed overview of the collective human psyche now and for the month ahead. So read on.

Planetary transits

The sun moved into the sign of Capricorn on 21 December 2017, which means the general atmosphere changes from one of extroversion, energy, desire for travel and exploration (Sagittarian values) to something more grounded, considered and sober (Capricorn values).

Capricorn is an earth sign and feels deeply, although is not outwardly inclined to be demonstrative. We can feel any weight we are carrying more heavily on our shoulders now. The present energy supports taking responsibility, acting strategically and ambitiously.  This is a good time to set plans and goals for the coming year.

Photo by Ryan Loughlin on Unsplash

On January 1 2018 we have a full moon in Cancer (in Europe and Asia its on the 2nd). The watery sign of the crab is its ruler, and the moon is at home here. Cancer rules the home, the divine mother or eternal feminine and the past, and issues around these may come to the surface.

At the full moon we are asked to tune into our emotions and ask how we feel, whether we are comfortable with what was begun and to question what will nourish us,  in light of our responsibilities and our  place in the world. This is a good time to connect with our emotions and consider what we hold most dear and most precious. We may wish to be thankful for the home we have and cherish our roots.

With the full moon, emotional energies are high and anything that has been building may now come to the surface. The Cancerian energy is offset with the Capricorn axis (the Sun in in Capricorn) which casts the shadow of moderation, restraint, paternal protection and reminds us to chose wisely for our future. Capricorn represents the father and is the symbol of time. Especially with the full moon occuring at the start of the year, this a good time to question what we have the capacity to be responsible for, to take forward, and – even if we care a lot about it and are quite attached to it (Cancerian traits) – what is better for us to leave behind.

Our New Moon occurred two weeks previously in Sagittarius, and may have included any expansive and big ideas in whatever was started then. We were likely filled with optimism and energy. The New Moon occurred on  Monday December 18 (with the sun and moon exactly aligned in Sagittarius). Now we must look closely on what was begun.

Uranus finally turns direct on Jan 2 (it was retrograde since August 3 2017) and we can exhale with relief. During this time we may have been challenged to make some internal changes in response to our ideas of freedom or our definition of stability. Plans we made may seem to have stalled or fallen apart, but now we get a boost to move forward with greater certainty. This is a good way to start the new year and supports us leaving behind the uncertainty which may have been holding us back.

Mercury is in Sagittarius until January 11 – our thoughts are philosophical, jovial and impulsive until then, before turning our mind to our careers and business endeavours. Mercury in Capricorn is good for making plans in business, encouraging us to be logical and ordered in our thoughts. We must monitor the line between being realistic and practical and dreary and mundane.

On Jan 16 there is a new moon in Capricorn. We had the First  Quarter Moon on the 26 December 2018 in Aries, which made a square with the sun in Capricorn, and the post-xmas excitement may not entirely have masked the small crisis waves moving through us, as a quarter moon often tends to send.

Since it entered Capricorn on 25 December, Venus has lead our socialising energy in a serious, somber and purpose manner. After her move out of Sagittarius, we have been less inclined to make conversation for the sake of it and turn our mind to serious matters. There may be a strong sense of duty in relationships. On Jan 17, she enters Aquarius, so expect the conversation to lift and interests turn to technology, the future and the social group. Embrace quirkiness and free spiritedness in conversation when out socialising and let it take you outside the box.

Mars is still in Scorpio (since 9 Dec), so expect continued intensity and purpose in your endeavours. There is little humour and you are direct in going after what you want.

Saturn moved into Capricorn on Dec 23, Jupiter is in Scorpio until March 8 2018, Uranus is in Aries until August 2018 and Neptune is in its home in Pisces until Jan 2026.

For a more detailed description of the transits of the outer planets, please see my last post Sun in Sagittarius.

Planetary aspects

Venus conjuncts Saturn 25 December. Affections can be felt deeply but be difficult to express. Relationships challenges or separations can be felt more keenly now, and difficult relationships will stall now under this pressure. Financial hardship is also a possibility as Venus enjoys luxury but Saturn tightens the purse strings. It is a good time to begin organising your finances and making projects for the future (given the sobering nature of this aspect), especially with the boost of mars in  Scorpio (Scorpio rules money and finances) and the sun in responsible Capricorn.

On January 15 Jupiter in Scorpio sextiles Pluto in Capricorn. This aspect energises any enterprise that we undertake to bring positive (Jupiter) change (Pluto) to the world. Since Jupiter is in Scorpio, this might be in terms of death, transformation, medicine or healing (Scorpio), and the change might be philosophical, educational or religious and/or cover great distances (Jupiter). Since Pluto is in Capricorn, this could be in the realm of finances, business, politics or with respect to the father in some way.

Overview of the month

This month we are more serious about our plans and goals, which fits nicely with the beginning of the year where we review what we did in 2017 and set our sights on what we want to do for the year ahead.

In terms of the full moon specifically, and all the Capricorn (political energy), we have just had the declaration of Israel of the new capital of Jaruselm, so there will be a lot of high energy around where it’s true home and centre is as the move progresses. We can also see the Cancer-Capricorn polarity play in out with the severe weather conditions (Capricorn is the sign of cold and struggle) and the difficulties in getting or leaving home (Cancer representing the home.) This is also the end of the Uranus retrograde transit so we are perhaps hitting the last intense flurries of surprises.

Primarily we keep our head down in January, but with a boost to move forward and address issues around the home/mother/femininity/family at the beginning of the month. Mid-month we begin to come out of our shells at with brighter visions and ideas and a desire to be more socially active and free spirited.


Dec 21 – sun in Capricorn

Dec 25 – venus conjunct saturn in Capircorn

Jan 2 – full in moon in Cancer

Jan 1 – Uranus goes direct

Jan 11 – mercury in Capricorn

Jan 16 – new moon in Capricorn

Jan 17 – venus in Aquarius

Mars in Scorpio


Which yoga class is for me?

Which yoga class is for me?

There are so many classes on offer in London (ranging from intensely gentle Yin, sweat-fuelled Rocket and esoteric Kundalini) that for some it can be more difficult deciding which class to try than it is to go from crow to headstand. So, if you are […]

Astrology for November 2017: Sun in Sagittarius

Astrology for November 2017: Sun in Sagittarius

   How do we understand astrology? The universe is the primary unconscious force and no matter what anyone says, the truth is we are manifestations of this unconsciousness into consciousness. Jung understood this, and considered each planet to be an ‘archetype’ of the psyche. In […]

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My Diary

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