Yoga for mental health
World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October every year. The aim is to raise awareness of mental health issues and mobilizing efforts to prevent them; to help and support those who are dealing such health issues.
COVID-19 Pandemic And Mental Health Issues
Mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression have always been there. However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has added fuel to prevalence of mental health issue. Pandemics are stressful. Fear, anxiety and depression are normal responses to perceived or real threats.
During this pandemic, the imposed lockdowns has bound many people in homes for a really long time. Faced with new realities of working from home, temporary unemployment, lack of physical contact with family and friends, have added to incidences of mental health issues. The doctors and paramedical staff, all the frontline workers are perhaps most prone to such mental health issues. This pandemic is pushing the global population into mental health crisis. Isolation economic instability and uncertainty caused by this pandemic are already resulting in a sharp spike in people seeking mental health help.
Such an outbreak of infectious disease is often accompanied with deteriorated mental health condition. People often experience;
- Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
- Financial instability
- Disturbed sleep pattern, insomnia
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Worsening of mental health issues
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco and smoking
In most of the countries, the healthcare system was not well prepared for handling such pandemic situation. The mental health care system was already underfunded, fragmented and difficult to access even before the pandemic. It is feared that a huge number of people who are dealing with such mental health issues, would be suffering silently.
Susan Borja, who leads the Traumatic Stress Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, addressed this issue;
‘I worry about the people the system just won’t absorb or won’t reach. I worry about the suffering that’s going to go untreated on such a large scale.’
As reported by the Washington post, nearly half of the Americans report mental health issue during the quarantine period. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year. 
Mental Health Issues In German Population
Coronavirus disease has badly affected German population. Every federal state in Germany has been affected by COVID-19. In order to contain the spread of disease, Germany has implemented several restrictions including social distancing, quarantine and even curfew in some states. According to WHO, Germany has reported 300k cases of COVID-19 and the death toll is approximately 9531 (Date 4th October 2020).
According to a recent study, German population showed increased symptoms of generalized anxiety (44.9%) and depression (14.3%), distress (65.2%), and COVID-19-related fear (59%) were highly prevalent.
Many studies reveal the psychological burden caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s mental health. There is sharp increase in incidences of anxiety, depression, poor sleep quality, and distress.
Another study conducted to estimate the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of frontline medical staff in China suggests similar results. These psychological health issues are likely to persist long and even after the quarantine period is over, many people will need a psychological support system when returning to work. 
Amid the pandemic, the economic strain is could bring a wave of mental stress and anguish in people. Even after this pandemic is over, there is an approaching wave of mental injuries in upcoming months which will be met with a severely broken health care system. Thus, the given facts and figures about the increasing mental health issues necessitate taking preventive measures. Not only for ourselves but for our loved one, it is much needed to be aware of mental health issues and take necessary steps to overcome these to prevent any grave side effects.
Staying productive during the quarantine and indulging in healthy activities are most effective strategies to prevent psychological stress and anxiety in the first place. It is much needed to adopt a healthier lifestyle and choose exercise.
Yogic Perspective On Mental Health
Yoga, being a holistic mind-body approach is one of the healthier choices to be made, both for physical and psychological wellbeing. Yogic philosophy suggests that disease in human body is because of imbalances and disturbance in body systems. Yoga practices are designed to bring balance chitta shakti (mental energy) with prana shakti (dynamic energy). This union induces a state of complete inner harmony and equilibrium and mental relaxation.
The word yoga roots to Sanskrit word ‘yoke ‘ or ‘yuj’ meaning ‘the union, oneness, to join’. Yoga is holistic mind-body approach that brings inner harmony, stability and boost physical and psychological health. Yoga is not just a set of physical exercise, rather it is the way and science of right living that involves and works on all aspect of human life including physical, vital, psychological, emotional, psychic and spiritual levels.
Yoga practices involve gentler and slower paced movements (asana) to bring mental stability and relaxation and also improve the physical health of the practitioner. Major practices of yoga are asana (physical postures), Pranayama (breathing technique), mudra (symbolic gestures), bandha (body lock), shatkarma (set of purification techniques) and meditation.
Yoga boosts mental and physical health. The holistic approach is inexpensive and has no side effects. In fact, yoga can be applied as an integrated approach with other medications.
The science of yoga is based on synchronization and balance of the body movement and breath. Pranayama (breathing techniques) are dynamic technique that enables us to break out of the deep hole of depression by stimulating nervous system and creating a sense of activation. These techniques revitalize the entire psycho-neuro-endocrine system, creating a sense of balance, harmony and overall mental calmness.
Through the regular yoga practice, the pranic energy (vital force) that flow through the body is controlled and intensified. Prana is the life force, its healing and rejuvenating. So, by improving the flow of prana, the whole physio-psychological system can be revitalized and rejuvenated.
A growing number of scientific studies also affirm the effectiveness of yogic intervention for managing mental health issues. Yoga is free of the side effects which are associated with most of the pharmacotherapies. 
This Is How Yogic Interventions Work!!
Yoga practices such as asana, Pranayama and meditation positively impact the firing patterns of the nerves, the body’s fluids and blood circulation to generate an overall relaxation response. When we sit in a specific body posture or alignment and synchronize it with breathing pattern, our body slowly shifts from a state of tension to calm and relaxation. It also lowers the brain’s response to threat; lowers the levels of adrenaline – the stress hormone. Such state of biochemical relaxation improves blood oxygenation and blood circulation, restores blood acidity and alkalinity balance, and reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and motor activity. Thus, yoga induces an overall state of physical and psychological relaxation. 
YOGA PRACTICE FOR MANAGING AND IMPROVING MENTAL HEALTH
1. SURYA NAMASKARA / SUN SALUTATION
Surya namaskara is the sequence of 12 physical postures (asana) that are performed in 15 minutes.
The sequence of 12 asana that is followed in surya namaskara is effective for loosening up, stretching, massaging and toning all the joints, muscles and internal organs of the body. When practiced routinely, it imparts revitalizing effect on the body and generates prana- the subtle body energy which further stimulates the psychic body and brings power and vitality in body.
The synchronization of breathing with physical movements of surya namaskara promotes mental clarity, reduces stress and emotional disturbance, by bringing s surplus of fresh, oxygenated blood to the brain. Studies affirm that surya namaskara boosts mental concentration and enthusiasm, mental balance and joyfulness. 
YOGA ASANA FOR RELAXATION AND IMPROVING MENTAL HEALTH
1. Shavasana (Corpse Pose)
This is also known as mritasana – dead man’s pose. This pose develops body awareness and relaxes the whole psycho-physiological system. When body is physically relaxed, it increases mind alertness and awareness.
- Lie flat on the back. Keep both arms straight and about 15 cm away from the body, palms facing upward.
- Keep the head and spine in a straight line; be absolutely relaxed and still in this final position.
- Become aware of the natural spontaneous breath, observe it’s rhythmic and be relaxed.
- Mentally count breath from number 27 to backwards to zero. Also, mentally repeat, ‘I am breathing in’, ‘I am breathing out’.
- Generally, 1-2 minutes of shavasana are enough, but you can extend the time as well.
2. Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
Padamasana develops mental steadiness and calmness. This asana directs the flow of prana from mooladhara chakra (perineum) to sahasrara chakra (head), which brings meditative experience. The pressure at lower spine stimulates the nervous system, bringing mental relaxation and tranquility.
- Sit in relaxed position, legs outstretched.
- Bend right leg slowly and place the foot on top of left thigh; bringing the heel closer to pubic bone.
- Bend your left leg and place the foot on top of right thigh.
- In the final position, your head and spine are upright, shoulders relaxed and hand placed on knees in chin or jnana mudra. Keep eyes closed throughout.
- Observe the total posture, balance and alignment of body. Practice for 5 minutes.
3. Veerasana (Hero’s Pose)
It improves concentration, allows more awareness of the unconscious realms and induces physical and mental relaxation. This asana is highly recommended for those who over-think and have disturbed thoughts.
- Sit in vajrasana (kneeling pose).
- Raise the right knee and place the right foot flat on the floor alongside the left knee.
- Set the right elbow on the right knee and rest the chin on the palm of the right hand and left palm on left knee.
- Close the eyes and relax. Stay still and calm and the spine and head straight.
- Hold for some time, then release.
4. Eka Pada Pranamasana (One-Legged Prayer Pose)
Eka pada pranamasana is really effective asana to calm and relive the psychological stress and anxiety and is absolutely harmless to practice.
- Stand upright; feet together and the arms at the sides.
- Focus your gaze on a fixed point in front.
- Bend the right leg; grasp the ankle and position the sole of right foot on the inside of the left thigh. (The right knee will be pointing outward and the heel is placed closer to the perineum).
- Bring the hands together as in prayer position in front of the chest.
- Stay in this final position for some time, then release.
- Practice 3-5 rounds on both sides.
5. Padahastasana (Hand To Foot Pose)
This asana is 3rd position in Surya namashkara practice. This asana is useful for upper body strength, gives vitality and rejuvenation. It also stimulates spinal nerve, improves concentration and balances the nervous system, thereby, effective for relieving stress and anxiety.
- Stand upright, feet a shoulder distance apart.
- Bend forward from the hips.
- The fingers or palms of the hands should be touching the floor on either side of the feet.
- Bring the forehead as close to the knees as is comfortable.
- Keep the feet firm on ground, and knees straight.
- Retain the pose for some time then release. Practice 3-5 rounds.
PRANAYAMA FOR MENTAL RELAXATION
1. Ujjayi Pranayama
This Pranayama develops subtle states of mind, and induces tranquilizing effects on nervous system; relieves stress and anxiety and insomnia.
- Sit comfortably; close your eyes.
- Become aware of the natural breathing.
- Focus your attention to throat. Consider that you are breathing from a tiny hole in throat and not from your nostrils.
- Maintain the breathing gentle and rhythmic, and contract the glottis.
- This will make a slight snoring sound, just like a sleeping child.
- You may extend the technique by folding the tongue while continuing the ujjayi breathing.
- Initially, 5-10 rounds are enough.
2. Bhramari Pranayama (Humming Bee Breathing)
Bhramari Pranayama is especially beneficial for relieving psychological disturbance, anger and frustration.
- Sit in padmasana. Close the eyes and relax.
- Plug your ears with middle or index finger.
- Focus your awareness on ajna chakra and keep the body still. Inhale through nose.
- Exhale gradually and in a restricted manner. This will make a deep, stable humming sound similar to that of the black bee.
- The humming sound should be soft and smooth, and leveled and uninterrupted during exhalation.
- This makes one round. Practice 5-10 rounds.
Yoga nidra or the psychic sleep is described as the state in between sleep and wakefulness. The practice brings a state of deep relaxation and restive state as sound sleep, therefore, an ideal practice for reliving and managing and relieving mental health issues.
In this practice, you train your mind to focus on a centre; a resolve is made. It can be anything such as ‘I’ll not over think’. Thus, it encourages positive thinking. Yoga nidra draws more blood and energy which brings mental calm and relaxation; alleviates all tension, stress and disturbance and make our mind clearer and more powerful. Initially, you’ll need a guide or yoga expert for yoga nidra practice.
Meditation is natural stress-stabilizer. Stress over-activates the Autonomic Nervous system and more stress hormone, cortisol is released in bloodstream. Regular meditation lowers brain cortisol level, improves self-image and self-worth and induces a positive outlook of life.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), meditation helps to lower blood pressure, generally safe to practice and is an effective mean to relieve psychological symptoms including anxiety, stress, and depression.
Neuropsychological studies suggest that regular meditation improves and regulates the performance of the lateral prefrontal cortex, that we feel ‘in control’ of our thoughts and emotions. 
Mental health issues have always been prevalent but the current COVID-19 pandemic has added to severity of the situation. Staying at home, feeling isolated, financial crisis, the fear of this infectious disease and uncertainty are major reasons that more and more people are facing mental health deterioration nowadays.
To take care of your own physical and psychological health and your family is the need of hour. Yoga is the holistic mind-body approach that we can integrate in our daily routine to have a healthy body and mind.
This mental health day, make a resolve to take care of your physical and mental health and those around us. Reach out to those who are suffering silently and be there for them in this difficult time, for it is the noblest and kindest thing we can do. !!
1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/the-health-202/2020/05/04/the-health-202-texts-to-federal-government-mental-health-hotline-up-roughly-1-000 percent/5eaae16c602ff15fb0021568/?itid=ap_paigewinfield%20cunningham