Yoga, Breath And Mental Health

I am sitting here working on the asana and pranayama sequence for our yoga class, my theme is connecting with the breath.

Breath is a central part of the Viniyoga tradition which I teach, we know that changing our breath can change how we feel and bring us back to the moment. Not the ruminations of the past, or the worry for the future; but right here, right now.

But how do we do that? How do we get from our everyday breathing to yogic breathing? How can we bring it into our practice?

There are many types of pranayama (breathing techniques), the one most commonly used during asana practice is Ujjayi or victory breath. It involves a slight muscle constriction in the lower throat, which can make you sound a little like Darth Vader. Sounds complicated right?

Like most things in life it’s easier when learning some thing to work up to it.

Features of Ujjayi include:

  • The breath is slowed down
  • It is deeper and more lengthened than normal
  • It is consciously controlled
  • There is a slight constriction in the lower throat.

In asana work we match our movement to our breath inspiring a meditative quality in our practice; so when you are starting out, worry less about the slight constriction in the throat and begin by matching your movements with the inhale and exhale. See what it is to breathe in different postures. See how the breath changes as you move or stay in an asana.

As you progress you can lengthen and deepen the breath, allowing it to support and enhance your practice. Eventually get your teacher to show you how to make the constriction in the throat.

In short begin by noticing, and remember you don’t need to be able to do everything at once, after all ‘Atha Yoganushasanam’ Yoga sutra 1.1, the time for yoga is now, not when at some point in the future you can already do it.

Once we are proficient, yogic breathing like this can be used outside the classroom to soothe anxiety, stress and improve our mental health, by deactivating the adrenaline fuelled fight, fight or freeze, of the sympathetic nervous system, and activating the para-sympathetic nervous system, to bring us to a calm and restive state, whenever we need to relax.

If you’d like to find out more about the yoga I teach and the benefits of learning pranayama breathing techniques please click the button below.

Can’t Sleep?

I came across this article in the Independent: getting less than six hours sleep a night increases risk of early death

And it prompted me to think: What causes a lack of sleep and what can we do about it?

Aside from a ‘whole number of factors such as having small children, having other health issues and environmental factors’ cited in the article by Lisa Artis of the British Sleep Council; many Clients I see state one of the largest causes of lack of sleep is stress.

Whilst stress is aggravated and worsened by lack of sleep, the article fails to mention how worry and stress also raised cortisol levels which can themselves disrupt sleep. Cortisol changes in our blood is an important part of our day/night rhythm as well as our fight or flight response.

It has long been known that ‘depression and other stress-related disorders are also associated with sleep disturbances, elevated cortisol.’ 1 Therefore it would be sensible to think that managing and working with stress and other stress-related disorders to reduce the levels of cortisol in the blood in general will improve your ability to sleep.

So how can this be done?

  • Exercise can burn off adrenaline that is linked to cortisol production making less available for use.
  • Meditation and relaxation can allow us to tell our body’s they are safe and in the present, reducing anxiety, depression and helping us to control the over-thinking that often happens in response to the problems and stress of life.
  • If you have experienced trauma, abuse or have a chronic mental health issue, counselling can help you to find better coping strategies, find a way forward and share your fears and anxieties.
  • Amy Cuddy 2 has shown how changing your body language can help change how you feel and your blood chemistry, lowering cortisol. To find out more check out her TED talk cited below.

All these strategies can help although they can take some time to work, particularly if your experience of stress has been chronic.

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  1. Arborelius L, Owens M, Plotsky P, Nemeroff C. The role of corticotropinreleasing factor in depression and anxiety disorders. J Endocrinol. 1999;160:1-12.
  2. <a href="“>

From failure to success


There are times when we all feel we have failed either because we have let someone down, not passed a test or reached a goal. When this happens it is easy to get to the point where we criticise and belittle ourselves.

‘I am so stupid’, ‘How could I have missed that? and ‘Grr’ are all common responses to the shame and frustration that failure can induce in us. For some of us this self-talk is a constant and very present part of our lives. That internal voice that uses our failure to reinforce the self-belief that we are not good enough.

For a few, this will even lead to us not trying, or self-sabotaging,

maintaining the status quo that we are not enough, nor will we ever succeed.

I have worked with many people who don’t even realise that this internal dialogue is there, they accept it as who they are, not ever questioning that self-belief. But here is some things we know about failure:

  • Adults learn best from making mistakes.
  • When you are learning something new or you want to improve, you need to give yourself space to fail and try again.
  • The biggest factor in success in any endeavour is persistence.

Learning to be compassionate with ourselves when we fail is an important skill, it challenges some of the thoughts, ideas and beliefs we have about ourselves. Ultimately compassion will help you to talk to yourself in a new way, to foster a better, more supportive relationship with yourself.

It’s not what happens to us that matters, it is how we work through it and how it affects our relationship with our sense of Self that matters. If you would like to explore this further please get in touch.


Mantras, or what’s in a word?

A mantra is a word, phrase or sound that you repeat over and over whilst you meditate. The sounds may be chanted out loud, or may be heard internally. Mantras serve several purposes:

  • They are a point of focus.
  • They can be used instead of focusing on your breath (particularly useful if you find breath-work upsets your asthma or you have a cold).
  • They can be used as an affirmation to bring that quality or energy into your life.
  • They make your thoughts and feelings manifest, speaking them to your Self.

Some common mantras include:

  • Om.
  • Om, Shanthi, Shanthi, Shanthi.
  • Peace.
  • I breath in peace, I breath out negativity.
  • I am enough.
  • Love.

A mantra is usually said or thought in the time it takes to take a breath or marked by passing a bead through your fingers on a mala. For instance ‘I breath in peace, I breath out negativity.’ can be timed so the first half of the sentence is thought or spoken during the in-breath and the latter part during the out-breath.

Meditating this way for 20-30 mins a day is likely to bring the most benefits, but if you can only manage 5-10 minutes during a lunch break that is good too. It could also be used during or after a yoga practice, particularly whist relaxing or meditating at the end.

A good mantra for you would be something that speaks to your soul, that works with where you are now to help you get to where you want to be. A mantra that is right for you now, is not going to be the same as the one you need next week or next month. I would always advise you to play about with your mantra and find the right words for you.

Mantras can profoundly change our thoughts, feelings and perspective on ourselves, our lives and others. It is a powerful tool in your meditation tool-kit.


In this time of Spring with its new growth and seed sowing, think about what qualities or energies you want to bring into your life and work with that as a starting point for your mantra meditation.

Love and light



Listening to ourselves

ReikiYesterday evening I sat down to meditate, settled myself down and started to use my mala beads to mark my breath. The day’s thoughts ran through my mind and slowly began to settle.

I was sinking into the spaces between my thoughts when a thought went by that aroused a flash of anger in me. The emotion was strong and I knew it was time to listen. We often feel that meditation as a pushing away of thoughts, but I find it a good tool to use to focus on the thoughts that matter. Thoughts like this one that were telling me something needed to change.

So I explored my thought, found the piece that was making me feel so het up. It boiled down to injustice and privilege that led to a lack of understanding in a particular situation. Once I had listened to my Self, my instincts and explored my pain I knew the action I needed to take.

Peace flowed into me and I was sure of my decision. I sent love and light to the situation and people that had caused the hurt, but I knew it was time to move on.

Breath by breath I finished my meditation and felt whole again.