Yoga and Mental Health

Swami Satyaprakash Saraswati (UK)

The chance to teach yoga in a Social Services Day Care Centre for people recovering from mental illness and living in the community fell to me some four years ago. It became a journey of self-discovery, of letting go of earlier images I held of myself as a yoga teacher and of learning new ways to be with people.

First, there were the challenges of the establishment itself – a cavernous church hall, with a couple of small offices, kitchen and smoking room. This is the space in which everything happens, where staff and service-users live and move and have their being for six to eight hours a day, for up to five days per week. The open space makes for noise – kitchen, billiards, radio, telephones and occasionally shouting or moaning.

So where to teach yoga? The best option was to screen off an area, clean the floor thoroughly, put down some mats and get started…then to persuade other clients to allow me to switch off Radio One and play some harmonious music. Sounds simple enough but this took weeks of negotiation!

Who will come to the yoga classes? In the beginning, it all hinged on the key-workers to promote the class amongst their particular client groups, so it was important to encourage the staff to join in a class from time to time, to sample yoga and its benefits. Even one member of staff who appreciates yoga and will be able to speak with clients in an informed way can make all the difference. Gradually the students themselves begin to draw in other people from the Day Care Centre.

And so to the class itself – many of the students are taking heavy psychotropic medication and their awareness seems all but absent. Often their bodies are stiff, toxic and manifesting all manner of physical ailments, born of years (decades even) of under-use.

Every class was an adventure, to be moulded according to the need of the moment. Attendance at the class was erratic – the many demands of medical appointments, family crises and conflicting activities within the Centre itself all meant that a student may attend the class perhaps one week in two or three. I learnt the importance of repetition of practices for these students – far more important here than in other classes. The process of becoming familiar with a practice, gaining the self-confidence that arises from knowing what to do, and the sweet sense of achievement in doing it well is a slow but profoundly important process. It is not that these students are unintelligent – far from it – but that long term medication and/or institutionalization may well have impaired memory, concentration and, most importantly, the belief in one's ability to do anything right.

So at times the yoga teacher has to be the all-singing, all-dancing entertainer: the personality has its work to do in these classes, to engage the interest and attention of the students. Playing together with a posture, helping each other and laughter are all good yogic medicines. Time and again I have found that when I was able to flow freely with the students, fresh inspiration for new ways of working just flooded in. Often the new ideas seemed wacky or outrageous and yet they worked. As the core group became more comfortable and familiar together, and more accepting of me, we played with sound, as a device for expanding breath capacity and control. At first they were timorous, then gradually they began to make themselves heard.

And at the end of every class, there was yoga nidra – according to the needs and possibilities of those present. Often it was simple and short, sometimes longer and more involved. Certain students slept peacefully throughout the practice each week, whilst others demanded audio tapes for home practice.

Whatever we had done during a class, however we had moved and played, talked and laughed, when I came to record it afterwards it was invariably possible to identify the key elements of asana, pranayama and yoga nidra, just as in any beginners yoga class.

So how does teaching in this field differ from teaching Jo Public in, say, an Adult Education class? Well, most noticeably, tamas often seems to prevail in the people and in the environment. Swami Niranjan says (Yoga Sadhana Panorama, Volume 1, p.55), “ Tamas is a condition of life, mind, behaviour and thought which becomes very powerful and restrictive. It does not allow the human being to alter, change or rise above that state. Tamas is becoming established in one specific condition and being unable to find a way out, or stagnating in one particular state. We can sit in this room day in and day out, mentally conceptualizing that outside there are the sun, trees, buildings, flowers, plants and beautiful scenery. Having that mental concept is one thing and not making the effort to get out of the room is another. When we feel bound or confused, that is tamas.” Now, for sure, we have all experienced this state; thus we are no different from the students we may find in a mental health class. But I guess it is a question of degree, and of whether tamas is the predominant guna acting in our lives.

In the book Daughter of Fire, Irina Tweedie relates the words of her Sufi master: “We do not teach – we quicken. I am stronger than you. So your currents adjust themselves to mine. This is a simple law of nature. The stronger magnetic current will alter, quicken the weaker. If you let flow an electric current through two wires, placed side by side, one a strong one and the other a weak one, the stronger will affect the weaker; it will increase its potency. It is so simple.” Frequently it seemed to me that this was the purpose of the yoga teacher in this situation…to be there for the people as a quickener. For sure, the yoga practices are important and valuable, and it is the task of the yoga teacher to make them accessible to the students, but maybe not so important as the being there.

Chatting, during or after the class, we would venture into the arena of (yogic) lifestyle – how the judicious use of food, exercise or hard physical work and sleep can contribute to a sense of well-being. We devised easily memorized formulae for accessing more energy, and chose strategies for implementing them during the days between classes. The holism of yoga challenged and eventually appealed to these people, who had become accustomed to being treated as a bundle of symptoms by the medical profession, or as an aggregate of housing/employment/financial problems by the statutory services. They began to see the possibility of taking back some of their power into their own hands.