Heart-Centered Somatic Yoga & School for Somatic Soul Work

How to Meditate for Mental Health

We assume that practices like yoga and meditation are good for your physical and emotional well-being. While that is true, both yoga students and yoga teachers assume that this means that yoga and meditation are good for mental health. Unfortunately, the WAY in which yoga and meditation are taught is NOT always conducive to mental health. With so many students taking yoga and meditation classes to improve their mental health, it’s an important conversation to have.
 
Meditation can help us entangle from the constant stream of thoughts inside our minds and the stories we find ourselves trapped in.
 
Meditation helps us to become more present, anchor in the body, and gain perspective. Now here’s the thing. All those beautiful effects arise when the mind stabilizes—and this is exactly what’s difficult if you are experiencing mental health challenges. Instead of reaching inner calm and mental clarity, we may actually just get lost in more thoughts—or use a meditation technique to dissociate and temporarily transcend our suffering. Neither of them is helpful.

“When you sit down to meditate, you might just be creating extra space and time for rumination instead of finding relief.”

When people experience depression, for example, the mind tends to be either dull or agitated. When the mind is dull, we feel lethargic, pessimistic, apathetic, tired, heavy, and hopeless. The mind is foggy and struggles to concentrate. When your mind is dull, your inability to focus makes it easy to drift in thought, almost like you’re inside a dream. You may literally be sitting down for an hour of daydreaming without feeling any better afterward.
 
When the mind is agitated, we tend to have a lot of racing thoughts. We may feel restless, edgy, nervous, stressed, and anxious. The mind is not lacking focus because of sleepiness and dullness but instead finds it hard to stay present because we attach ourselves to the many stories and thoughts inside the mind. Sitting still sometimes isn’t the best way to reach inner calm.
 
In both cases, when you sit down to meditate, you might just be creating extra space and time for rumination instead of finding relief.
 
Just to be clear, this happens to all of us. For most people, the mind is never completely balanced. That’s why practices like yoga and meditation feel so good. They bring that balance and inner calm that we are all longing for. The mind that is dull or agitated due to mental health challenges is not different from anyone else’s mind. They just experience those imbalances more severely or more often than someone else—or they are more aware of them.
 
There are many different styles of meditation and different techniques that aim at entangling us from the mind and bring us in touch with the deepest part inside ourselves: the presence of simply being. No matter what technique we use, this presence starts to shine forth when the mind begins to settle. When the dull mind regains its energy to focus and when the agitated mind calms down. That’s when we are able to just sit and rest in Being-ness or a natural state of meditation.
 
 
Some meditation techniques enhance presence by increasing awareness. They are a great tool for holding space for ourselves. They allow us to become more aware of what is happening inside of us and teach us to be intimately present with our sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Other techniques bring about presence by shifting our awareness away from our personal experiences and onto an object that helps us to untangle from our thoughts and stories.
 

Open awareness based meditation: Meditation practices like mindfulness teach us to be present and observe our sensations, feelings, and thoughts. This is great for developing self-awareness and gaining insight into what’s going on inside our minds. While this can be a very therapeutic practice, it has a downside too. Because there is no clear object of focus, this type of meditation can be challenging if the mind is dull. If the mind does not manage to maintain some level of presence and we drift off into a dreamlike state, it may not bring about any shift in awareness and perspective. So it may be more beneficial to do something else first to balance your energy so that the mind is a bit more alert so that you can actually benefit from the open awareness meditation.

Concentration based meditation: Meditation practices that make you focus on something help you untangle from your thoughts and bring about higher awareness by shifting the focus onto an internal or external object of concentration, like a mantra, chakra, counting, gazing at an object, or focusing on a physical location. It can be a great practice to break us free from a stubborn stream of thoughts. Experiencing this ‘break’ between thoughts can be helpful to get us out of a mental rut and gain perspective. It is a great way to break unhealthy mental habits, like ruminating. While concentration based meditation is a great practice for a specific purpose, it shouldn’t be our only practice. Because we’re directing our focus onto one specific thing, we’re excluding a whole other things from our awareness, like our bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings. In other words, there may be the risk that we’re using our meditation practice to escape our deeper feelings. This can result in dissociation and spiritual bypassing which in the long run creates a split inside the personality and can leave us feeling more disconnected from ourselves and from life.

Concentration based practices are a great way to break the constant stream of thoughts. They are an accessible way for beginners to have a first glimpse of what it means to have a somewhat quiet mind. It’s also an accessible form of meditation in case of mental dullness, like can be the case in people experiencing depression. Open meditation practices, on the other hand, give us more insight into ourselfves. This is a very important part of developing the self-awareness that is needed in order to cultivate better mental health.

Ultimately, all meditation techniques are meant to take us beyond the technique and into a space of expanded, relaxed yet awake state of awareness where we feel present, connected, and whole. When we can sit and drop into that experience, we can call that a “natural meditation”.

People who struggle with mental health problems can find it challenging to access inner peace. That’s why all practices should be focused on how to bring about the right balance between relaxation and focus so that students can access and experience the meditative state in a way that is accessible to them. For some it may mean doing physical exercise, for others guided relaxation practices work best. There are many ways of accessing meditation.

As mental health aware yoga teachers, we need to rethink what we have learned from yoga and meditation traditions and have a thorough understanding of how the body-mind work in order to use these practices in an individualized and therapeutic way.

From my experience working with clients, symptoms of depression and anxiety respond particularly well to embodied techniques, ranging from yoga asana, somatic therapy, and dance, to embodied types of meditation. 

“So, does meditation really help with depression?

Yes, absolutely! But we have to know who the person is who meditates, what they need, and what their goals are.”

 
 
It’s good to remember that Yogic meditation was not necessarily practiced to help you feel better in your daily life. It was considered an advanced spiritual practice that was embarked on during a later stage in life—when the phase of being a householder was considered completed.
 
The goal of many of these meditation practices was transcendence. Of connecting to the pure presence and awareness that inhabits you. There’s no doubt that this spiritual awakening adds an indispensable sacred dimension to life. Transcendent experiences are an incredible catalyst for change. However, other forms of meditation, like mindfulness and prayer, were not only practiced by monks and sadhus but reached people’s homes and schools. They helped people to self-reflect and integrate the sacred into the mundane.
 
These are important things to understand when embarking on a healing journey—but also if you are a yoga teacher, healer, or coach.
 
It’s usually when we lack this deeper understanding of the exercises we practice and teach that things go wrong—and we can end up harming ourselves and others.
 
These practices emerged during a particular time and within a cultural context—and thus fulfilling a specific need or purpose. Many people who are drawn to spiritual practice today are looking for healing and personal development. And while personal growth and spiritual maturation do go hand-in-hand, there are practices that work more on one level than on the other. Spirituality has become such a buzz-word that many people think that spiritual awakening is the answer to all their problems and pain. Yet, what we are faced with is that while altered states of consciousness can bring temporary bliss and profound insights, they do not compensate for the deep shadow work that is required in order to break through the patterns that are holding us back and create suffering in our lives.
 
When navigating the waters of healing, personal growth, and spiritual practice, it can be very useful to have a teacher or guide. But ultimately, the more you deepen your understanding of your own mind, the more your inner guidance will know what is right for you and which path to walk.
 
If your meditation practice is not bringing more inner peace, presence, and acceptance to your life, it isn’t working.
 
When presence, self-compassion, and embodiment lie at the heart of your practice, meditation becomes an approach to life that helps you find balance, inner peace, and joy.
 
 
 

Deniz

Deniz Aydoslu, MA, is an advanced certified yoga and meditation teacher and expert in the therapeutic application of yoga and somatics for mental health. She helps women heal emotionally and restore their connection to Spirit by integrating the body, heart, inner child, and soul into a meaningful whole. She offers deeply transformative work as well as simple tools to improve well-being, creativity, and productivity through fun, easy, and nourishing self-care tools.

As an experienced yoga and meditation teacher, somatic educator, and shamanic psychotherapy practitioner, she infuses her work with the healing power of love and the value of nature as medicine.