Yoga When You’re Having a Bad Mental Health Day

This post is not intended to replace professional advice. If you’re feeling distressed or unsafe, please call 000 (or your local emergency line) or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australia). If you would like some non-crisis support, please reach out to a professional or someone in your support network. You can find a list of free phone support services in Australia here

Sometimes you just have a day that’s sad. Or anxious. Or angry. Or hard.

Sometimes you know why, and sometimes you don’t.

And sometimes on those days, the last thing you feel like doing is yoga.

Trust me, you’re not alone on that one. Even the most experienced yogis can have days where it’s a struggle to get out of bed. And putting on pants? Forget about it.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you should suck it up and get your mat out.

In fact, that’s the opposite of what this post is about. I want to talk about some really small and gentle ways that you can use yoga and mindfulness on the days where your mental health feels overwhelming or tough to deal with.

But first of all, why even bother? Well when it comes to yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, the science speaks for itself. Studies pretty consistently find that they have a positive impact on mental health. Effects can be seen for longer-term practice, for example, changes in brain structure and activity, but we can also see effects more immediately, like on stress reactivity and mood after just 1 session.

There is also some interesting research done in a field called ‘Embodied Cognition’. The evidence increasingly supports the idea that our bodies and minds have a powerful influence on each other. This is a huge topic but has significance here when it comes to mood and mental health. For example, this study found that posture has a strong effect on our stress response, self-esteem, and mood. What we do with our bodies shapes the way we feel, and how we feel changes what our bodies do, even something subtle like a shift in posture. On a bad mental health day, we tend to fall into both a physical and mental slump, which in turn makes us feel worse. But the opposite is also true, and we can use this to our advantage. We’ll come back to this later to see how to put this research into practice.

So here are my top 4 tips on how to practice yoga and mindfulness when you’re having a bad mental health day. Plus, at the end of the post, there are some suggestions on practices and poses that are simple, gentle, and mental health-friendly.

Tip Number One: Don’t try to feel better

Okay what I mean by this is don’t make “feeling better” the metric of your success. If you go into your yoga practice with a goal or expectation of what you want to get out of it, you’re putting pressure on yourself that you just don’t need. Then if you don’t feel as good as you thought you would afterward, you’re going to be way less likely to try it again. On average, yoga is really beneficial, but it’s not going to work for 100% of people 100% of the time.

Not only that, but the idea of “feeling better” implies that how you’re feeling now is wrong or bad. And while it may feel bad, your emotions are both valid and valuable. Being human means feeling and experiencing the whole spectrum of emotions, even the ones that suck!

You can work to improve your mental health without pushing away or ignoring the not-so-good feelings.

This kind of emotional mindfulness and acceptance is the core idea behind Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is a widely used type of counselling that has a very strong clinical evidence base. Emotional acceptance is also the opposite of emotional avoidance. Fighting against your emotions takes a hell of a lot of energy! So does self-judgment and putting pressure on yourself to try to feel a certain way. Trying to befriend your hard feelings can be scary and tough, but by acknowledging and making the decision to allow those emotions to ride out, you’re back in the driver’s seat.

Physiologically speaking, emotions take about 60-90 seconds to run through your body. After that, it's often your mind ruminating that is re-triggering that emotion, particularly for intense feelings like anger and fear. Of course, your overall mood and mental health is more complex than this. But still, sometimes sitting mindfully and non-judgementally with that emotion while it rides out can help you decide what happens next, rather than trying to control the emotion itself.

Having said all that, sitting with your feelings can be a really intense or overwhelming feeling, and today might not be the time for you to explore that. That’s okay too!

Mindfulness practice is a tool to ground yourself in the present moment using your senses. When you focus on right now, it helps to bring you out of the cycle of ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, which is a great practice for wherever you are today.

Tip Number Two: Bite-Sized Practice

Don’t try to force yourself into committing to a whole hour of yoga!

Of course, for some people this might really work for them as a self-care tool. But for a lot of people, the idea of mustering the motivation to do an entire class is enough to put you off the idea altogether. So don’t do nothing if you can’t do everything.

Instead, try starting with the smallest of steps. Even just sitting up in bed and stretching your arms up over your head can start to bring you some of the benefits that come with mindful movement. This is where the embodied cognition idea really comes into play. Try adjusting your posture, or putting a pencil between your teeth (this simulates smiling and can lower your body’s stress response, even if it isn’t a ‘real’ smile!).

Taking three deep breaths is yoga. Curling up into Child’s Pose for a few minutes is yoga. Hugging your knees into your chest and rolling from side to side is yoga. You don’t have to meet any requirements or benchmarks to make your practice valid. There's a couple of ideas at the end of the post that you can try out.