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.

If you do a couple of little stretches and decide you’d like to keep going, that’s great too! But through the whole process, keep checking in with yourself so that you can decide what you want to try, and whether or not it feels good for you.

If you experience perfectionism or anxiety, a short practice can also be a way of setting boundaries for yourself and managing your own expectations about what you ‘could’ or ‘should’ do.

I like to incorporate tiny bits of yoga into the things I do every day. Doing mini sun salutations against the kitchen bench while I’m waiting for the kettle or the microwave, taking some deep breaths and doing some gentle neck movements when I get in the car, or sitting in some easy restorative stretches when I’m watching Netflix.

Tip Number Three: 2 seconds of Courage

This idea of 2 seconds of courage has a tonne of iterations by various authors, speakers, and influencers all over the internet. But here is the basic idea behind it:

You don’t need enough willpower or motivation to do the whole activity. You just need enough to start.

On days when you’re not feeling your best, mustering the enthusiasm or motivation to do anything can start to feel like a chore. Intellectually, you might know that you want to do something for your wellbeing, but your mood stops you in your tracks.

This is where using 2 seconds of courage along with our bite-sized practice strategy can be really useful. All it takes to start a bite-sized practice is a small movement, and that decision to make a movement can take less than two seconds.

And here’s the thing: you might make the decision, make a movement, and then flop right back where you started. That’s okay. Be kind and patient with yourself. Because next time it might be a little easier to make that decision to make a movement, and next time that movement might lead to another movement.

Experiment around with methods that work for you to start something. Maybe setting a reminder on your phone to check in with your posture, making an effort to stand up once an hour, or having a set practice that you do at the same time every day. Try tacking on mindful moments to things you already do, like taking medication or brushing your teeth.

Tip Number Four: Set yourself up

Managing your mental health can take a bit of planning. This is a really individual process and is completely dependent on your own unique experience.

Making plans on your good days to help you on your not-so-good days

But here are a few ideas that you might find helpful:

Create an association object, place, sound, or scent

  • Using the principles of Classical Conditioning, you can essentially train yourself to associate good feelings with that item. For example, pick a beautiful stone, a particular scented oil, or a corner of your home. When you’re feeling well, do something that makes you feel safe and happy, keeping that thing with you. Maybe it’s yoga, or dance, or singing, or art, or a luxurious bubble bath.

  • After a while of pairing these two things together, you can start using that thing when you’re in a bad head space and you want to draw on these feelings of safety and happiness. The item that previously had little meaning to you can now invoke the feelings you pair it with by itself. This is by no means a guaranteed method, but even a vague sense of familiarity can bring some comfort.

  • Just make sure that you’re pairing the thing with the positive experience more often than you’re pairing it with the negative experience.

  • Check out the image below for a visual explanation of how classical conditioning works:

Come home to yourself

  • Along with the association object, find some other ways to make you feel comfortable in your practice. In my classes, we talk a lot about the feeling of ‘coming home to ourselves’. This is about cultivating a feeling of being really safe and secure in our own bodies. This can be a really overwhelming feeling at first, especially if you’ve had experiences of trauma or disconnection from your body. But as you grow your practice and slowly create it, it eventually starts to act as a resource for you, so that when you need that feeling of coming home, it’s only a few breaths away. This process takes time and patience but can be a really powerful tool.

Have some lists handy

  • When you’re feeling good, make up some lists that you can reflect on when you need a reminder. Things that you feel grateful for, stories about good things that have happened to you, people you care about, or things that have made you feel good in the past.

  • You could go one step further and put together a wellbeing box filled with these lists as well as anything else that you think might be helpful. For example, sensory items, pictures, affirmations, pleasant smells, or even your favourite sweets.

Know your practice

  • When you’ve decided you want to do something, figuring out what to do can be the hardest bit. So, have some practices laid out that require zero thinking. Maybe a list of a few of your favourite poses, an audio meditation you know you like, or some bookmarked videos. You could even write them down and put them in your wellbeing box.

  • To get you started, have a look through the gallery below for my personal favourite picks for yoga on a bad mental health day. You can pick one or two, you can do all of them, or you can weave them into your own favourite poses. How long you hold the poses is also up to you, as long as it feels comfortable. Most of these you can even do from bed if that’s where you’re at today.

I want you to remember that you're not alone in your experience. Everyone has bad mental health days, even if you don't see it. What you're going through is real, and it's hard, but you have what it takes to get through it. If you are ready to look for support for your mental health, click here to find a list of free phone support lines in Australia, or go visit your local GP (doctor) to ask for a mental health care plan.

If you have any questions about anything I've talked about here, please feel free to get in touch, or leave a comment below.

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