Full text of yoga instructor Anjali Mehta’s talk: The Power of Breath – Yoga’s Psychological Benefits at TEDxYouth@SAS conference. In this talk, she shows how yoga’s simplest of actions like breathing can produce a calming effect on one’s mental state. .
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Anjali Mehta – Yoga Instructor
Yoga is a Sanskrit term for union. Union, the act of joining or being joined.
Yoga is the practice of connecting the mind and the body. The only existing bridge that could potentially connect the mind and the body is the breath.
And the Sun Salutation, as you just observed, is a series of yoga postures designed to move to the rhythm of our inhales and our exhales. And as we do this, we form a connection between the mind and the body.
Two years ago, there was no chance of me even attempting the Sun Salutation. I have a very spiritual family, all of whom are into yoga, breathing, meditation, Ayurveda, all of which at the time I was simply not interested in.
My parents tried very hard. For many years, they sent me links to YouTube videos of breathing exercises and Sun Salutation tutorials, even articles as to how yoga can change your life.
But I was ignorant. I was not willing to listen to my parents.
When I was 11, my father sent me into his room and he told me to sit in the corner. He put a clock in front of me and said, “Don’t get up till four.” It was 12 o’clock.
I began to hate meditation, because I couldn’t be still. I had to force myself to stop thinking. My mind was racing from here to there. I couldn’t be still.
And then when I was 12, my father, his friend and I, every Sunday, we went to a Buddhist temple and we would practice third-eye meditation. It was a two to three hour practice where we would focus on a light in front of the room and focus on the space between our eyebrows, our third eye.
This was the most boring three hours of my life. I hated it. I was just ignorant. I did not even understand it.
And then my father signed me up for my first yoga retreat, which was a meditation yoga retreat, which I also strongly disliked.
And then in middle school and in my freshman year, I was chaos. All I ever thought about were grades, GPA, university, extracurricular activities.
Since a very young age, I’ve always wanted to help people. And so I wanted to be a doctor, but other than that, no other passion, no motivation, no drive, nothing. Just constantly worried, anxious, distressed.
My anxiety consumed me.
But then when I was 14, my mother pushed me to becoming a yoga instructor. And that’s when everything changed. Yoga saved me.
During the first day of the course, I walked into a room full of 50 year olds and they stared at me astonished – “Is she lost?”
I was not lost.
We waited for a very long and awkward five minutes before our Guruji – the teacher of the teachers arrived. And when he did, everything changed.
The tone of the room, the energy in the room, it changed.
And then he proceeded to explain the philosophy behind yoga, about how we do it. So that no matter what is going on the outside, even if the world is falling to pieces, but on the inside, we can remain calm and still.
And that is when I started to believe. I started to understand why my parents had tried to put me into yoga for so long and why they had tried so hard.
And that’s when everything changed.
During the yoga instructor course, we had a lecture on meditation. And we learned the meditation as the art or the practice of focus. This can be focused on anything – a light, a sound, an image, even a plant, anything.
Meditation essentially is a state of deep peace and intense focus. And it trains your mind to remain calm and still.
And so that day after the lecture, I went home and I told myself that I was going to meditate and it’ll be fun, I thought.
So I rolled out my yoga mat. I had some essential oils. I burnt a few candles. I sat down on the mat and I took a deep breath in. I was going to meditate.
I couldn’t do it. I lasted for maybe three minutes at the maximum. I tried so hard to focus, so hard to control my thoughts but I just couldn’t do it. This is what my head looked like.
I thought it was completely impossible, but then we had a lecture on pranayam. The Sanskrit term for life force – our breath. And that day I went home and I meditated.
And this time I really meditated. This time, I didn’t try to control my thoughts. I didn’t try to stop myself from thinking. I just let my thoughts come and go.
I just chose to focus on my breath and to listen to my breath. I didn’t pay any attention to my thoughts. And I felt peace. It was this feeling beyond anything I’ve ever felt before. Beautiful.
And that is when I realized the power of our breath.
Our thoughts constitute to this amazing world or reality we see and experience every day. However, they’re also the root cause of most problems in our life. It is when these thoughts escalate and we find ourselves losing control and unable to remain calm.
We can never fully stop thinking. However, we can learn to tame our thoughts and we can use yoga as a tool to do so.
Yoga is a practice which makes us aware of our breath. And when we become aware of our breath, we can tame our thoughts and choose whether or not to respond to them.
When I meditated, for example, I didn’t stop thinking. I was thinking, I just wasn’t paying attention to my thoughts. And I chose not to respond or to react to my thoughts.
Through evolution, our bodies have designed this fight-or-flight mode for any stressful situation. In our hunter and gatherer days, for example, if we were to ever encounter, say a tiger, our bodies would immediately go into this response.
Even during yoga, when we have to force ourselves to be still and when we have to force ourselves to not move and to stay calm and breathe, our bodies can go into this response.
Frustrated about a test, late for a meeting, nervous about a speech: fight-or-flight mode. And this can have detrimental effects on the body.
When I used to meditate, my mind used to be everywhere. I used to think about all these things: “I want to get out of here. This is too hard. I can’t do this. I hate this. I hate this so much. I just want to leave.”
And my body would go into this response: My breathing would get faster, get more shallow. My heart would beat faster. I’d break into a sweat.
And then I realized the secret to meditation and it’s the simple act of breathing.
The first thing to change as a result of this response is your breath. And so as you control your breath, and as you focus on deep breathing, you subconsciously tell your mind that everything is fine, that there’s no need to go into the stress response.
And so when you control your breath, you essentially control this entire reaction from taking place. And by this yoga can offer an escape from the minds, worry and rush thoughts.
Gradually my anxiousness reduced, I became a calmer and a happier person.
Last year, I was at our retreat in Kochi meet and I was in the balcony alone. I was simply enjoying the nature around me, just observing the life around me. It was a full moment. I was peaceful.
But then I started thinking about a test and I started getting a little bit anxious and I got a little bit stressed.
And I realized that I just wanted to be in that moment and not be stressed. And so I started focusing on my breath and my thoughts started to dwindle and disappear.
And in that moment I told myself that I would not listen to my thoughts, that I would listen to my breath instead. And I didn’t try to control my thoughts. I just simply chose not to respond to them.
I want to live in this moment and experience life in this moment: the present.
Yoga is a practice which makes us aware of the present. And it brings us to the present moment and guides us to peace.
Usually when you think of yoga, you may picture some insanely flexible person with their foot behind their head and some other ridiculous posture. This is far from the truth. Yoga is a prism of possibilities.
When I first started yoga, I did it because I wanted to be more flexible and stronger. However, this is exactly what yoga taught me to let go of. It has so much more to offer than just posture, just flexibility and strength.
After the yoga instructor course, I took the yoga therapy course. Yoga therapy is when we use yoga as a tool to heal, treat, and sometimes even cure different diseases and disorders. And I continue to be amazed by the endless possibilities Yoga has to offer us.
In one of my yoga classes, I had an eight year old girl, let’s call her Annie. And when we were practicing yoga, she began to cry. Naturally, I went up to her and I asked her what was wrong. She said, she didn’t want to talk about it and so I left her alone.
But the next class, however it happened again. And so that day we went on a walk and she told me that she felt bad about herself, because she wasn’t as flexible or skinny as some of the other girls in the class. And she didn’t like that.
And then she told me about some problems she was having at home, which are frankly far too terrible for me to even discuss.
But as a yoga instructor, I really wanted to help. And so I designed a breathing exercise for her. And when I was teaching her, I saw myself in her. I saw an anxious, frustrated, young girl who just needed to breathe.
And so gradually her anxiety, it got better. Of course, yoga did not cure her, but it allowed her to regain control over her thoughts. And it allowed her to let go of her thoughts and to choose not to respond to them.
I would now like to take you through the same thing I took Annie.
So please close your eyes, take off your glasses if you’re wearing any.
Sit with your legs uncrossed.
Place your palms on your knees facing up and take this moment right now to focus on your breath.
Bring your attention to this moment.
Be aware, inhale through the nose and exhale very slowly through the mouth.
Be aware of this moment.
Be aware of all the sensations around you.
Observe your thoughts as they come and go.
Serve your body as your stomach inflates and deflates with every inhale and exhale.
Just be in this moment: calm… happy… peaceful
When you’re ready, very gently, open your eyes and come back.
What you just did was a very simple, yet effective mindfulness exercise. And this is exactly what I told Annie to do. And this is exactly what I do every time I get stressed, anxious or frustrated.
In fact, I did this right before coming on to stage and that’s it. It takes one thought for everything to collapse, but one breath to find peace.