HomeInspirationThe world shifts when you shift

HEATHER MASON is the Founder and Director of The Minded Institute, a professional yoga therapy training organization. She is also the recipient of four master’s degrees. She is interviewed by RUBY CARMEN on the simplicity and strength of coming back to the mind, body, and spirit through yoga, and how her own yoga practice has changed her life.


Q: Good morning, Heather. Thank you very much for this interview with Heartfulness magazine. What inspires you on this path of yoga and yoga therapy?

HM: The first thing is the felt experience of the practice. The world shifts because you shift. Perception is everything. When you calm the mental processes, the nervous system, while also invigorating an awakening inside, the world shifts. You see things more clearly and with greater ease. When that happens, there’s an organic inspiration and a love for the practice, for the arising experience of self, which is not all about ego. Then, it also arises for the external world. 

I am also deeply inspired by colleagues, students, and clients who overcome great adversity through these practices. First and foremost, it’s the practice itself. 

It’s easy to get caught up in all the trappings of the world. It’s easy to externalize and worry about the vicissitudes of life and the problems that emerge, which may be great or small. So, the spiritual teachings of yoga are incredibly important, even if we already know them intellectually—to embody them and find nourishment. 

I lived in Buddhist monasteries for about three years. When you’re enmeshed in that world, day in and day out, the remembrance is there moment by moment. But when you’re not in that environment, it helps to have an active process of being with other people, reminding you of the values, reading literature, maybe spiritual texts, so you inculcate those ideas on a daily basis. You can choose the approach yourself; I’m not suggesting any indoctrination because there are so many competing factors, and we live in a world that’s very much based on success being material gain and prestige. Unfortunately, chasing those things doesn’t lead to joy. 

It's important to keep coming back to what it feels like to be present in your energy—to watch, feel, stretch, breathe.

Q: It’s important to think about interiorization, especially when there are many external distractions. You specialize in yoga therapy and have a keen interest in neuroscience. What can we learn from the ancient past, from yogic psychology, and how can it help us with modern issues?

There’s also a lot more discourse around trauma. Many people are opening up and being more honest about struggling and needing support. How can yoga help with understanding trauma? 

HM: There are two different questions here. In terms of yoga psychology, we all possess an indestructible but obscure perfected nature. No matter what has happened to us, wellness is always present. That has been an invaluable reflection, especially when I have felt broken to the core of my being, as if there was no coming back from it. Adhering to the atman [soul], connecting to the greater whole, which can never be tarnished, is very supportive. Also, we all have the capacity to build mental faculties through practice. 
That doesn’t mean we can entirely extricate pain and memories from life. I don’t want to sell it as, “Do this and life will be easy.” Many of us have undergone things for which we will wear scars for life, and yet we can tap into unattainable wellness. It’s vital for the field of PTSD.

Here, we touch upon neuroscience. There is an appreciation now that PTSD has a common neurological signature for everybody; it shows up in the brain and the nervous system in common ways, which is why we can diagnose it as a condition with common symptoms. And as we understand the impact of the practices, we can apply them in ways that support the regulation of the nervous system. 

One of the core things in PTSD is dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that is associated with “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) or “fight or flight” (sympathetic). For example, Pranayama, yogic breathing practices, elongate the exhalation and that increases parasympathetic activation. So, yoga can help in a moment or over time with repetition by promoting greater regulation. A similar thing happens through movement.

Other limbs of yoga that require the mind can be tougher when there is trauma, like meditation, the Yamas, and the Niyamas, because the mind is the very thing causing us agitation.



So, yoga can help in a moment or
over time with repetition by promoting
greater regulation. A similar thing happens
through movement.

Q: In your journey, was there one significant moment when you realized that yoga would be significant in your life, or was it a series of different events? 

HM: I think it was a series of events. When I was doing my yoga therapy training in India, I wasn’t sure what I would get out of it and the ultimate purpose. I was in an ashram, and they let us out for the day after two weeks. Afterward, I was driving back to the ashram and everything fell into place. I remember a mountain in the distance and beautiful greenery. I had spent so much of my life focusing on mental health, with a Masters in Psychotherapy, and a degree in Buddhist Studies with a focus on psychology. I had struggled with my mental health for many years, and was using Buddhism and yoga practices to transform my mind. Suddenly, I thought, “Okay. I need to use yoga therapy to help people with mental health issues,” and the course emerged out of the ether. It was an epiphany, and I started teaching that course when I returned to the UK. It’s something that people can learn to teach.




There’s great potential for yoga to help people suffering with mental health issues. There also has to be consistency and a willingness to face difficulties, because sometimes you have to come up against the most difficult things within yourself for there to be change. I think it’s essential to do yoga with lightness, take your time, and practice over a broad period to know that transformation is possible. I’m an example. It hasn’t been an easy life, so I know what’s possible.

There’s great potential for yoga
to help people suffering with
mental health issues.

Q: You touched upon two things: the first is change, transformation. Sometimes people feel stuck in their lives and don’t know how to change. Yoga and meditation are certainly tools for transformation. The second thing you touched upon was consistency. That’s practice, what we call abhyas. It’s not a one-off quick fix. That’s important. 

You also mentioned the idea of processing. If you have experienced trauma and challenges, you can process them through yoga practices. One thing that has come up for me in the last couple of years is the concept of spiritual bypassing, saying something like, “Okay, I’ve done this six-week course and I’m healed now,” whereas from my own experience, and from what you’ve shared, it’s an ongoing process. 

HM: And using spiritual practices is also a way to avoid ourselves. 

Q: Actually, a lot of people have the misconception that meditation is an escape, whereas you’re actually coming to yourself, seeing yourself as a mirror. 

HM: Yes, meditation is very revealing.

Q: Is there anything you wish to share with young people? 

HM: Start to practice early! Realize that if you are struggling, so is everybody else, even if they look like they’re not. Have empathy for other people’s challenges. Even if it’s hard, reach out to your peers; you are not alone, and growing up is a challenge. When adopted early, these tools help you to meet some of those challenges, and influence the development of the brain. You can set up a lifetime of different neurological circumstances, making it easier to manage life. The brain doesn’t become fully formed until the ages of 23 to 25.



There also has to be consistency
and a willingness to face difficulties,
because sometimes you have to
come up against the most difficult things
within yourself for there to be change.

I really wish I had practiced yoga from a young age. I was a gymnast, and I was competitive, so I could make a lot of shapes with my body, but it was all about show and not about embodiment. I wish somebody had offered me yoga practices then. My life would be so different. 

Q: I studied psychology in the ’90s, and back then they thought that neuroplasticity disappeared after puberty. Newer research shows that neuroplasticity continues later in life, and that yoga and meditation support neuroplasticity.  

HM: It continues to the very last stages of life; there is neuronal growth even during dementia, and while parts of the brain are atrophying, which can be prevented through practice. At all stages of life, we have the potential for neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

Q: There are a lot of stereotypes out there about yoga. A lot of time is spent busting myths about yoga and meditation. Can you give some examples?

HM: One thing is that yoga teachers think we breathe in through the left nostril to activate the left side of the brain, and breathe in through the right nostril to activate the right side of the brain. That is not true. Alternate nostril breathing has the potential to balance the nervous system. We don’t breathe from our left nostril into the left part of our brain, and the sensory pathways from our noses (except those involved with smell, which do go straight to the brain) go all the way back down to the brain stem. 

Q: Brilliant. Thanks so much, Heather. Is there anything else you want to share?

HM: Yoga for dogs!



Illustrations by JASMEE MUDGAL


Heather Mason

Heather Mason

Heather is the founder of the Minded Institute, a professional yoga therapy training organization, and the Director of the Yoga and Healthcare Alliance. She specializes in the treatment of trauma and anxiety, and the use of physiological as... Read More