Yoga For Your Mental Health

Do exercise, they say. It’ll be good for you, they say.

We are entire beings. We are mental, physical, and spiritual beings- all three parts that make up to a whole. So if you’re healthy physically, it’s going to give you a better chance of being healthy mentally too. And this is is basically what it comes down to when you hear talk about physical exercise as being as effective as medication to treating mental health conditions. There are plenty of statistics and articles out there if you’re interested in learning more, but when you’re in the thick of it, and are really suffering with mental health problems, what does doing exercise actually feel like? And what often gets forgotten?

Disclaimer alert, I am an exercise fan. While I was at University, running was my meditation. A way of letting off steam. As you’ll know if you’re a runner, there is nothing better to clear the mind of chatter and the body of tension than a good old run to some d’n’b.

But when I developed severe depression and crippling anxiety, I was faced with a bit of a problem… I basically couldn’t exercise without setting off a panic attack.

For me, my anxiety was (and still pretty much is) closely linked with my heart rate, adrenalin levels, and my breathing. When any of those got even a little out of control… BAM! Anxiety attack. And then, like an over-sensitive smoke detector, once activated, my anxiety never quite calmed down before the next shock rolled in. A car alarm goes off outside and BAM! A knock on the front door and BAM! Someone shuts the fridge downstairs a little too hard and BAM! I sneeze unexpectedly and BAM! It was a little lot ridiculous. For weeks, about 50% of the time anxiety had me trapped indoors,  unable to face the overstimulating world of outside. And the other 50% was taken up by an exhaustive and all encompassing depression. As you can see, anxiety and depression, as the two opposite end of extremes, are quite the team.

But still, do some exercise, they say. It’ll be really good for you, they say.

Let me tell you, whatever they say, doing exercise when you are struggling with anxiety is not a productive way to spend your time.

I did actually attempt to run, quite a few times. But you can just imagine… heart pounding, heavy breathing, rapid motion, and the outside world? It didn’t end well.

After that, I stopped leaving the house altogether, and basically didn’t leave bed for a few months, either because I was too exhausted, unmotivated, or too wound up and terrified by every tiny thing. It got to the point where I couldn’t watch films, because anything too exciting or surprising would set me off, and let me tell you, there isn’t much of a market for the unexciting but feel-good films out there. Even wildlife documentaries got a bit much at times. Those giraffes can be savage.

After a few months, I began to slowly venture out. Normally at night so it was nice and quiet, and with Rich by my side. By this time the medication had begun to take the edge off, and I had been to a few therapy sessions (which I definitely spent the first few sessions just crying uncontrollably at). But with the therapy, the medication, and a gentle self-meditation practise, I was finally able to leave the house. And the first thing I did was to go with my housemate and signed up for the local gym.

At first, I have to say it didn’t go too great. I kept having to stop on the treadmill or bike after a couple of minutes minutes because the rhythmic pounding or my heart beat got too much. And then there were all the television screens everywhere, screaming excitement, and advertisements for Exciting! new protein shakes, and the constant yet somehow still unexpected sound of heavy weights being dropped. Even worse, I might run into someone who knew me, which resulted in me running in the opposite direction because I basically just couldn’t hack the excitement/nerves that got set off by social interaction.

But the gym also offered group exercise classes, and although the sound of Body Pump or Abz Attack sent me into a cold sweat just saying their names aloud, there was also a Gentle Pilates and Yoga class advertised.

I went along, not really knowing what to expect but hoping at least that I wasn’t going to get yelled at by a spandex wearing muscle man, grinning manically, and bouncing the equivalent of a humpback whale in weights above his head to some pounding club bangers.

From the moment I sat down, looking around a little unsure, cross legged on the mat, I felt like I could finally let my guard down. It helped massively of course that everyone else in the room had their eyes shut (including the teacher). The music was soft and lulling, the lights were down low so I felt safe and hidden, and I was even comfortable being in my baggy pyjama t-shirt (I hadn’t quite managed to find the motivation to get fully dressed that morning). I felt safe on the island of my mat. No-one was looking at me, or comparing themselves to me, and there was no demand for forced energy or hyper excitement. It was calm, serene, with no sudden movements. Slow and steady. I can’t remember much from that first session, but what I do remember there was a lot of deep deep breathing like I had never done before (even in my singing days) and there was just this warm wash of calm inside like I had not felt in about six months. Like something warm and furry was hugging me from head to toe and whispering in my ear that I was safe, that it was ok. There was lots of sighing from the mats on each side of me, so I knew I wasn’t alone.

Sure enough, over the next few months, I slowly became friends with the people who took the class with me and around me. This was the first social contact outside of mine and Rich’s housemates that I had been able to have in about half a year. We would smile, and ask how each other were in the changing rooms, but always with a quiet calm and a feeling of acceptance. I was no longer a slave to the tunnel vision of my anxiety, now I was connecting again with other real human beings. Yoga was gently, but slowly, opening me back up, in the most calming and understanding way you can imagine.

Yoga was something I could do without a pounding heart rate, without getting elevated breathing, and without my adrenals going into overdrive. I was moving again, and I was getting stronger, and more balanced, and in control, and healthy by the day. I would wake up in the morning and stretch in bed before I did anything, just because it felt good to relieve some of the painful ache of depression in my bones, and the tension of anxiety from my neck and shoulders.

There is no doubt that Yoga is hard work, and it definitely is exercise. But without getting panicked, I would get the same letting-off-steam stress release I used to get from a long run, the same satisfied energy from a heavy gym work out, and the stretching -though gentle and patient-  was intense and deep and could take my breathe away. I soon learnt that Yoga is a tricksy one, it would sneak up on you, one stretch at a time, and before you know it you’ve flowed into a full hour of physical exercise.

Emotionally too, Yoga taught me to be more resilient, as I learnt to control my breathing in even the more difficult asana postures, and accept feelings of pain or discomfort with an open and curious mind rather than shutting them away and suppressing them. After I had been Yog-ing for about a month or two, I remember experiencing a strange sensation of power as I walked home one day. It was a feeling of deep love, satisfaction, and respect for my body, as if it was a separate being, a long lost friend rather than a intrinsic part of me, and I wanted to look after it and nourish it and let it live. Whether it’s in the breathing, the philosophy, or the very essence of the way it is done, Yoga taught me to love my body like no form of sport before ever had.

But over all of that, Yoga gave me something I never even knew was important. It gave me a sense of spiritual connection; a purpose to live, and a connection to something bigger than myself. I now believe this is essential to recovery from any type of mental illness. Physical, mental, and spiritual. The threefold path of health as a human being.

So yes, do try to find the physical exercise and movement that works for you, and love and nourish your body (it’s the only one you’ll ever get… probably), and do take your meds, and do see your therapist, and do all of those exercises and worksheets that you’re given. But don’t forget above all to keep seeking meaning and purpose in your life, to find your spiritual soul, and connect with who you really are, behind the chatter of your intellectual mind, and the pangs of your physical body. And then you might find, if you’re lucky, that underneath all of that mess and mush, you are Divine, and you deserve life.

 

I hope you’re all really well.

Stay breezey,

Roo xx.

 

 

Breathing Compassion In & Out

As I mentioned in my last post, mindful meditation has become an increasingly important part of my lifestyle, and has proven to be a colossal part of my recovery from severe anxiety and depression. So I’m going to share with you some of the meditations I use, and maybe even help you to discover new methods that you like the sound of to try out too.

I’ve only just started practising meditation properly- well, from about a month ago now- on the advice of my doctor. Previously I had always had an interest in it, and had dipped my toes in various ideas from time to time, but never really committed to it. But now I almost feel like I have been given this new opportunity to really dive in and pursue it, so thanks, anxiety 😉

One group of meditations that have been suggested to me by my psychotherapist, and I use almost daily now, are ‘Mindful Self-Compassion’ meditations by a guy called Christopher Germer, who is a clinical psychologist, specialising in mindfulness and compassion based psychotherapy.

Breathing Compassion In and Out is a 20 minute guided meditation from his series. The meditation focuses on the idea of accepting pain, and then finding compassion, all from within your own breathing. Sounds confusing, right? Let me try and explain it to you.

Germer explains that his Breathing Compassion In and Out derives from a Tibetan meditation practise called Tonglen. In Tonglen, you are acknowledging that pain and suffering exists, not only inside of you, but also all around you in others. As you inhale, you breath in that suffering, opening yourself to it. That might sound like a very alarming and depressing concept, but in this meditation it is only when you open yourself willingly to pain that you are then able to offer a real understanding and compassion in return.

As you breath in, you welcome the world exactly as it is, without trying to change it. You are not pitying the sufferer (even if that sufferer is yourself) but instead offering them a gentle kindness and acceptance of their situation. Note that recognition and acceptance of pain is not the same thing as showing approval or resigning to it.

The practise relies on trust, as you give yourself openly, in the full knowledge that you yourself are also just as vulnerable to suffering as others. But, ultimately, what this meditation is about is healing and love, as you are also opening yourself to your own answering kindness from within.

In Germer’s meditation, the premise is similar, but not quite to the same extent. It seems almost like his is a gentle gateway meditation to true Tonglen, which, admittedly, seems like quite advanced meditation to me. Germer begins his meditation by bringing attention to stress and suffering you are feeling, but then the focus shifts slightly. While on every exhale you breath out compassion for those around you, your inhale is about bringing soothing for yourself.

So that’s what I was practising today. If you feel like giving it a go yourself, or are just curious, you can listen to Germer’s full 20 minute meditation here.

Enjoy, and feel free to share any ideas/comments or even your own meditations below.

Warmest wishes,

Roo xx

How to Eat Mindfully

So, I’ve just had my first article published on YogiApproved! This is all a bit exciting, I feel like I’m taking my first cautious steps towards embracing the wider yoga community online. Before long I’m going to be one of those gorgeous yogis that already dominate my Pinterest, posing in front of breathtaking backdrops straight out of a holiday brochure, eating nothing but chai seeds and raw tofu, and speaking Sanskrit. Sigh… One day…

Anyway, for now, here’s the article…! Thanks YogiApproved!


eating-mindfully-660x400

When was the last time you sat down and enjoyed a leisurely meal with a group of friends? What about just you and your partner? And what about by yourself?
Sometimes, it can be really hard to find a second in the day when you are able to enjoy what is right in front of you, right here and right now. It can be even harder to make yourself stop and actually sit down for a prolonged period of time, especially if you’re rushing trying to get everything done. But when you stop amidst the hustle and bustle to sit down and eat, it is the perfect opportunity to check in with your mind and your body.

Eating is wonderful. It gives us energy and pleasure. It is as natural as breathing. It has a fantastic way of bringing people together. But in our diet and image-obsessed culture, eating can suddenly induce guilt where before it was simply enjoyable. To make matters worse, under the combined pressures of work, money, and deadlines, it is often cheaper and easier for us to grab fast food on the go, pumped full of salt and artificial flavors (and god knows what else!), than it is for us to find the time to sit down and enjoy something wholesome.

Food can become a chore – just one more thing to get done on an endless to-do list. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself, and know what it feels like to inhale your food (usually over a laptop) without even tasting it. Maybe you haven’t tasted your dinner properly for weeks. Maybe it’s time for a change.

Enter mindful eating… . . . Continue reading the full article here.


I hope you’re all well.

Stay breezey 🍌

Roo xx.

When You Shine, I Shine

The world is full of competition – it drives our consumerism and feeds our ambitions. We might find ourselves competing aggressively with those around us – for jobs, for schools, for money, for attention. We compete for “success” (whatever we deem that to be), as if it is something that has finite resources; as if it will run out if someone else gets there first.

Even though we reasonably know that the concept of success is not a dwindling resource but in fact an endless, infinite commodity to be shared and celebrated, it can still be hard to not feel jealous, resentful, or even inferior when we see someone else excelling at the same thing we’re striving towards.

In yoga, we are advised by our teachers to let go of competitiveness, to love ourselves, accept our limits, and let go of our ego.

But some days, it can be harder to focus. Maybe you find yourself enviously watching the person on the mat next to you as they glide effortlessly between poses, a serene expression on their face: an image of grace and power that you feel you can only aspire to. And although you know that you should try and let go of your competitiveness, a little teeny tiny part of you still says, “Damn… I wish I could be a little more like them.”

Sound familiar? Here’s a better, more empowered alternative. Apply a little Shine Theory to your situation and channel those thoughts into some positive, uplifting energy.

Shine Theory is all about embracing and befriending those who you look up to, surrounding yourself with people you admire, and celebrating their successes, rather than resenting that it isn’t you in their place.

“I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” -Aminatou Sow

I first heard about ‘Shine Theory’ from Ann Freidman, New York Magazine writer, and one of the three fabulous ladies who are behind the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. “I don’t shine if you don’t shine,” says Ann’s best friend and podcast partner, Aminatou Sow. Freidman talks about Shine Theory from a purely feminist stance, encouraging women to support each other. What an amazing idea! So why not extend the Shine Theory to embrace all beings in exactly the same way?

“Because she competes with no one, no one can compete with her.” -Lao Tzu

It can take real courage to approach someone you have been admiring from a distance and compliment them. But when you give out love and light, the universe sends love and light right back at you. Your comment could be the beginning of a great friendship or mentorship, or it may just make their day. All you need to know is that you have put yourself out there, non-competitively. The universe rewards such actions.

Continue reading…  

 

Image credit: Tumblr

Progressing with Patience

When I first was diagnosed, one of my biggest coping mechanisms was to consider my mental illness like any other physical injury I had ever had up until this point- as something that I will bounce back from, passing in its own time, given that I look after myself, rest up, and practise patience.

It’s a classic case of youthful thinking that I was, in some way, immortal, and that whatever happened, I would always be fine and just go back to how I was before. The idea of a sports injury sticking around as something I have to work with for the rest of my life was something that I couldn’t comprehend.

Of course, now I know that things don’t always happen that way. Bodies get old, and pain is stubborn, and one particularly persistent illness or injury may never quite seem to fade completely. You never quite go back to square one. But what you can do, if you’ll let it, is end up somewhere completely different.

In the yoga community, I have heard the most inspiring life stories from people, first hand, of how they were told they would never walk unaided again, or be able to go back to the work that they love, and yet they did. These people managed to overcome the odds stacked against them, working oh-so-slowly, and with all of the patience of the universe within themselves.

And no, of course they’re not the same people they were at the start- they have undergone an immense soul-changing journey – how could anyone be the same after that? They often come out of it with an entirely new life perspective, being more in control, more aware, more accepting, more understanding, and more patient with themselves, and with others, than they ever could have been before.

But of course it is hard to be patient, all the time, when the future seems to stretch out in front of you empty and bleak, and you feel like you are so far from where you want to be, and even further from what you were before.

I guess in recovery, it is important to let go of these self comparisons and expectations that you put on yourself, and try not to look too far ahead. To practise a different kind of patience with yourself, one where you are not waiting for something in particular, but one where you continue to pootle along on your path steadily and patiently in the face of obstacles (and of course there will be obstacles, life likes to do that for us to give us a little push from time to time).

The difference is to work with progression, rather than aiming for some sort of perfection. To let go of expectations or life plans and just see where you end up. To live in the present, as you are, and try to accept how you are feeling today and work with today, rather than getting frustrated with yourself for not being who you were before.

Because (and this can be a really difficult thought to deal with) you are not who you were before. And you will never be who you were before again. But instead, you are someone with the potential to be so. much. more. With the depth of your experience, you are creating the most beautiful landscapes of mountains and valleys within your soul. So it is ok to take your time. You are becoming more you. You are coming home to yourself.

Below is an extract that I was given by my therapist when I was moving on from my CBT course at Birmingham Healthy Minds. It is about faith, and patience, and doing everything from a place of love.

I hope you are all well.

Stay breezy,

Roo xx.


 

Doing the Best You Can
Progressing with Patience

by Madisyn Taylor

 

Try not to expect perfection when starting out on a spiritual path or attaining inner peace.

It isn’t always easy to meet the expectations we hold ourselves to. We may find ourselves in a situation such as just finishing a relaxing yoga class or meditation retreat, a serene session of deep breathing, or listening to some calming, soul-stirring music, yet we have difficulty retaining our sense of peace. A long line at the store, slow-moving traffic, or another stressful situation can unnerve you and leave you wondering why the tranquility and spiritual equilibrium you cultivate is so quick to dissipate in the face of certain stressors. You may feel guilty and angry at yourself or even feel like a hypocrite for not being able to maintain control after practicing being centered. However, being patient with yourself will help you more in your soul’s journey than frustration at your perceived lack of progress. Doing the best you can in your quest for spiritual growth is vastly more important than striving for perfection.

Just because you are devoted to following a spiritual path, attaining inner peace, or living a specific ideology doesn’t mean you should expect to achieve perfection. When you approach your personal evolution mindfully, you can experience intense emotions such as anger without feeling that you have somehow failed. Simply by being aware of what you are experiencing and recognizing that your feelings are temporary, you have begun taking the necessary steps to regaining your internal balance. Accepting that difficult situations will arise from time to time and treating your reaction to them as if they are passing events rather than a part of who you are can help you move past them. Practicing this form of acceptance and paying attention to your reactions in order to learn from them will make it easier for you to return to your center more quickly in the future.

Since your experiences won’t be similar to others’ and your behavior will be shaped by those experiences, you may never stop reacting strongly to the challenging situations you encounter. Even if you are able to do nothing more than acknowledge what you are feeling and that there is little you can do to affect your current circumstances, in time you’ll alter your reaction to such circumstances. You can learn gradually to let negative thoughts come into your mind, recognize them, and then let them go. You may never reach a place of perfect peace, but you’ll find serenity in having done your best.

Yoga Tattoos

So I recently got my first tattoo. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years, and now, finally, to celebrate starting on my yoga teacher training, I got it done! It’s a tiny but elegant aum symbol in black vegan ink on my inner wrist, just as a small reminder for myself but tucked enough out of sight not to call for attention. The full meaning behind the aum (or “om”) symbol is outlined below, but to me it is there to help me feel grounded and remember to be aware as I try to bring my yogic beliefs into my everyday.

Shortly after I got my tattoo, I wrote an article for Yogi Approved on the meaning of tattoos and their symbols in the yogic community. Although I cannot post the whole article for copyright reasons, here is the beginning for you, followed by a link to the original article itself with pictures and all.

I hope you enjoy.

Stay breezey,

Roo xx.


6 Common Yoga-Inspired Tattoos and Their Meanings Explained

Tattoos, tattoos, everywhere!
You can’t go far these days without running into someone who has a tattoo, especially in the yoga community – from proud declarations of passion worn brazenly across the chest, to symbols of dedication that are tucked discreetly out of sight.

Tattoo culture is ancient. It’s unclear where it originates from exactly, but the first recorded inkings come from ancient Egypt, around the time when the pyramids were being built. These early tattoo forerunners believed that an image on the skin was much more than a powerful symbol, and actually allowed the wearer to take on the qualities of that image. For example, if you had a tattoo of a lion on your chest, not only do you look pretty badass, but you also take on the qualities of the lion – proud, strong, and a powerful leader, just like the king of beasts.

In the thousands of years since, tattoo culture has spread across the globe and back again, and today in the western world getting inked has never been more popular. In the yoga community in particular, you’ll often see the same recurring symbols, and this is by no means a coincidence. These popular tattoo images are not only aesthetically beautiful, but resonate with meaning and spiritual depth.

Of course, everyone has their own reasons for going under the needle and doing something so permanent. Whether it’s a badge of loyalty, a personal reminder of your beliefs, or simply because you love the way it looks and feels, we think tattoos are awesome. Even better if they’re yoga related!

Whether you’re looking for inspiration for your next tat, you’re not quite sure where to begin, or if you just want to see what’s out there and learn more about this ancient culture, read on, as we walk you through 6 of the most common yoga-inspired tattoos out there…

1. The Lotus Flower

The lotus is a symbol of purity and divine birth. The pure white flower flourishes in murky ponds. Hence, the lotus has come to represent the enlightened soul, calm amidst the chaos of the physical universe. The bud of the lotus symbolizes potential – it is the bud from which spiritual awareness grows. The number of petals changes depending on the meaning behind the lotus, with eight petals being the most common (reflecting the eight limbs of yoga) going all the way up to one thousand (to the crown chakra, or center of enlightenment). I’d like to see them try to fit that on one finger!

“If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are… and when you get there, you will discover yourself, like a lotus flower in full bloom, even in a muddy pond, beautiful and strong.” – Masaru Emoto

2. The OM symbol

The OM symbol, from Sanskrit writing, is dripping with depth and meaning. Each curl represents a different part of the human awareness: conscious waking below, unconscious sleeping above, and out of the two comes the subconscious: the dream state. The floating dot above symbolizes a higher awareness, or nirvana, and reaching this state of bliss is only achievable by passing through the dash that hangs beneath it: signifying an infinitely open and willing mind.
The OM or “AUM” is also believed to be the sound that was made when all of creation came into existence, and it is how many yogis often begin and end their practice.

“OM is not just a sound or vibration. It is not just a symbol. It is the entire cosmos…. continuously resounding in silence on the background of everything that exists.” – Amit Ray

3. Mandalas

Often used as an object of focus in meditation, the mandala is a gorgeous geometric pattern that represents the metaphysical universe with cosmic harmony as all paths meet at the center. Comprised of many intricate components and details, the mandala becomes whole: a symbol of oneness, perfection, unity, and completeness. The mandala is also another way of representing a lotus (see above) in full bloom with its petals wide open to the world.

“Each person’s life is like a mandala – a vast, limitless circle. We stand in the center of our own circle, and everything we see, hear and think forms the mandala of our life.” – Pema Chodron

4. Hamsa

The Hamsa is a hand-shaped symbol, traditionally with a picture of an eye at its center. The Hamsa represents bravery and boldness, and is believed to ward off evil and negativity – the ultimate form of protection when worn on the skin as a tattoo. The eye represents the divine, always watching over you and bringing you good luck. Wearing a Hamsa on your own finger might bring even more protection to the wearer, as finger tattoos were often traditionally believed by ancient tribespeople to keep negative energies and spirits at bay. Incorporate an elephant inside your Hamsa for some extra good luck.

“Rakhay rakhanhaar aap ubaariun” – a mantra from Guru Arjan that translates to “The divine is looking out for us.”

5. The Moon

From the earth, the moon seems to be constantly changing as it waxes and wanes in its endless cycle. Yet we all know that the moon never actually vanishes from the sky but instead remains the same, silently orbiting us. The moon is a powerful symbol for our own lives, as we too seem to be going under constant day-to-day change, yet simultaneously remain the same people as the day we were born. The moon can symbolize rebirth, feminine power and fertility, and the karmic cycle: what goes around comes around!

“Regardless of the shadows that cross the moon to make it appear less than it is, to the moon, it is always full. So it is with us.” – Buddha

Read the full article…

A Yoga Class in Sri Lanka

On our recent visit to The Elephant Freedom Project, to my great delight (but less so to Rich’s!) we were invited to join a local yoga class.

In true Sri Lankan style, we arrived late, to find the rest of the class already trying to reach their toes and giggling tremendously. Sandals splashed with mud from the rains were piled outside. It was a small white room, with bare hanging bulbs that midges already buzzed greedily around in clusters. The room was open at the back, like one huge balcony, and the night outside seemed pitch black.

Despite the lack of space, about twenty of us managed to squeeze in, ranging in age from maybe 6 all the way up to 50. Mats ranging in colour and materials were passed around, some tiny, some large, some wide, some thin, depending on the users preferences. Some people choose to use just the bare tile floor, while other lounged on cuts of faded carpets or even padded themselves out with pillows. The air was full of excitement, especially at the addition of two strangers to the class, and there was lots of whispering, poking, and yelping going on, especially between the younger students.

And so the class began. With no warning, and before we could even register what was happening, we were thrown into a volley of squats, sit ups, push ups, press ups, and crunches, enough to make a lizard break into a sweat.

After this, came the breathing. We clambered into various asanas and breathed deeply, holding poses for what felt like up to ten minutes at a time, and all the while the master would give tips in Singalese and in English, occasionally walking around the class and pushing a back straighter or an elbow in, and all the time ‘Relax, relax…’. It was less about making that perfect asana shape, and always more about breathing and relaxing. 

And we would breath. Noisily, gasping, and whistling, or in loud hums that would make your eyeballs vibrate.

After this, came the balancing. On our tail bones, on our sides, on our shoulders, and on our heads. Needless to say, by the time we got to head stands there was a lot of huffing and puffing and shrieking and falling on top of each other going on. And all the time ‘Relax, relax…’ says the master, calmly and quietly, with his eyes closed, but a smile is in his cheeks. He’s full aware of the chaos that’s unfolding in his class around him, while he himself remains casually upside down on the bare tile floor.

We laugh. We sit in a circle, all facing in and make big belly laughs, slapping our thighs, and the floor, and each other on the back. When the noise fades away into satisfied sighs, all it takes is a tiny giggle from the smallest child, or a booming guffaw from the oldest man, and suddenly we are all rolling around in tummy clenching, cheek squeezing, hysterics once more.

By now, two hours have passed and it is late. We lie in savasana, our eyes closed, relaxing our minds and bodies. The master turns off the lights, revealing the fireflies flashing orange in the trees over the balcony. But Rich and I cannot relax, cursed by our genes to attract the midges and mosquitos, we are doomed to spend the next fifteen minutes, rather than relaxing, desperately brushing and slapping off the bugs, and trying not to be eaten alive. And always, ‘Relax, relax…’.

Finally, the meditation comes to an end, and the white lights pierce through the gentle darkness once more, and we sit up. Giggles spread through us like wildfire once more as we quickly realise that the majority of the younger kids have fallen asleep during the final savasana, and are now flat out on their backs, with their mouths hanging open, or snoring gently. One by one, the sleepers are either shaken or stir of their own accord, gradually opening their eyes or sitting up in shock, and the laughter redoubles as they too realise what has happened.

And the class is over. The master presents Rich and I with a book on Hatha yoga to take away with us.

And what else to take away from it?

Sometimes I feel that yoga can be taken too seriously, and treated too preciously. Don’t get me wrong, I think the world of yoga, and everything it has done and will and can do for me too. And I will always hold it high and proud in my life and speak of it with utmost respect. But making mistakes and being able to laugh about yoga is also a huge part of what I enjoy most about doing it.

I always invite my friends to join me in my practise, wanting to share the enjoyment I get from it, but many of my friends shy away from classes, fearing an elitist environment and their embarrassment of not being good enough for it. ‘But this is yoga!’ I try to tell them, ‘Not being good enough- what does that even mean?!’

So, a class like this, that may not be in a fancy studio, and may not have air conditioning and mood lighting, and doesn’t play Tibetan bells in the background, or overlook stunning mountain scenery. But a class like this that really feels like you are being invited into a family that accept you entirely as you are. For me, this is a reminder of how open to everyone yoga really is. Whatever age, background, occupation, body shape, or language! And yes, of course a fancy studio and mountain scenery is always lovely, but even more so yoga is a place for laughter and silliness. 

So accept your own mishaps with giggles, invite kind smiles from your teachers, and everyone have a belly laugh.

Hope you’re all well.

Stay breezey 🙈

Roo xx

Thinking Yourself Well

Our brains are very good at using the past and the future to make decisions. We learn from our mistakes, and are able to live with relatively more ease by planning ahead. In the game of survival, it has done very well for us. However, when we begin to overthink, it can also become a hindrance…

Being able to keep myself present, through meditation or otherwise, and consequently stopping myself from getting caught up in overthinking, has proven to be a vital part of my on-going battle with depression. But what exactly is it about being in the present that brings such relief and mental strength to us?

First, let’s explore the past. Overindulging in bad memories, when there is nothing that can be done to change them, can bring on feelings of regret, guilt, and self-loathing. Even good memories can just bring on feelings of painful nostalgia- we wish we were back where we were, and compare it to our relatively unsatisfactory present state.

And the future? Well, dwelling on that too much can often make us anxious. When we try to predict, and plan ahead too far, or without flexibility, we can induce panic in ourselves as all we are doing is trying to control something that has not even happened yet, and potentially never will. If we preempt ourselves a negative future, we fear it. If we daydream of a perfect future, we begin to put things on hold by saying things like, ‘when I get my job/money/house/girl/boy/baby, then I will be happy’. In both cases, the result is the same- we are depriving ourselves of really connecting with the present.

In my depression, I spent a lot of time (pre-professional help) in trying to think my way out of it. I combed through my past, trying to come up with some sort of reason that I am the way I am now. I ask myself did something happen? Was there one key event? Did I miss something? My mind deals with this in the only way it knows- it focuses on all of the other times in my life that I have ever felt some sort of similar miserable sensation, and tries to find a pattern. Needless to say, this tactic would probably not help anyone feel any better, and, if anything, just adds to the belief that life was not, and never has been, without misery. So, I tried desperately to focus on positive memories. I brought up times in the past when, to my knowledge, I have been truly happy (whatever that means), and tried to work out some sort of formula or something to how I had done it. This made me frustrated, spiteful and, indeed, jealous of my past, seemingly ‘carefree’, self. I took down all of the photos I had on my walls of me before the depression kicked in, angry that I had been so happy and so naive. So, I change tack. I look forward, at who I want to become. Positive energy and planning. But every day I’d wake up desperately reaching towards this bright future and only feeling more trapped in my unhappy present state. Sure, it gave me hope to continue, to a degree. But with that hope came feelings of deep unworthiness and helplessness.

It was mindfulness that finally brought me into my present. Before therapy, I avoided facing the present at all costs. To be where I was, and feel how I felt, and accept that? That hurt. It was hard. But in my CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), I had to. It wasn’t comfortable, to begin with, and I believe that is why many people do not stick it out. It was only when I began to finally accept where I was in about week 9 or 10, for myself, however scary that was, and begin to focus on the things that I can do right now, in the present, and be, and feel, and appreciate, and enjoy- that I began to feel alive again. It was baby steps, and it was hard to accept – I won’t lie, and I have lost a lot, but it is the only way that I can be now. And accepting it, at least, brings me peace.

I finished my 12 week course of CBT about a month ago now, and things are just steadily trickling along. I’m growing, and learning to live with my mental health, and prioritise, and develop a lifestyle that works for me as I am now. I leave the future to sort itself out as best as I can, there is no point in planning too much for that (although it can be fun to dream up plans, in moderation of course), and time somehow manages to pass itself without me worrying about how to pass it. I do not live with regret for that time has already gone, as while I acknowledge that I have made mistakes, they now lie out of my reach. I have only the now. And I let go of everything else. And I can tell you, hand on heart, that that is truly the biggest of reliefs.

Keep practising being present, in all that you do, and you will find that your mind has this amazing ability to heal itself. The hard part however, is in trying to stop thinking so much.

These last few days have been particularly tough for me- my boyfriend is currently over 5000 miles away, and every time I have tried to clear my mind recently one hundred different trains of anxious thoughts have leapt in to fill the space. And yet, this evening, while I’ve been typing away at this, I can feel myself understanding again, and gaining control again, as I patiently explain to you (and subsequently to myself) what is making me feel so unbalanced. This blog has done so much for me, and, of course, I hope it might perhaps make sense or even help someone else too.

You go, buddy.

Roo xx

Mindfulness: A method in the madness

If there is any one coping mechanism that I would suggest for someone who is really struggling with anxiety, practising Mindfulness would be it. Before, I had no tools for dealing with my anxiety. Entire days and nights were stolen away from me by my crippling attacks. I had no method but to play the waiting game and accept it helplessly as I felt it wash over me. Anxiety would simply paralyze me. And after days and weeks of this, all I had left was the fading hope that somehow something somewhere would eventually come along and save me from the madness inside my own head.

Mindfulness was that thing. My lifeboat on the sea of my mind. And I’m still learning to use it now, everyday.

Now, if I use the right methods I can have control over my anxiety levels, and sometimes I can even blow the anxiety right away. Compared to a month ago, it feels like a miracle. I am not saying this will work for everyone, and you must remember that this is after months of practising Mindfulness through carefully guided meditations. But I do feel that it would be unfair of me to write about my ‘miracles’ without sharing the methods I use and giving you the option to try them for yourself.

First though, a quick introduction to the practise. For those of you who have not come across the term before, Mindfulness, in my own experience, is my ability to focus on the present moment, while remaining free from passing judgement, and therefore allowing myself to be open and accepting to all of life as it comes and goes around me. Or words to that effect. Now there are lots and lots of books and courses both on and offline that probably explain Mindfulness much more profoundly and professionally than I can. But the premise is simple. This is what the Oxford Dictionary has to say on it…

mindfulness
ˈmʌɪn(d)f(ʊ)lnəs/
noun
1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.

2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Ok… So this all sounds very wholesome and connected and all, but how does this actually help me when I’m on an anxious downward spiral? Focus on how I’m feeling, when I’m feeling like this? I don’t want to do that. I want to escape this, not ‘experience’ it. Doesn’t this all just make it worse? That’s how I felt at first.

It took me a good few months of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) with a professional physcotherapist before I even began to understand the benefits of Mindfulness. I got very frustrated; with myself, with my physcotherapist, with the very idea of even attempting to overcome my anxiety. I’m ill, I thought, and if there’s no point just tell me, please. More than once I wrote Mindfulness off as ‘not for me, thanks’, simply because I wasn’t seeing the immediate effects that I wanted, or didn’t understand what the main outcome was. But thank God for sticking it out, because finally… finally… with some gentle coaxing, and just a little willingness on my own part, through Mindfulness I actually began to take back control.

So, sorry to keep you waiting, but I felt I should explain that first. Anyway, here’s what I do…

The premise is simple: Draw your attention from your racing mind to an object in front of you. Try not to pick something too complicated- I find that even a blank wall can work really well for me. And then… look at it. I mean properly. Look at it. Imagine that you are about to describe this object to someone who has never seen it before, in real, real great detail. Look at the colour, the shape, the shadows, the way the light falls on it, the texture. Really get to know what you’re looking at, down to the tiny tiny details. Memorise parts of it. Reference it to things that it reminds you of. Like the colour of eggshells, or the texture of fine sand, or salt. Get poetic. Get technical. Does it look soft perhaps? Does it make you think of stretched material in some way? Comparable to a pillow snug in its case maybe? Even better, if you can, actually describe it to someone out loud.

Do this for a couple of minutes at the very least, and longer if needed. That level of concentration, that meditating on one object, can be just enough to focus- really focus- the mind.

Now I’m not sure if this is correct, as I am no professional, but it seems to me that Mindfulness in this case is working as a sort of distraction from my present mental state, in actively focusing my attention on the material present state around me instead. I’m using Mindfulness here to basically select where I’m placing my focus. I’m not using Mindfulness in order to directly make myself calm- but that is just a wonderful side effect of the practise.

The focusing gives my head that little bit of space it needs to calm and stop spinning. I’m distracted from my racing thoughts. And the horrible physical sensations that accompany an anxiety attack normally then begin to fade out too. My heart rate and adrenalin levels drop, my breathing slows, the pressures subside, my jaw stops shaking, and my mind will gradually stop spinning on its own.

This activity might sound simple, or boring to you, when you’re all calm and collected yourself, but just try this when you feel like you can’t breath for the panic, and suddenly you’ll find that it takes every ounce of effort in your body just to find your focus. And that’s why you need to practise Mindfulness when you’re not feeling down, so that when you are anxious, you’re ready for it. You learn to swim in the shallow end of the pool, so that when your anxiety comes along and throws you mercilessly into the ocean, you can use some of those same skills and start to swim.

And, suddenly, I find that I am able to look back up, and see things more rationally, and know where I am, and that I am ok. And whatever thing or idea or even just the situation was that set me off, suddenly it doesn’t seem so hopelessly paralyzing anymore. And I am in control again.

I hope this makes sense to someone

Roo xx