I want this to be both personal, because mental health is personal and practical, by sharing some exercises and habits I use to manage and maintain my mental well-being. In no way should Yoga or the exercises suggested be seen as a replacement for proper medical care and treatment.
I have suffered with anxiety. Two years ago, I was in a job where I was badly bullied and I really unravelled. I think I had probably been living with mild anxiety for a long time, but it was at this point that it really took over my life. My husband, who had married me just a few months before, gave me more support than I could have ever imagined and I will always be grateful to him for that. I would cry a lot and often in public, the stress of being away from my house was just too much for me at that time. My head was like a hostile environment, I tortured myself by reliving minutia and doubting myself constantly.
I found the physical symptoms of anxiety some of the hardest to cope with. I would feel nauseous most of the time. I threw up a lot. I felt tight in my whole body and my head often ached. I think that I would have benefited from medication, but I was living abroad and I was earning only enough to cover my rent and my living cost so I couldn’t afford a GP appointment.
Yoga practitioners often talk about choosing your feelings and reactions to things. I do believe this, but I think it needs further clarification. At my deepest, darkest period I was practicing mindfulness. I enjoyed the beauty of flowers and trees I passed by and savoured moments of fun and love I shared with family and friends. I was deeply grateful for all that was good in my life, but I was still very sick and the situation I was living in was contributing to that so I had to change it.
If people are abusive towards you do not allow them to continue to abuse you and expect yourself to just be happy regardless. It can be very scary to make big changes and it can feel like the end of the world – but it isn’t. I quit my job, I moved back to England. I stopped working for a time to recover. I lent on my family in a big way.
I’d always been interested in Yoga. I first tried it when I was twenty-one following along with a DVD in my university house and I loved it immediately. I started to practice more when my husband (then boyfriend) and I moved to the French Alps for a summer season. I started going regularly after that to gyms and local community classes. It was when I was really ill that my Yoga practice became so much more than an exercise to me. When I was living abroad there was a really inspirational teacher at the gym I went to and I ended up going to multiple classes a week.
When I came back to England, I began my Yoga Teacher Training with YMCA Fit & Yoga Professionals. Part of the training involved keeping a detailed Yoga journal. As I slowly began to live by the philosophy underpinning Yoga, really thinking about how I could bring the Yamas and Niyamas into my life I also began to recover from my anxiety…
Can you ever fully recover from anxiety? Probably not. Therapy can help. Lifestyle changes can help. I now feel pretty good most of the time and I have ways of coping when I don’t feel good.
Part of the trouble when moving away from being anxious all the time is that feeling anxious is a normal human state to be in sometimes. However, whereas when someone feels anxious they might think ‘I’m worried about something’ I often think ‘OMG my anxiety is coming back, what if I end up feeling sick all the time, unable to leave the house and crying all the time again?’ So my response to feeling anxious can make me more anxious and that is something I’ve had to work on a lot.
I have learned it’s ok not to feel good all the time and I discovered that in Yoga. In Yoga sometimes moves or transitions are hard, sometimes you’re not the ‘best’ at that pose, one day you might be more flexible and the next day really stiff… But it is still Yoga and it is fine for that to be the case.
Also, there is something in us which craves the known and remaining in our comfort zone. If you’re really used to feeling anxious even though anxiety does not feel good you can default to feeling anxious because you feel oddly at home in that state. It’s a good thing not to be comfortable, especially if you are resting in places of comfort which are not benefiting you. I learned this in Yoga as well. When you start trying to balance on one foot or on your hands you really push outside your comfort zone, but it’s amazing and fun and you often fall over and find out that falling over isn’t that bad after all (I am still not very good at most balancing poses, but getting used to trying has made a huge difference).
There’s one more thing that Yoga has helped me with when it comes to managing my mental health. When I was very anxious, I was completely and utterly obsessed with myself. I wasn’t a selfish person; I was a sick person. Have you ever burned your finger cooking? In that moment all attention is directed to the pain and the injury. It’s the same when you are feeling mental pain. But I have found that as I started to feel better turning my attention outward and focusing mainly on uplifting other people made my life easier. This is not to suggest that you should hide from pain, but you are allowed to not obsess and ruminate on things which aren’t helping you.
Now to be practical. Some Yoga exercises which can help maintain and manage (not cure or treat, you need a medical professional for that) mental health:
Sit comfortably. Maybe close your eyes or let the lids feel heavy. Inhale and exhale evenly and fully. Try to take the breath down into the belly on inhale. Slowly start to notice and extend your exhale. Try to make it roughly twice as long as your inhale. If it feels good to count your breath you could inhale for four and exhale for six-eight.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana) with Breathing Branches
Stand tall. Root your feet into the floor. Find a focus point (drishti) for your gaze. Place your left foot either toes to the floor heal against the right ankle, sole of the foot against the side of the right calf or sole of the foot up against the right inner thigh. Find your balance. Inhale your arms overhead, exhale your arms down by the sides. Breathe fully and deeply moving your arms with your breath. Repeat on the other side. If you wobble or fall over laugh. Shake it off and reset your position.
Checking In Meditation