YOGA 101- for mental health and beyond…

To say that yoga has contributed significantly to my life, even saved it a time or two, would not  be an exaggeration. Has it always been a love affair? Well, not exactly. I was an athlete in my younger years and, quite literally, my motto was “harder, stronger, faster!” Thus my relationship with yoga was, shall we say, tenuous. Over the years, however, a nagging curiosity compelled me repeatedly back to my mat until eventually I began to embrace the idea that LESS IS MORE. And then I fell hard and fast for this yoga thing; joyfully understanding that connection to breath, mindful movement, and kind alignment, supports the integration of the Whole Being and inspires vitality in all the layers of one’s being- physically, mentally, emotionally, energetically, and soulfully. YES, FOR REAL. THIS IS THE MAGIC OF YOGA.

Now, I would absolutely describe myself as a YOGA LOVER, but I am not a YOGA PUSHER. This is an important distinction. Why? Because, I am a firm believer that yoga is a readiness thing, a very personal, intimate experience with one’s self and, when one dives in, he or she must be prepared to show up in every possible way; this includes the good stuff and the tough stuff. It is true that yoga is breathing and movement, BUT it is also deep SOUL WORK, with the profound capacity to transform perspective and experience. Little story. When I had my yoga studio, I would run into people, here and there, and they would say,

“Julie, I am going to start doing yoga, you are going to see me in your class soon!”
And I would say,
 “When you are ready, I will be there.”

In some cases, it was a year, two, or three before we actually shared practice together. The fact is, we find our way to our mats when we are good and ready to do so. IT IS THE ONLY WAY.

So, how has yoga changed my life? Firstly, I credit it for saving me from back surgery. I had been struggling with debilitating chronic pain, stemming from disc herniation in my lower back, and severe sciatica (excruciating nerve pain). After my initial consult with my surgeon, a surgeon whose preference was not to do surgery-surprise, I seized all of my other activities, but continued to nudge the edges of my physical discomfort with gentle yoga and breath-work. When I saw the surgeon six weeks later, he said to me,

“If you were one of my surgery patients in recovery, I would say you are progressing brilliantly! Keep doing what you are doing, NO SURGERY.” 

By my follow-up appointment, I had eased my pain and increased my range of motion so significantly, operating was not necessary. It has been 10 pain-free years and I absolutely credit this to yoga.

Now, where yoga has had an even greater impact upon the quality of my life, and that is obviously saying something, is relative to my mental health and, more specifically, inspiring the capacity for self-management of both my depression and anxiety. The tools, or more accurately, the gifts of my personal, daily yoga practice have been infinite and made all the difference in my healing, recovery, and survival. How you might be asking? I am so happy you asked, as this segues nicely into today’s discussion; YOGA 101.  Let’s talk the various aspects of practice and what styles of yoga you may wish to explore relative to your needs and symptomology.

ASANA- The Physical Practice

Starting with the obvious. I love the movement in yoga, and it is what initially compelled me to the practice. Like many North Americans, I was seeking another hardcore “work-out” to add to my MORE IS MORE philosophy. INSTEAD, I was schooled, BIG TIME, in the value of LESS IS MORE. What happens when we choose to settle mindfully into what I refer to as kind, moderate movement? We cultivate greater awareness, we attend more effectively to sensation in our bodies, we connect more deeply to our experience, and it is through this connection that we inspire invaluable, purposeful action. What we gift ourselves, in return, is less pain and discomfort; we invite ease, space, expansion and equanimity. And the breath, our life force energy, flows more freely bringing nourishment and union to all the layers of our being. THIS IS THE MAGIC OF YOGA. And I can tell you this, without doubt, I am in the best shape of my life, as compared to way back when, when I was “enthusiastically” (yes, that was said facetiously) pumping iron and running myself into the ground, plagued by subsequent overuse ailments and injury.

A GENTLE REMINDER. There are many forms of yoga out there, and teaching styles, from which you may choose, so begin by finding what feels just right for you in this moment. Remember, IT IS ALWAYS YOUR PRACTICE; trust your intuition, listen to your body, be kind, and never force or push. YOGA SHOULD NEVER HURT. Read that again…please.

PRANAYAMA- Breathing Techniques

Breathing, no surprise here, is important. When it comes to yoga, IT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT. I often have said to my students, if we simply came together on our mats, to breathe mindfully, the benefits would be more than enough to inspire transformation in all the layers of our being. Now, Pranayama takes breathing a step further, in that, it is a means by which we intentionally affect change to the breath, to support a desired outcome. A good example is Extended Exhalation, where the exhalation is purposely longer than the inhalation. You may breathe in for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 6. This breath has been proven to be a very healing breath, in that it allows for greater release of toxins and invites a sense of calm to both the body and mind. On the flip side, Ujjayi breath, also known as fire breath, builds heat and energy, and then there is Breath of Joy, and well, it elicits, just that, JOY! Nadi Shodhana, Alternate Nostril Breathing, brings balance to the right and left sides of the brain and body.

As you embark upon your yogic journey, you will come to learn there is a plethora of breathing techniques from which you may choose, and those that resonate with you may be added to your self-care toolkit, available to you anytime you may need them. Yoga at your fingertips, 24-7.

MEDITATION

The practice of meditation can be perceived as overwhelming and trust me, when I say I get it! If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be sitting in stillness (or as close to stillness as I can get) from 5-15-25 minutes, observing my thoughts and letting them be as they are, I would have said… “YOU ARE CRAZY, NO FREAKING WAY!” Now, I welcome the opportunity to do so. Like everything else, it has been a practice, I did not just get there overnight.  I would also suggest that activities like your asana practice, walking, running, and cycling can also be powerful forms of “moving” meditation and a great place to begin your mindfulness practice. If you are ready to settle into a more traditional meditation, find a quiet place, get comfortable, preferably seated, so as not to fall asleep (and if you do, so what, you probably need it!). Settle into stillness, as best as you can, if you need to make adjustments throughout your meditation, do so- it’s OK. Close your eyes, if this feels right for you, or keep them open, maybe even set your gaze on a lit candle (this steady gaze in yoga is called a Drishti) to support focus. Start with 3 to 5 minutes, no pressure, set a timer if need be. Increase duration, as you feel comfortable. What do you actually do? YOU NOTICE, that is all that is required of you; nothing more, nothing less. You DO NOT need to empty your mind and think NOTHING, but rather OBSERVE what thoughts percolate for you, no judgement, no need to do anything with them, observe, and then let them go. If the same thought rises up for you again; notice it, no judgement, no action required, and then, once more, set it adrift. Let your thoughts come, let your thoughts go.

Meditation can bring much-needed clarity, a reprieve from the stranglehold of negative inner dialogue. It can slow things down physically, mentally, emotionally, energetically, and soulfully. It can empower us to sit safely with our thoughts and worries, leaving concerns feeling smaller, more manageable and leaving us feeling stronger, liberated, more at ease.

Meditation is thus another great tool in your self-care arsenal and there are lots of great apps out there (check out Headspace or Calm) to support your meditation exploration!!! All that is required on your part is an open mind and an open heart. 

THE NERVOUS SYSTEM IN A NUTSHELL

I would be remiss, if I did not take time to talk about the nervous system and how yoga can support a healthy balance between fight-flight-freeze (sympathetic nervous system) and rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system). To be frank, the vast majority of human beings these days are walking around with nervous systems in overdrive, it is really the new norm of function. Do more, strive more, and do it with less time and less resource. And guess what? Left unattended, it is making us sick, physically and mentally, and, in some cases, killing us. This is FACT. Yoga, inclusive of asana, pranayama, meditation and mindfulness, is, thank goodness, a powerful MODERATOR of the nervous system. Think of it this way. Your yoga practice has the capacity to turn the volume down, not off, to clarify, of your too effective fight-flight-freeze response and turn the volume up on your much over-muscled, under-utilized rest and digest system. It is in this shift that balance is restored, and healing and recovery become possible.  Another little story, I have talked previously about how this time around my depression has been accompanied by, at times, immobilizing anxiety, triggered out of the blue; spontaneous body tremors, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, yeah, the whole enchilada of symptoms. One day, early in my recovery, I was reflecting on it from a yoga perspective. I realized I had been through significant, simultaneous, multiple traumas (some within my control and some beyond) and my sympathetic nervous system responded as it does in situations like this, it went into turbo-mode to protect me from further trauma, to keep me safe. In essence, even though I was moving forward with counselling, working towards recovery, my brain and nervous system had other plans…they were in a perpetual state of “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, the next trauma to hit. When I recognized this, I was able to hold space for myself with a greater degree of patience and compassion. I began to approach my healing differently and I sought a more restorative form of yoga practice. By slowing things down, settling into breath, mindfulness, and meditation I was literally, over time, able to change the story being relayed between my brain and nervous system. My brain finally got on board with the fact that I was no longer in imminent danger and kindly communicated to my over-zealous nervous system…”She’s OK. She’s safe. We’re safe.” Today, my yoga practice helps to keep my anxiety at bay, it helps me cope with the symptoms and manage myself proactively. Does this make sense? This is the magic of a consistent yoga practice…the profound potency of breath, movement, mindfulness, and meditation.

Now let’s talk specifics in terms of Anxiety and Depression.

ANXIETY

As discussed above, if you are struggling with anxiety, seek a slow, moderate, at most, mindful practice. Lots of forward-bending (standing and/or seated) as it tends to be cooling and calming to the nervous system. Definitely explore a Supported/Restorative Practice. Here your body will be well-supported by blocks, blankets, and bolsters (large yogic cushions), so that you may surrender more fully into stillness. You will explore 3-6 postures, tops, and you will settle into each for 10-30 minutes. It is believed that once you cross the 15-minute mark, in a restorative pose, the para-sympathetic nervous system begins to do its job more effectively; its volume, as discussed above, is turned up. Restorative is a passive, healing practice, you let go and gravity does all of the glorious work- FOR REAL. I highly recommend this subtle, but oh-so-powerful, LESS IS MORE practice for the management of anxiety; I can attest firsthand to its capacity to invite both peace and release in all layers of function.

DEPRESSION

The needs for depression are somewhat antithetical to anxiety in the sense, that when we find ourselves in a depressive state, we are more in need of a kind, compassionate swift kick in the ass! When it is manageable, seek a more active movement practice, perhaps a flow-style practice. Note that back-bends are energizing; building heat and vigor. They don’t need to be wild and crazy either; moderation is really the key when it comes to maintaining a practice geared toward whole health healing, and, equally as important, a practice of longevity. Oh, and do check out my favorite pranayama, Breath of Joy! I have included both a YouTube Video by Ekhart Yoga and an article written by one of my teachers, Amy Weintraub, to assist you in understanding both the mechanics and the many benefits of this breath practice.

Breath of Joy- Ekhart Yoga: Breath of Joy

Amy Weintraub- Yoga International: Breath of Joy

This is a practical, bird’s eye view of how yoga may support not only your physical health, but your mental health too. The fact is, IT IS ALL HEALTH, and yoga is a holistic approach that meets the WHOLE BEING with supreme grace and efficacy. Hopefully, I have been able to point you in the right direction and I gently encourage you (definitely not push you!) to open your heart and mind to the possibility of how this practice might aid in your healing, recovery, and, in fact, change your LIFE. I can say, with great conviction, that yoga has gifted me all of this and then some! And note, practicing in a studio environment, in COMMUNITY, can be wonderful, but if this is not where you are at, in this moment, there are oodles of apps and affordable live-streaming offerings, where you may explore at your own pace and in your jammies to boot!

Remind yourself, YOGA is a practice and like life, it is perfectly imperfect. There is nowhere you have to be, do what feels good and serves you well, in any given moment. Meet yourself where you are at, ALWAYS; nudge edges, kindly, compassionately, and patiently, explore and play safely, HAVE FUN! If you are practicing at home, barefoot is best, and I highly recommend using PROPS; a mat, two blocks, a yoga strap, a blanket, and a bolster. Please reach out if I may be of further assistance in any way. And remember, WE ARE STRONGER TOGETHER.

Gratitude. Love. Namaste.

Julie xo

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