By Alex McRobert
When I was ten years old, I was innately drawn to yoga as an extracurricular at school. I remember flipping through the pamphlet of “After Four” activities offered and being so excited when I came across yoga. I convinced my mom to let me sign up. I don’t remember the asanas themselves – what I remember was savasana. At the end of the class, I remember lying down on our backs, the room becoming dark and us closing our eyes, and the yoga teacher leading us to imagine floating on clouds. It felt serene and peaceful.
What I loved about it was that while practising, my turbulent brain felt calm and still, for the first time ever.
I dabbled in and out of yoga throughout my teens, but I think I was too young to see the direct impact it had on my life. It became a consistent daily practice when I was eighteen. At that age, my mental health struggles had become unbearable. I couldn’t understand my mood disorder - which was later diagnosed as the symptoms of bipolar disorder. A counsellor recommended I try yoga.
After that first sixty-minute class, walking out of the room, I mindfully moved, step by step, foot by foot, down the narrow, long hallway. I was a different person than I was an hour before. Physically, my body felt spacious and lighter, but also mentally, I felt different. Up until that moment, I had lived my life walking with anxiety and depression always surrounding me. This was the first moment in my life I walked with neither around me. I didn’t know what it was, I just knew that it was different. On the way out of the studio, I saw a sign advertising a Thirty Day Yoga Challenge starting a few days later. Without a second thought, I signed up. I went to the yoga studio every single day. And I started to experience a bit of calm, a bit of balance, and a bit of bliss.
Yoga became my haven. Whenever I felt like I was sliding into a space of anxiety, or slipping into depression, or my mind was beginning to race, the studio was where I went.
I’ve now practiced yoga almost every day for over a decade. I can say as a cliche: it transformed my life. At the time in which I discovered it, it was magic I didn’t understand. Years later, I’ve taken several Yoga Teacher Training courses, taught over 3,000 yoga classes, led retreats around the world, and even led my own 200 and 300 Hour Yoga Teacher Training. I understand more about the science behind it - and one of the main benefits is how yoga impacts the Nervous System.
When experiencing stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. A physiological reaction called the Fight or Flight response occurs when the stress is high. This moves us from a state of balance to a state of action.
Chronic stress is known to both cause and worsen disease. For me, chronic stress in the form of childhood trauma was then worsened by my use of alcohol, poor nutrition, and lack of coping skills. This was the perfect storm to create a mental health crisis within me - yoga was the only thing that could help.
In 1975, Dr Herbert Benson documented what he called “The Relaxation Response” - a state of rest that is experienced when the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered, which calms us down and takes us from fight or flight to rest and digest.
When the Relaxation Response is activated, so are the body systems that were shut down from Fight or Flight, including digestion, growth, repair and reproduction. Meditation and yoga have been shown to initiate the Relaxation Response.
The primary reason that yoga transforms our lives is that it triggers the Relaxation Response - and when we’re showing up for ourselves every single day, and making that happen, we can navigate the world from a more calm, consistent, grounded space.
Yoga feels like it’s magic - but the impacts of it I felt all those many years ago are very real. Teaching yoga around the world for almost a decade, and running Sober Girls Yoga 30 Day Challenges every month, I’ve been able to watch this transformation in thousands of people, year after year.
Yoga changed my life. It works. It changes the lives of so many people. But the only catch is - you have to show up and do the yoga practice.