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How I came to Practice Yoga (spoiler alert: it's also because of my mental health!)

Jul 24, 2020

I’ve been teaching yoga now for six years and practicing yoga regularly for ten. As a yoga teacher, people ask me all the time how I found yoga, or why I came to yoga, or why I wanted to teach it. When I first became a yoga teacher, I was so embarrassed or ashamed of the true reason, that I’d downplay it or make it up. As I get older, I become more and more confident to share the truth: I found yoga as a coping mechanism for my mental health. I was eighteen years old, sitting in the university mental health office, clearly depressed and crying out for help, when my the counselor ushered me out the door because the hour long time was up...asking, “have you thought about trying yoga? You might find it will help.”

I remember being really frustrated. I had gone in for help on multiple occasions and the best they could do was “you should try yoga?” I clearly needed medical support beyond a yoga class - and that’s what I was asking for. But I wasn’t going to get it. So in the meantime, I was desperate, so I did what they suggested. I tried yoga.

I don’t remember that counselors name or what they looked like (I had many over the years at University) but I wish I did remember who they were to tell them two things: 1. They changed my life and 2. They saved my life.

I had tried yoga before at age ten and then a few times as a teenager, but the style of yoga I tried (Iyengar) was not for me. I wasn’t aware that there were so many different kinds of yoga, and so many different kinds of teachers. Instead of exploring around, I had just gone to the studio with my mom closest to our house in Toronto, and it wasn't for me. This time around, as an 18 year old, I walked into a drop in yoga studio in Kingston with several teachers, and several types of yoga: ashtanga, hot, vinyasa, hatha, yin, restorative. Having so many options - it helped me find what resonated with me.

After trying a few classes, a week later I signed up for a 30-day-yoga challenge. From that day onwards...I did yoga every day. I learned that when I had nowhere to go, I could go to my mat. Yoga helped calm my brain. It helped me become strong. It helped me learn valuable skills of sitting in discomfort. It helped me become more flexible. It brought me to a community of people that supported me.

I worry sometimes when I post about yoga and mental health, that because I don’t announce or discuss my mental health diagnosis/recovery, that I add to the chorus of people in the dharma world who say “yoga can fix mental illness!” I want to emphasize that I’m not on that team. In my opinion, yoga helps mental health. A lot. But yoga cannot heal mental illnesses alone. I wrote in a post in 2017, "Sometimes all you need is the science of yoga, and sometimes what you need is specifically the science of modern medicine (e.g. a compressed nerve from a motorbike accident is not a kundalini awakening.) Go to an actual doctor for a second opinion. Do not allow anyone else to tell you how to heal."

Unfortunately, over the years as a yoga teacher, I’ve encountered many yoga teachers who have claimed that yoga and yoga alone can heal mental health illnesses. One teacher I had claimed that if "your depression is not healing after finding yoga, then it’s because your practice isn’t consistent or deep enough." Those people make me mad. Yoga alone cannot heal mental illnesses. Let me say it louder for the people in the back: Yoga. Alone. Cannot. Heal. Mental. Illnesses. Mental health illnesses are the same as physical sicknesses and injuries. And sometimes you need the science of modern medicine to recover. And that is for you to decide. Not a yoga teacher. But, yoga is an AMAZING tool to have in your mental health toolkit. (Alongside other tools.)

I did not recover on yoga alone - but for a few years when I couldn’t get any other help - yoga was what helped and healed me. Finding yoga saved my life and set in motion a several year long recovery.

Okay, so back to 2010 and my journey with yoga - I practiced every day for a year at the studio. Then, I started working at the studio cleaning it in exchange for free yoga. Then, I started operating the front desk. Then, I left for Mexico and came back a yoga teacher.

Yoga was the first tool of many that I put into a toolbox to help me in recovery. I now have rituals and practices that help me keep happy and healthy every day.

Nowadays my mental health toolkit is big and has many things in it, not just yoga, and not just modern medicine. I want to share what has helped me over the years. Everyone’s journey is different - and I am still and will always be a work in progress. But this is what has helped me along the journey:

  1. Yoga. yoga yoga yoga.

  2. Going Sober.Other than my yoga practice, the second biggest thing that has helped me was quitting alcohol. I cannot stress this enough. If you are an anxious/depressed person like I was, you might think that alcohol is your friend. “But it relaxes me! But it calms me down!” Trust me….I now realize that when my doctors were telling me I should stop drinking all these years….they were right. Alcohol might feel like it’s helping to relax you in the moment...but it is a depressant. It overall makes you more anxious and more depressed. Test out a life without alcohol! Quitting booze was the best thing I’ve ever done.

  3. Western Medicine. I don’t (yet) feel comfortable writing on my mental health journey specifically on my blog - I will get there one day - but I will say this: doctors and medicine are in my mental health toolkit. Mental health illnesses are real illnesses. Contrary to common belief in the yoga world...mental illnesses cannot be cured alone on yoga or being active. There was a time when people used to say things like “Meditate don’t medicate” which I think is the most annoying thing (and thank god people don't say it anymore!) All of our brains are all wired differently. Just like some people have physical injuries or illnesses, some people need western medicine for mental health. Period.

  4. CARDIO EXERCISE.I hated, hated, hated cardio growing up. I think it was mostly because all we ever did was play team sports and I sucked at team sports. I remember other kids being pretty mean to me because I was afraid of the soccer ball and didn’t have the coordination to hit the baseball. So I quit most sports by age 13 and rarely did cardio after that. If you had told me back then I’d have a career so linked to fitness I would have laughed my butt off. Me?!? Instructing fitness??! LOL. I only super regularily started doing cardio this year. Doctors at my hospital in Canada are currently researching the link between cardio exercise and bipolar disorder recovery. All I can say is that it helped me. You just need to try enough cardio until you find the kind you like. I like spinning and barre. I don’t like playing soccer.

  5. Talking. Therapy, counselors, psychiatry, life coaching, whoever it is. Talk. Talk. Talk. The best periods of my life have been regular time periods where I’ve been talking to someone. I now don’t do therapy anymore, but I speak to a life coach every week. It really helps me.

  6. Meditation. I meditate every day now for 21 minutes. It has changed me. Spending some time at the start of the day connecting to my breath and just breathing helps me come back to it as the day goes on. When I don’t meditate, I feel the difference.

  7. Creation. Find a way to creatively express the things that are stuck inside of you. I learned this a year and a half after my first boyfriend broke my heart when I was 15 years old. That was the first period of my life I had fallen into a deep depression. I finally wrote a memoir about it for my Writers Craft teacher and as I wrote, I cried. Writing, creating music, painting, collaging...all of these acts have healed me over the years.

  8. People.Draw in people that support you, inspire you, and set you on a path to wellbeing. We become the 5 people we spend the most time around. If you spend time around people who gossip and are negative, you start to gossip and become negative. Surround yourself with good good people. People who have your back and who rally for you. People who show up when you need it.

  9. Self care rituals:I now know I need eight hours of sleep per night and I need to eat relatively healthy. I let myself indulge and I let myself stay out late sometimes, but I for the most part try to stick to these routines now.

  10. But most of all, just try yoga! It saved my life.

....Now, for the mystery: How does yoga help mental health? People ask me this all the time! I'm interested in organizing the facts I know to help us understand the science behind the magic. That'll be my next post! :)

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