Earlier this year I was battling low energy levels, low mood, and was generally not feeling my best. One day an advert popped up for an 8-week course called Yoga Therapy for the Mind with Mieke Kreeftenberg from The Minded Institute and I thought I’d give it a try. The course is an evidence-based method of using yoga and mindfulness to manage anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. One of the core ideas is that by activating and relaxing the nervous system we can train ourselves to recognise that stress is temporary. Over time this gradually strengthens the nervous system to better cope with the stresses that come our way.
In each session we were guided to combine a specific, and progressively more advanced, mindful focus with a consistent series of yoga postures and breathing exercises. Mieke created a safe and caring space for everyone to share their experiences and learn from each other as the course progressed. And I carried on with the practice at home about three times a week.
Here are four important things I learnt:
- Stop thinking and start feeling
In a sense it was the simplest form of yoga I have practised – the poses were familiar and were taught with a gentle approach. But this simplicity challenged me in new ways.
I’m a perfectionist at heart and I realised that in my yoga practice I had become very focused on getting my alignment right and thinking about what my body and breath were doing. Through turning my focus inwards I began to feel what I was doing rather than think about what I was doing. I started to be led by my breath rather than my brain and experienced being truly present in the moment. This shift in focus laid the foundation for the following breakthrough moments.
- Step away from the rom-coms
I thought I needed rest and relaxation. As it turns out I needed strength, stability and confidence. Culturally we have a tendency to wrap ourselves up when we are feeling vulnerable – hot baths, comforting food, curling up in a blanket to watch a rom-com – you get the idea. There’s a time and a place for these things of course, but if this is the only way we take care of ourselves, self-care can take on a self-pitying form.
The most powerful and effective way of taking care of ourselves can actually be to take time to build strength. As I began to get physically and emotionally stronger through doing the yoga postures and breathing exercises this realisation hit me like a lightening bolt. If there was one thing I needed to learn from the course, this was it. I started feeling brighter and more energetic. And, as work pressures ramped up a few notches, I also found I was much more able to cope with stress.
- I can ride a bike!
Struggling to see the connection? Well, the thing is, I never properly learnt how to ride a bike as a child. For some reason I couldn’t grasp it and after a while I stopped believing it was possible and gave up. Not being able to ride a bike was kind of embarrassing but it always seemed like an obstacle that was too difficult to conquer both physically and, more significantly, emotionally.
As my physical strength and mindful focus increased, I started to let go and trust myself. So it’s no coincidence that, after years of people trying to persuade me to do so, I finally decided it was time to learn when I was about half way through the course. And thanks to a particularly patient husband I also had a lot of fun doing it!
- When curiosity overcomes effort…we learn how to fly
I have to say that power-yoga will never be my thing. But I realised that, especially during stressful times in my life, I had been avoiding strong classes and advanced postures because of my desire to protect myself, and the lack of trust in my body.
Being truly present in my body meant that I started to really feel the difference between pain and discomfort. And in feeling that difference, I began to know when to move towards and beyond discomfort with curiosity rather than effort. Sure enough, soon after the course ended, I was back in my regular yoga class and got both feet off the ground in crow pose for the very first time!
Who knows what else I might be capable of? We are all capable of so much more than we think. Sometimes all we need is to slow down enough to notice and step into those endless possibilities.