Body, mind and mood – how Yoga has helped my mental health

Ahead of our Any-Body Club yoga session, starting on Thursday 3rd February, one of the University’s students has written a blog about how yoga has helped her to manage and improve her own mental health…. handing you over to Vicky Powers….

Hi, my name is Vicky Powers, I’m studying part time for an MA in Social Policy and Administration and I am the Mental Health Officer for the University of Nottingham Disabled Student’s Network. To tie in with the Any-Body Club’s Yoga for Managing Mood and Mind, I’m going to write a little about my experiences of living with mental health issues and the positive differences yoga has had on my mental health.

I was diagnosed with depression in 2007 and I’ve been up and down with it since. Sometimes it is just there in the background; I’m getting on, I’m flourishing, I’m achieving. At its worse, it is hugely disabling, every day is hard work and the very basic tasks of looking after myself are too much for me. This time last year, my depression worsened. Most days I felt unable to leave the house. I went on long term sick from work, and ended up losing my job, although with support, I managed to stay on my MA course.

It was my dad who prompted me to start practising yoga, basically saying that I needed to get out and do something. Yoga attracted me because I knew I found it hard to relax. I had started to have panic attacks, and was scared that they would get worse. My doctor had told me a bit about breathing techniques to help control panic, and I felt that the focus on breathing in yoga would help me. I found a teacher in Nottingham who had experience of working with people with mental health issues, who reassured me that, even though I felt I couldn’t take on anything new, practicing yoga might be able to help and that it was worth a try.

I found the first sessions quite difficult. I felt uncoordinated; I was convinced I was breathing “wrong” and focusing on my breathing actually made me more anxious. Then after a few weeks, something “clicked” during the relaxation at the end of the session. I felt an incredible sense of wellbeing and safety. For someone who had for a long time felt an intense sense of despair that I would never feel better, that half hour was such a relief and I left with a much needed optimism that I could feel better.

One of the ways in which yoga works on your nervous system was explained really simply to me. The nervous system has two responses: one is the way your body reacts under stress- the “fight or flight” response. Panic attacks happen when your body is reacting to stress that isn’t necessarily there. The other response is the “relax and digest” response; this is the way you feel after eating a big Sunday dinner and everything slows down. One response cannot work whilst the other is responding. One of the things yoga teaches the body is how to move from one state to the other. The yoga asanas place the body under stress- a safe, manageable stress- that quickly gives way to relaxation whilst resting after each move and at the end of the session.

It didn’t take very long for me to feel the benefits of learning how to turn on the “relaxed” state. It meant that I could get into bed, check my breathing and acknowledge that I was anxious and panicky. The feeling would either give way to relaxation by itself, or I knew I had the tools to help myself to relax. No more did I spend nights angry and anxious that I couldn’t get to sleep. The reduction of anxiety and the increase in sleep meant my mood improved. I felt I could think clearer and find ways to make changes in my life to begin to feel better.

Practicing yoga allowed me to explore the link between body and mind, and this made a big difference to how I see myself. In the past, I’ve viewed my body almost as a traitor. It lets down the team; it has panic attacks and it won’t let me sleep. It makes me feel sick when I know I need to eat. It hurts; it is awkward and has no grace. It seems silly talking this way, but that was how divorced I felt from my body. That first yoga class, as I lay and put my hands on my stomach and felt my breathing, I was really uncomfortable being with my body. It felt too intimate.

I can see now- even more importantly, I can feel- the connections between body and mind. How relaxing areas of my physical body can slow down the thoughts going through my mind. How my mind and my body can work together to help all of me feel better. From the outside looking in, I’m still not very good at yoga, my balance is poor and I’m always trying to take shortcuts in postures because I can’t hold them for long. But from the inside, I can tune into that feeling of wellbeing and hope and connection with myself and the world around me.

I know that depression is likely to feature in my future, I know it isn’t something that is just going to vanish; but I feel more equipped to cope with it. Practicing yoga has been part of that- not all of it and it might not work for everybody- but it has helped me.

If you’ve been inspired by what Vicky has written and feel that yoga could benefit you, then why not get yourself booked on the ABC yoga course? Details below;

 

Any-Body Club Yoga – Managing the Mind and Mood

 

Dates: Thurs 3rd February – 31st March (excluding 3rd March)
Times: 12.30 – 2pm
Venue: University Park Sports Centre
Cost: £16 for 8 sessions
Booking: University Park Sports Centre reception: 9515516

For more information: hannah.webber@nottingham.ac.uk

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