A few years ago I did yoga as part of my overall fitness plan. My goal was to improve my flexibility and complement my weight training and cardio routine. I noticed that on the days I did yoga, I felt calm and grounded- an added benefit. I joined a local yoga class on Saturday mornings for a year until I got too busy and stopped attending. A few years later the stress level in my life had increased to a point that I knew I had to do something different. I carried around a low level of anxiety in my body, I had difficulty taking full, deep breaths, and I wasn’t sleeping well. So, I tried meditation. I was told it would be a good way to calm my mind and cope with stress. I bought a meditation pillow, a book and some guided meditation audiotapes and gave it a try. Sitting still was hard for me and my body wouldn’t co-operate. First, I would feel an itch, then another and then one of my joints would start to ache, and then another, effectively distracting me from any higher order meditation I was trying to accomplish. Three minutes seemed like an eternity and all my body wanted to do was move! It was a disaster and after a few days I stopped forcing myself to meditate. A year later I enrolled in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course thinking that perhaps mindfulness would be the answer. Unfortunately, it was pure torture! Being mindful, like meditating, required me to sit still in silence for long periods of time and this did not suit my innate urge to move. I almost became an MBSR drop-out until the day we did mindful yoga. Suddenly I felt it – the subtle settling of my mind and body in mindful movement. I was hooked!
I developed a regular yoga practice and eventually enrolled in a yoga teacher training. I didn’t necessarily want to teach yoga but I was driven to know why yoga felt so good. I discovered that yoga is more than just the poses, in fact there are eight limbs of yoga. One of these limbs is pranayama or breath work. Yoga taught me how to control my breath in a way that dialed down my sympathetic nervous system which, due to my high stress job, was constantly pumping stress hormones into my body. It also taught me to pay attention to the present moment without judgment – mindfulness! Interestingly enough, I found myself being able to sit for longer periods of time, focusing on my breath – meditation! It was yoga that eventually calmed my nervous system enough that I could find my way into mindful meditation. I developed the ability to manage daily stressors as they arose, bring my system back to a calm state, and not carry the anxiety around in my body all day. I could take a deep breath and sleep at night.
As a therapist, I often work with clients who have experienced emotional, relational, physical and sexual trauma. Bessel van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, provides evidence that for many people, childhood trauma is stored in the body. Talk therapy is often insufficient by itself to overcome the body-based symptoms of traumatic stress that include anxiety, fatigue, chronic pain, low-energy, numbness, hypervigilance, sleep disruptions, appetite issues, and other distressing physical conditions. As a result of my own personal experiences and the research that has been done, I encourage clients to learn and practice body-based strategies such as yoga, mindfulness and breathwork, in conjunction with therapy, to cope with their symptoms. Research demonstrates that yoga is helpful in managing the symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and emotional reactivity. However, not everyone is ready or able to practice mindfulness or do yoga. But everybody can breathe. Controlled breathing is an effective strategy to use when anxiety or other distressing emotions arise – and no one will notice that your breath has become slower and deeper, except you.
The day I re-discovered yoga is the day I realized that my most helpful resource had been with me all along – my body. I now teach my clients how to use their body in an active, purposeful way to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, and other distressful conditions. Yoga, mindfulness and breath– a prescription for health and well-being.
*Blog photo by Frank McKenna, Unsplash.com