DAYS 44 and 45 : Flowing with some added Spine Work

Day 44 saw my practice being once again dominated by my shoulder which had decided, very kindly, to start playing up again. This caused my whole back and neck to feel achey and painful, so I chose a Yoga With Adriene practice that focused on the spine. Something I remember from my first forays into yoga well over *cough* ten years is the saying that we are only as young as our spine is flexible. Adriene said something similar at the start of today’s practice, that we are only as young and happy as our spine (I like the inclusion of happiness in Adriene’s version!). The way I see it, increasing the general strength and flexibility of my spine has got to be good for these sorts of back/shoulder problems.

The practice was flow-based with some added twists, including a twist in a toe balance at the end which I fell out of a couple of times. I got about 50% of the way to laughing that off rather than feeling annoyed with myself. Challenging poses like that make you realise just how important a strong core and spine are to keeping us balanced. The practice also included another of my least favourite poses, Dandasana (Staff pose), which involves sitting with the spine straight, legs straight out in front and hands on the floor by the hips. It sounds simple, I know, but I really struggle with this one. There’s something about it that makes me tense my back muscles to the point that I feel it’s undoing any benefit those muscles might have obtained from previous poses. This may well be a sign that my back muscles need a fair bit more strengthening! That muscle tension pulls my mental focus to one of the areas of my body that is most often the target of slightly obsessively negative thoughts, but I am continuing to try to just acknowledge and sit with those thoughts rather than engage with or fight them.

Day 45’s practice was another from YWA, this time her Freedom Glow flow. The basis again was a standard vinyasa flow, but I particularly liked the focus on finding freedom within the form – so essentially finding movement within a pose, or a particular expression of a pose, that felt right at that particular time, rather than following strict instruction. This was an interesting approach to tie in with this week’s theme of moderation, as it can be tempting to immediately take a pose to the most extreme expression possible. Instead of that, I tried to focus on experimenting in poses like extended side angle to try to find the optimum expression for my body at that time.

This idea of moderation is one that I’m finding particularly useful. It removes some of the pressure for perfection (I say “some” – there’s no way that I’ll just stop being a perfectionist overnight!) and allows a calmer focus on getting the maximum benefit from each pose. That calmness is something that I’m finding I can take into life off the mat. A less obsessive focus on certain aspects of life, or on particular things, frees up time and energy to focus on and enjoy a much wider range of things. Having said that, part of me does enjoy my temporary and occasionally slightly random obsessions, so I’m not quite sure if I’ll want to give them up entirely!

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Thoughts on Mental Health Stigma

Yesterday I went to pick up my repeat prescription for fluoxetine (Prozac by a more generic name). I usually block out the world with some very loud music on such trips but I’d forgotten my headphones, so on the walk back I found myself thinking about the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues and the use of medication to deal with those issues.

First, a bit of personal context. I first had treatment for depression and anxiety just over ten years ago. I had lost myself in a relationship that ended slowly and badly, and by the time it was finally done and I had deleted all trace of him from my phone and my life, I didn’t really know who I was. I didn’t ask for help, rather I was taken to get help and I accepted it. I was very lucky that I was able to be treated privately, with a combination of CBT and other slightly more random therapies (including some sort of intuitive role play group, or something like that) and medication.

CBT was one of the best things I have ever done. It wasn’t a cure, and wasn’t meant to be, but it armed me with an array of coping tools that I still regularly use. It wasn’t easy, and there were times when I sat in my car outside the hospital just seconds away from bailing on a particular session, but I always made myself walk through the hospital doors. I did the work, and I’m so glad that I did. (It’s worth mentioning here that I think one of the reasons I still struggle with BDD and related issues is that I didn’t really talk about it during therapy sessions. CBT requires shining an uncompromising light on those dark corners of the mind that harbour the seeds of our depression, anxiety or whatever, and I did not want to shine that light on why I felt the way I did about my own body. As a result, I’ve never received any real guidance as to how to apply CBT techniques to those particular issues.)

I was prescribed fluoxetine after I had been attending CBT sessions for a while. It had been hoped that the CBT alone would be sufficient, but it wasn’t. I’ve been taking it on and off ever since. The “off” periods were times when I decided that I didn’t need the medication anymore and so just stopped taking it. Without fail, some time later I would find myself going back to the doctor for another prescription. The problem was that I didn’t think I needed the medication anymore because of the medication. For me, fluoxetine doesn’t provide a miracle cure for depressive or anxious periods, and I’ve been through various stages of both whilst taking it, but it smoothes off the rough edges and lifts my mood sufficiently to enable me to deal with those periods.

Personally, I have only experienced mental health stigma to the extent that it informs attitudes in our society, rather than having been on the receiving end of anything more specific. Having said that, there are times when I have not been entirely honest about those issues. If I had been, maybe the stigma would have reared its head more directly. There have been times, for example, when going to work has been an epic struggle. Days when I could pull the duvet over my head, stare blankly at the inside of the covers and let the day just drift past because even making the decision to get out of bed was just too damn hard. Days when I felt so uncomfortable being out of the house that I would be repressing a panic attack whilst waiting for my train. On some of those days, I would push through. On others, I would call in sick, but I would always give a physical reason – a stomach bug, a migraine or something like that. Taking a day off work because you need to take care of your mental health is just not on a par with taking time off to care for your physical health.

It’s those pervasive attitudes that need to change, but that’s easier said than done. How do we move away from seeing mental health issues as a flaw or a weakness, to seeing them as health issues that are treated and managed just like any other? In my own personal experience, someone who is dealing with mental health issues is the exact opposite of weak. Every single person I know who deals with such things (and it is often something that requires work day in day out, not just on those particularly dark days) is strong, courageous and tenacious. It takes strength and courage to manage symptoms, to face down the negative voices in your head and to ask for or accept help when you need it.

Awareness is absolutely key to ending stigma, and I think this is generally recognised, or at least it is getting to that point. More and more people are being honest and open about their own mental health experiences through social media, articles and blog posts, and initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week help to bring awareness to as many people as possible. As well as awareness, I think there has to be a real understanding of how mental health can affect people’s lives and what can be done to assist by, for example, employers. In an employment context, for example, an HR policy that reflects awareness of mental health issues will have very little positive impact if employees, particularly managers and those in positions of authority, do not have a genuine understanding of those issues such that they are able to treat the person in question in an appropriate and compassionate way. Dealing with mental health issues does not automatically mean that someone is less able to do their job or any less ambitious. There might be times when a person’s particular problems mean that they are less able to do their job, but that should be treated no differently to a situation where physical incapacitation renders someone temporarily unable to work.

It’s also important to tackle the spread of misinformation about mental health issues and the use of medication. Careful and thoughtful reporting is required. The following headline, for example, appeared in the Daily Mail recently:

“Could antidepressants really cause brain damage? Experts reveal the pills don’t work for most people and could even cause PERMANENT harm”. [The caps are theirs, not mine.]

That is, frankly, sensationalist and unnecessary. There has also been a lot of reporting recently about the apparent risks of taking antidepressants during pregnancy (Google “antidepressants and pregnancy” and look at the news results). The vast majority of people reading these articles are not experts, and so have no knowledge or experience to draw on to be able to verify or counter the information provided. Take that DM article. I have absolutely no way of knowing whether what it says is correct, or whether it correctly reports the results of any studies it cites. The same goes for the myriad of articles out there which report the “results of scientific studies” or the “views of experts”. I would, however, recommend that everyone watch the segment from a relatively recent Last Week Tonight about science reporting, which makes it impossible not to question such pieces. Sensationalist and incomplete reporting, together with clickbait headlines, can be dangerous on any subject. Where mental health issues are concerned, they prevent the dissemination of accurate information, which is essential to increasing both awareness and understanding.

Deeply embedded attitudes take time to change. Society is, I think, definitely moving in the right direction as far as attitudes towards mental health are concerned. If as many people as possible can keep talking about it, including people with platforms big enough to be heard by a lot of people (Carrie Fisher, you are missed), then hopefully we can keep moving in that direction. I will continue to do my very small part by being entirely unashamed about any past or present issues that I had or have and by refusing to be embarrassed about taking the medication I need to be a functional human being.

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DAY 24 : Yoga Revolution Day 29 (Truth Practice)

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This practice focused on the throat chakra or, for those of us not quite ready to get on board with the whole chakra thing, authenticity and speaking our truth. At the start of the practice, Adriene asked us to think of one thing that we knew to be true about ourselves. That’s the sort of question that can automatically send my mind down a path strewn with negative thoughts, so instead of heading in that direction I simply said “I am here”. That sounds a bit ridiculous and obvious, because of course I was there, but I saw it more as embracing an acknowledgement that I’m still showing up on the mat and taking time for myself. Any more grandiose truths about myself need a foundation, and I felt like that statement provides a pretty solid one.

The practice itself was short and relatively gentle, focusing on opening the throat. After the difficulties I had with the previous practice, I definitely appreciated this. I also found that focusing on that simple statement “I am here” helped to dial down the stress and noise that I was feeling and hearing last time. I wonder if there’s a danger of mental and physical overload if you try to take in and focus on too many things at once. Keeping it simple definitely helped.

Some points in the email accompanying this practice really resonated with me.

“Revolution is designed to trim, tone and build lean muscle. It is essentially a KILLER Yoga Bootcamp. However, I am taking a risk and choosing not to market things focused on perfect body. … It’s challenging because we all want to be the perfect version of ourselves and that includes – a good body. … What does a good body feel like?”

That focus on how the body feels rather than how it looks is at the centre of this yoga project that I’m working on. I think I mentioned in an earlier post the intense physical discomfort that takes over when the BDD flares up. The mind and body seem to repel each other, but somehow at the same time there is this need to rip them apart even further. I need to shift the focus from how I look (or, to be honest, how I think I look, because I’m coming to accept that what I see may not be accurate – that in itself is a weird thought) to how I feel in my own skin. Yoga coaxes the mind and body to come together, rather than to fight each other, so I think I’m slowly getting there.

As Revolution will be ending very soon, I’ve been thinking about where to go next. in particular I’ve been thinking that I need to deepen my understanding of the thought and philosophy behind yoga, so have bought a copy of the Yoga Sutras.

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This looks like a pretty dense book, so I wonder if the best thing to do would be to work through it methodically, taking some time to focus on one key aspect at a time while I practice, say a week for each. EkhartYoga has an eight week programme on the eight limbs of yoga, which might work well alongside that, especially as it would be nice to have some guidance and commentary from people far more experienced than I am. Whatever I decide to do, I’ll definitely continue practising with Adriene as well, as I just love her.

Two more days of Revolution to go. I can’t believe how quickly this 31 days has flown past, but the terrifying speed at which time is passing is something that I’m going to try not to think about! Focus on the now, after all (*and repeat*).

 

DAYS 21 & 22 : Yoga Revolution Days 25, 26 & 27 (Root, Creativity and Self Practices)

After a slightly crazy weekend, I’m a little behind on blogging my Revolution journey. I also did two practices back to back today because, for both internal and external reasons, I just needed more yoga!

Day 25 was the first in a series of practices focusing on the chakras or energy centres, with this one focusing on the root chakra (at the base of the spine). Now I don’t know much about the chakras, and I’m not even sure if I actually believe they exist, so I put that aspect of the practice aside for a time when I’ve done a little more research and experimentation. I decided instead to focus on the sensations of feeling grounded and centred, feelings which I could definitely do with instilling more deeply in both my mind and body. It’s interesting how focusing on those sensations can result in miniscule adjustments to physical poses which in turn feed back in to increasing those same sensations. The highlight of this practice was definitely feeling significantly more stable in Tree than I had before, and marrying that strength with trying to really maintain full body awareness.

In between days 25 and 26, I got dressed up and went out for the first time since an abortive attempt recently when my BDD got the better of me. I tried to focus on that full body awareness that I’ve been working on in yoga, as a counter to my mind trying to focus obsessively on perceived problem areas. I did actually manage to go out wearing the outfit I’d originally planned to wear (the standard pattern is that I will choose an outfit in advance, then at the last minute revert to one of a very few familiar outfits which I feel hide or detract from the problem areas) and I didn’t get caught in the mirror. This is only one experience, I know, but I’m treating it as a victory!

Today I did Revolution days 26 and 27. Yesterday I had a bit of an emotional hangover from Friday night (in that drinking wine and eating sugar when I’ve not been doing much of either recently seemed to somehow fragment my mind a bit and I felt out of kilter for most of the day), and the world feels like it’s in such a dark place at the moment, that I needed some extra time on the mat.

Day 26’s creativity practice encouraged playfulness and some freestyling in several of the poses. What I really noticed in those moments is how much better I’m becoming at knowing what my body needs at any given time – how it wants to move, what needs to be stretched, what needs to be given a break, and so on. This is pretty major for someone who was so entirely disconnected from their body. In some ways I still am, or perhaps more accurately sometimes my mind strongly resists the connection, but I hope that by really being present in those moments when I can listen and respond, their frequency will increase.

Day 27 focused on the self and, as the accompanying email said, that’s the whole reason why I and so many others are on this Revolution journey.

“When we take time to connect with ourselves we are more capable of connecting with others in a way that serves both you and that person that you are connecting with. Cultivating a healthy and meaningful relationship with yourself is the foundation for creating healthy and meaningful relationships with others.”

I think it’s absolutely true that our relationship with ourselves affects our relationships with others. Yoga is, for me, such a brilliant way to cultivate that relationship because the mat is in so many ways a microcosm of the rest of our lives. We can observe how we react to triumphs and failures, can cultivate patience and ease with ourselves and our bodies, learn to just be in the present moment… this list goes on. I’m finding that I have moments of a calmer confidence that I did not have before, which I think must at least in part be attributable to the fact that through yoga I am becoming more comfortable in my own skin.

I ended today’s double practice feeling that I had pretty much managed to reset myself after yesterday’s hiccup, and even if I didn’t exactly feel better about everything else that’s going on in the world, I did feel a little more focused. Which is perhaps all that can be hoped for at the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

DAY 20 : Yoga Revolution Day 24 (Patience)

Today’s practice was tough. Of all the things that Revolution has focused on so far, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I found patience particularly difficult. I’m not a very patient person (understatement), particularly with myself, so really it was always going to be a challenge.

The focus was on the journey being the reward, the practice being the path. Essentially, to focus on where we are in the present moment rather than to constantly reach for an end point. To sit in and accept that moment and be patient when things get tough. For me personally, a crucial aspect of patience is not judging where I am in a particular pose, not beating myself up for not being further along than I am. As an impatient perfectionist, I want to be brilliant at something now, otherwise there’s really no point doing it at all. That’s a mindset that will just never fit with yoga, but things can’t change overnight.

There were times during this practice when I was able to be present with what was and to be patient with myself. My Dancer’s Pose, for example, wasn’t perfect (although it has improved), but whenever I wobbled, I managed to accept it and go back to the pose. The real issues with today’s practice came with the yogic squat / Crow and Elephant poses, which melded together into a big fat pile of triggers. I didn’t try Crow today, as my hips were incredibly tight, so I stayed with the squat. As I think I’ve mentioned before, this feels very hunched and squashed (despite my best efforts to lift my heart!), which taps right into one of my BDD-focus areas. The same was true of Elephant (although goodness knows I wasn’t able to do the full pose!). It just seemed to shine a laser-sharp beam of light onto areas that I feel particularly bad about. Being present can be so very difficult when you feel an intense physical dislike for the thing, or part of the thing, that is trying to be present in the first place.

The key with yoga, though, is how you use the tools it equips you with to deal with challenges and difficulties. I was so tempted to just stop the video a few times during these poses, but I didn’t. I stuck with it, breathed through it, focused on each breath and told myself that I was where I was and where I was was absolutely fine. Perhaps even more crucially, I managed to stop this all developing into a major issue or mini-meltdown once I’d left the mat. I tried to tap into the “full body experience” aspect that’s been cultivated over the past 20-odd days, and tried to feel and inhabit my body as one whole, rather than focusing obsessively on specific parts and their perceived defects. This didn’t make the problem go away, and I did stop looking at my reflection for the rest of the day, but it smoothed off the sharp edges and meant that I was able to get on with everything else that I had to do. That, right there, is for me as much the value of yoga as a strong core or flexible spine.

Adriene said today that “the process is the candy”, and it is. It’s the things that I’m learning whilst on the journey that are beginning to have an impact on my life. It’s not about not hitting roadblocks, it’s about how we overcome and get past those roadblocks. The journey might even be much less rewarding without them.

DAY 18 : Yoga Revolution Day 22 (Gentle Practice)

Today’s gentle practice had no planks, downward dogs or vinyasas, which I have to say I was rather grateful for, both physically and mentally. My wrists appreciated the break, and I think it’s good to mix things up a bit just to stop the mind going into autopilot. Adriene’s point about having a rest day was a good one. Taking the time to occasionally slow things down, perhaps via a slightly shorter practice as in this case, makes it far more likely that I will show up to the mat each day with a positive mindset.

The accompanying email asked us to “consider what it feels like when you are kind and gentle with yourself. Commit to this so that you can be kind and gentle with yourself, with others and with the Earth.” As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m not particularly good at being kind to myself, but I am slowly getting better at it. Doing so during a slow, gentle practice was particularly challenging, as the longer I stay in poses, the far more likely it is that body issues will be triggered, which then leads to the exact opposite of kindness and gentleness. Those sorts of thoughts did pop up today, but I feel like I managed to disconnect myself from them pretty successfully. It’s easy to joke when someone tells you just how important the breath is, because breathing is something we do every day and basically take for granted, but focusing on smooth, steady breath can genuinely have a pretty amazing effect on those dark and negative thoughts.

On the subject of the breath, one thing I tried to focus on today was the body/breath connection in that in certain poses, when you breathe deeply enough, you can feel the skin of a particular part of the body stretching (which part depends of course on the pose). Not only does this feel good physically, but really focusing on that connection brings the mind, breath and body onto the same page. Something I’ve found in trying to deal with BDD is that my mind can sometimes feel entirely disconnected from my body. Persuading them gently and persistently to be in the same place – just to be there, without any judgment or running commentary, for however short a time – isn’t always easy, but when it works the sense of calm and peace it produces is quite amazing.

The practice ended with an invitation to expand this kindness to ourselves to others and to the world. I do think that if you’re kind to yourself, being kind to others probably will come more easily, and goodness knows the world needs some kindness right now.

DAY 13 : Yoga Revolution Day 17 (Stillness)

Today’s practice was utterly brilliant, and probably my favourite Revolution practice so far. The focus was on stillness, and Adriene asked us to consider whether we run from discomfort. My answer to that is generally a big fat “yes”, which is one of the reasons why cultivating a regular yoga practice has the potential to have such a huge impact on my life.

My BDD tends to manifest itself as extreme discomfort in my own skin, which produces a set of sensations that are very difficult to describe. It’s as if my skin is itching and crawling, and the only way to stop it would be to pull the skin off. That sounds gruesome and drastic, but it’s the best way I can describe it. On top of that, there is physically sensing the specific “imperfections” which my mind tells me are there, but which others assure me are verging on non-existent when I ask for an opinion or reassurance. Again, the sensation is slightly alien, as if this particular thing were part of me, but not really a part of me. (I realise how weird this sounds – I did say it was difficult to describe!)

Anyway, in that context, stillness and sitting with discomfort are not things that come naturally or easily. Spending a long time in a particular pose can lead to intense focus on and judgment of a particular part of the body, simply because of the way the body is positioned, or how one part of the body is touching another. Today, however, something clicked and I was able to do it. I enjoyed spending time in the poses and I even found myself enjoying any discomfort I felt, for example in my arms during the half warrior poses. I felt like the regular, daily routine of coming to the mat, trying to focus on my breath and on my body as a whole unit, and acknowledging and accepting where I am today, was starting to take me to a place of calm and kindness that is completely new to me.

I fully accept that it won’t be like that every day. There will be times when I’m frustrated, times when I feel awful, and times when I have to work really hard to keep myself in a judgment-free present moment. What today’s practice showed me is that change is possible. I genuinely still feel quite emotional about it, and I’m excited to see where things go from here.