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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DAYS 41 and 42 : Flows, Twists and final thoughts on Satya

Having finally got some energy back, yesterday I did one of my favourite Yoga With Adriene practices – her side body flow. I’m not entirely sure why I like this practice so much, but there’s something about the combination of poses that raise the heart rate, stretch out the side body and twist out the spine that ticks most of my yoga boxes. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with not wanting to take up too much space (perhaps a combination of not liking being tall and not being comfortable in my own skin, and the associated lack of confidence), so I wonder if one of the reasons I like this practice is that poses that focus on the side body require you to open yourself up and take up as much physical space as possible. The yoga mat is a place where that can be done with impunity and without having to worry about what others think. Getting used to doing that on the mat perhaps helps cultivate a feeling, both physical and mental, that can be taken off the mat.

For Day 42, I chose an Ekhart Yoga practice called “Positive Twist”. (It may be becoming clear that I’m a sucker for any practice that involves a decent amount of twisting – I think it comes from having to a greater or lesser extent an almost permanently sore back.) This practice started with some warm-up sun salutations, then moved through a series of seated postures building up to Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, which is basically head to knee pose incorporating a twist. This idea of a practice which is essentially building up to and preparing for one particular pose was intriguing, and having done it I can see how stretching and warming up certain parts of the body and spending time in certain poses can increase flexibility in, and so the benefits of, the final pose.

I found some of the intermediate poses quite tricky, not so much from a physical perspective (although I was no-where near the full expression of those poses), but rather from a mental perspective. I really don’t enjoy poses which start from a wide legged seated position. There’s something about that position which magnifies almost every pocket of inflexibility. This leads to me feeling very hunched and closed off, which can trigger very specific negative thoughts and can cause quite intense discomfort in respect of certain parts of my body. To start with, I swapped in different poses in order to avoid this, but then I thought that this was entirely contrary to this week’s focus of satya/honesty. Avoiding a pose which a particular practice requires and then telling myself that I completed that practice is the exact opposite of honest. So, I went back to those difficult poses and tried to just accept where I was. I tried to really focus on my breath, which meant that the resulting thoughts and feelings weren’t nearly as bad as I’d feared (although when is anything, really).

These were the last practices in my week focusing on satya. I have been trying my best to approach each practice from a position of honesty, as well as incorporating last week’s focus of ahimsa/non-violence. I have found that approaching yoga and life in general with a view to being honest and truthful can strip away a lot of the little stresses that by themselves may be negligible, but which can build up to have a much greater and more detrimental effect. When you know that you’re being true to yourself and to the facts of a particular situation, there is a little less to worry about and decisions become easier. It does, however, require confidence in oneself and one’s actions, because having that baseline means giving less weight to how others might judge our words and actions. That’s something that it can be difficult to move away from particularly if, as I have, you’ve spent most of your life thinking about what other people need or want first, and yourself second. As with many things, though, I think it’s a case of practice and of retraining ourselves to act in a different way. The more persistent we are, the easier it will become (hopefully, at any rate!).

The focus for the coming week is the next yama, brahmacharya, which means “moderation”. As someone who has a vaguely obsessive personality, moderation is not always something that I’m particularly good at, so this should be an interesting week!

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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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DAYS 36 and 37 : Neck and Shoulder Therapy

My most recent two practices have been dictated purely by the fact that I woke up yesterday with a sharp pain under my shoulder blade, which this morning had spread down my side and up to my neck. This happens occasionally and although I’m not entirely sure why, I’m sure it isn’t helped by how ridiculously tense my neck and shoulders are. If I’m ever stressed or anxious that’s where it goes, often with the inevitable accompanying headache. I sometimes find myself getting frustrated that regular yoga practice hasn’t yet cured those tension and muscle issues, but realistically I know that it’s an ongoing process and not something that will just happen straight away.

Anyway, this all meant that I was focused very much on the physical benefits of yoga in choosing these practices. Day 36 was a therapeutic session on Ekhart Yoga with Jennilee Toner. This was a very interesting session as it wove some anatomy lessons in amongst the poses and stretches. While certain muscles tighten when we have poor posture, work long hours at a desk or sleep in a certain position, for example, others become weak. So in order to see improvement we need to both stretch the tight muscles and strengthen the weak ones. This was an hour long practice and my shoulder did feel significantly better afterwards. Having said that, I woke up this morning and it felt worse, but I guess it might have felt even worse if I hadn’t done that practice!

Today’s practice was a Yoga With Adriene stretch and soothe practice from her Empower series. This wasn’t so focused on the neck and shoulders, rather it stretched pretty much the whole body as well as incorporating some gentle vinyasas. I chose it mainly because the discomfort in that one part of my body had made me feel generally very scrunched (technical yoga term, there) and tight, so stretching everything out felt great.

I think it can sometimes be easy to focus on the mental and emotional benefits of yoga and forget about the purely physical benefits. Entirely separating the two isn’t particularly helpful, especially if (like me) you’re looking to build a closer connection between your mind and your body. However, that doesn’t mean that the focus can’t sometimes be shifted significantly more towards the physical, provided an awareness of the present moment is maintained in order to keep the mind engaged. Focusing on how a pose is strengthening or stretching particular muscles, or increasing the flexibility in certain joints, could in fact help to build the mind/body connection as it cultivates a greater familiarity with how the body works and how it is affected by different movements and poses.

So, how to tie all this in with this week’s theme of satya/truthfulness and honesty? I think the honesty in these practices lay in the fact that I gave my body what it needed. I did think this morning “oh I should do a more intense practice, because I did a gentle therapeutic one yesterday”, but I didn’t. Instead, I accepted where I was and worked with it. I was honest with myself about any limitations I might have or difficulties in certain poses that I might experience due to the issues I was having with my shoulder. Approaching the practices from that perspective, I found that I was slightly less inclined to immediately criticise myself or to let negative thoughts take hold as a result of any particular pose that I was holding. I know I said back at the beginning of this project that I wanted a bit more structure to my practice, rather than just picking a practice each day, but I think there is a lot to be said for making a conscious and informed decision each day as to what type of practice would most benefit me.

As for tomorrow, however, I’m just hoping that the pain in my shoulder will miraculously disappear overnight. You never know, it could happen.

DAY 35 : Satya (Truthfulness) Day 1

Continuing with Ekhart Yoga’s programme on the yamas and niyamas, this week’s focus is satya – honesty or truthfulness. This has been defined as “one’s words and thoughts being in exact correspondence to fact” (by Vyasa, cited by Bryant). Truth must not, however, cause harm to others, as satya and all of the yamas are subservient to ahimsa, i.e. to non-violence.

The practice focused on honesty, exploring it by hugging the midline of the body, essentially creating strength from the core for each pose. There were a lot of standing poses (for example Warrior variations) that required not just strength in the legs, but strength down through the core of the body and mental strength when the leg muscles started to get tired. I will admit that I struggled a bit to get my head around how hugging the midline in a particular pose encourages honesty. Things started to become a bit clearer when I focused more on the strength aspect. Honesty often requires strength, so I would think that building strength on the mat can help us to approach life off the mat from a place of honesty and truth. I think it’s also much easier to be honest and truthful if we really know ourselves and have the confidence to accept who we are, rather than trying to mould ourselves to fit the place in the world that we think we should occupy, or that others want us to occupy. Yoga is one of the best methods I’ve found (and believe me, I’ve tried a lot!) to peel back the layers of thought, analysis and neurosis to get to who I really am underneath all those layers.

During the practice Sandra also talked a lot about freedom, and the fact that practising with honesty leads to freedom. Again, this was something that I wasn’t immediately able to grasp, but it started to make sense as the practice went on. If we practise honestly, in that we observe where we are on any given day, accept and acknowledge our progress and our limitations, and don’t take shortcuts with things like alignment and breath while telling ourselves that we’re doing everything we can in a pose, then we are free to obtain maximum benefit from individual poses and from the practice as a whole. Off the mat, if we live in a way that is true to who we are, and if our relationships with and attitudes towards others are based on truthfulness, then stress and anxiety levels reduce and we find the freedom to live the best life that we can. I’ve certainly found that when I’m being true to myself and what I need or want, or when I approach a situation from a position of total honesty (I might be a bad liar, but we all weave little fibs into lives every now and then), I’m a lot less worried and stressed as I know that whatever happens, I’ve based my actions on what I know to be true.

A focus on satya seems particularly relevant at the moment, given that we are living in a so-called “post truth” world where half truths or even blatant falsehoods can be classed as “alternative facts” and it is apparently entirely acceptable to accuse someone of lying if they disagree with you, even if their position is clearly supported by evidence. Power, pursuing a political agenda and maintaining the position and influence of oneself and one’s allies seem to have become far more important than concepts like truth and honesty. The truth can be bent to suit a particular purpose, and honesty is only required when previous lies are exposed (and even then only to the extent absolutely necessary to preserve reputation). These attitudes have bound themselves to the roots of our society to such an extent that it is sometimes difficult to see how we can pull back from them. That, I think, has to start on a personal basis, with each individual approaching their lives and their relationships with others and the world around them from a position of truth and honesty. That may sound pointless – surely one person is too small and insignificant to make a difference? – but it is the cumulative effort and effect that makes that difference. Gandhi said that “if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change”. Michael Jackson (and the LEGO Batman Movie) encourage us to start with the man [or woman] in the mirror. We can’t change the world until we change ourselves.

One final point: Bryant ends his section on this second yama with the following comment:

“Also, avoiding untruth extends to the point of abstaining from reading fiction, for Hariharananda [one of the commentators cited by Bryant]. The yogi is always contemplating spiritual truths and does not occupy his or her mind with fictional or worldly trivia, silly fantasy, daydreaming, or imagination.”

 No offence to someone who I’m sure was an expert, enlightened yogi, but that sounds incredibly dull. I see no reason why “avoiding untruth” should mean not reading books or daydreaming or using one’s imagination, and that’s not just because I love reading, daydreaming and imagining things. All those things stimulate and broaden the mind (although I suppose that does to an extent depend on what’s being read or daydreamed about), and if we are going to be true to ourselves and to offer the best of ourselves to others and to the world, then surely we shouldn’t stop doing that. “Contemplating spiritual truths” may be all very well but personally I think enlightenment, if there is such a thing, goes far beyond that. I, for one, won’t be giving up my books (including lots that would probably fall in the “silly fantasy” category) any time soon.

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DAY 33 : Feel Good Flow and thoughts on Morning Yoga

Today’s practice was a Yoga With Adriene flow which I chose pretty much purely because my house was so cold and Adriene had filmed this particular practice on a beach. Perhaps I thought I could suck some of the warmth through my laptop screen. However I may have chosen it, though, it was a great practice and exactly what I needed today – relatively short and incorporating both flow/strength elements and some awesome twists.

I usually practice mid to late afternoon, but due to today’s plans this ended up being an early morning practice. It got me thinking about how the time of day can affect what I take from a practice. Physically, my body tends to be pretty stiff in the mornings, so I generally won’t be able to go as deep into some poses as I would later in the day. On the other hand, certain twists and stretches are perfect for waking the body up. Mentally, my mind is generally much more of a blank slate first thing in the morning. As soon as I get started on my day, I’m thinking about multiple things at once and when I practice later in the day, I come to the mat in the context of that mental chatter. I found it really beneficial to take some time to focus and just be present before kickstarting the day. It basically felt like a way to pull myself together physically, mentally and emotionally so that I could start the day from a place of calm, focus and (in keeping with this week’s theme) respect. I think I was able to carry that through most of the rest of the day, even the moments I had to spend nodding and smiling (and gritting my teeth) through some eye-rolling at my dislike of looking at my own wedding photos. (Pro tip: if someone does say that, don’t assume it’s an overreaction – they might genuinely find looking at those photos difficult and so feel somewhat annoyed and belittled at said eye-rolling. Just saying.)

It seems that early morning yoga can work pretty well for me, so why don’t I do it more often? My initial thought was “oh, it’s probably because I’m lazy”, but when I actually thought about it (rather than just going for the easy answer which is nearly always a self-criticism), I realised that a more likely answer is that I don’t think I can take time for myself until I’ve done a sufficient amount of work or enough chores to justify it. Taking that time to do yoga first thing feels indulgent, whilst doing it later in the day turns it into some sort of reward for having had a productive day. It’s essentially an extension of the fact that I instinctively see taking time purely to do something I want to do as selfish. I know on an objective level that I need to take time to do those things, but when it comes to it I always feel a bit guilty in doing so.

I guess this again feeds into the notion of respect that is one of my focuses this week. Taking time purely for myself, without feeling selfish or guilty, is a form of self-respect. If I do take that time, then I’m more likely to be able to treat others and the world in general with respect. I won’t resent external demands on my time, because I will have accepted that time for myself is just as important. That all sounds perfectly simple, but that mindset of selfishness and guilt is a difficult one to get out of. Perhaps what I need to do is challenge myself by shifting some of my practices to first thing in the morning. Working on changing my thought patterns alone would probably help, but I think to really start to shift that ingrained mindset I need to change my actions as well as my thoughts.

As for today’s practice, as the name suggested, I really was feeling good by the end of it. The house was still cold, though.

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DAYS 31 AND 32 : Strength, Focus and Acceptance

As per my last post, what I’m really trying to focus on at the moment on the mat is respect for myself, my body and its limits. This was really challenged by yesterday’s practice, which was a Yoga With Adriene practice for strength and focus. I’ve come to accept that there will be some days when my mind and body just don’t click, and practising is something of a struggle. (While it’d be great to hit some sort of zen perfection every time I get on the mat, that’s not exactly real life.) Yesterday was one of those days. My mind was chattering like mad and my body seemed to be resisting every even vaguely strengthening pose. Still, I tried to accept that that’s how things were going to be and respect the fact that perhaps I wasn’t going to get as deep into a high lunge as usual, or it might be a bit trickier to bring my knee to my elbow in plank. It was difficult, of course, but constantly bringing myself back to a mindset where I don’t engage with negative thoughts, even if I can’t stop them altogether, helped to keep the level of frustration relatively low.

Bearing how I felt during yesterday’s practice in mind, today I did a much gentler practice from Ekhart Yoga with Esther Ekhart. The aim of the practice was to accept and work with tiredness, and it caught my eye because of the reference to focusing on respect in each pose. This practice started with a seated meditation, then moved through a sequence of gentle poses and stretches (including Pigeon, still one of my favourites!) before ending in an extended Savasana. My body and mind definitely appreciated slowing things down a bit.

Throughout the practice, Esther referred to shifting our awareness so that we are less engaged with the body, but simply see it as a part of ourselves. This is something that yoga in general is really helping me to do, but it was nice to have some specific reminders. If anything I tend to overengage with my body, to the extent that certain unpleasant or uncomfortable physical sensations (I say physical, sometimes I wonder whether they actually start off in my mind rather than my body) can take over. My mind then latches onto those sensations to such an extent that they can set off some sort of anxiety spiral unless I take active steps to stop it. Trying to focus on that attitude of respect really helps here, because it’s more difficult for negative thoughts to pop up when the position from which I’m approaching each pose is one of acceptance and respect.

Off the mat, I’ve been trying to make my inner monologue a bit nicer, as it has a tendency to be kind of mean and bitchy, mostly towards me. It’s amazing how much less exhausting life is when you’re not constantly criticising yourself in your own head. I think I’m generally quite nice to other people (I’m certainly nice to them than I am to myself, but then I think that might be true of a lot of people), but I have been trying to consciously think about how I’m interacting with people. As with so much in life, really focusing on the every day things that we take for granted, such as how we speak to people, can make us realise that there actually are changes we can make, however small, to improve our own quality of life and the effect that we have on others’.

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