Yoga is the Glue – Physical and Mental Healing Through Yoga
We hear a lot about yoga for health. Mental health, physical health, joint health. I want to discuss the role of yoga in healing.
At the start of 2017, I was in a fairly bad way. I had injured my back, severely bulging the disc at the base of my spine. Recovery was going slowly, requiring me to step back from a number of my favourite pastimes.
My mental health was not much better. My mother was quite unwell, with an ever-encroaching deadline creeping up on us. I wasn’t sleeping. When I did, I had graphic nightmares about hospitals and cemeteries. My anxiety was the worst it had ever been.
I sought help from doctors and psychologists, and some of it worked in the short term, but nothing for very long. I was coming to terms with the fact that this was my life now. That I was just an anxious and broken person, and I had to learn to live with it, as anyone with chronic illness has to. I drifted further and further away from any recognisable semblance of my former self. I was lost.
The physiotherapist who was treating my back injury suggested I try yoga to try and relieve the pain in my back, and possibly manage some of my stress. I remember actively scoffing at her. I was so incredulous about her suggestion. How would standing still and waving my arms in slow motion do anything to fix my spine or my head?! I was a cardio girl – fast, frantic, aggressive exercise was my preference. This was definitely NOT going to be the answer.
I went to a class. I would love to tell you that I fell in love instantly and everything was fixed.
Truth be told, I hated it. With a fiery rage. I couldn’t hold any of the poses and found myself becoming increasingly embarrassed and frustrated with the class. I stormed out at the end, vowing never to return to something that I was clearly terrible at, and was clearly not for me.
The next morning, I woke up. As in, I had slept. My back was a little less sore, and the RSI in my wrist had settled a little for the first time in a while.
I decided I had perhaps been too harsh and quick to judge. I decided to go back the following week. Just for one more try.
The poses felt a little more natural. I knew what some of the words meant so I felt a little less foolish this time. It was still hard, but I was prepared for the challenge. I left feeling a burn in my muscles and a glimmer of something in my mind – clarity.
For those who don’t experience anxiety, it makes your brain a mess. I often liken mine to a series of tangled balls of wool, or Christmas lights all jumbled together in a bowl. You try to untangle the thoughts and they just get messier and more locked up. Every time you try to follow a strand to the end, you get tied up by three or four others. Each day you add another ball to the mess. It gets more crowded. It’s utter chaos.
After the second class, I could feel the tangles loosening. I could follow strands of thought almost all the way to the end. I felt like I could breathe again.
After nearly ten months of dedicated weekly practise, I can honestly say that yoga is the glue that has put me back together again. I feel like I’m becoming my old self, pre-injury and pre-grief. I have clarity. I am much calmer and much slower to anger. Frankly, I’m just more pleasant to be around.
The nightmares have stopped and I get restful sleep most nights, especially deep sleep after classes.
Here are the immediate benefits I noticed after just a few weeks of classes two or three times a week:
I started sleeping again.
This was probably the most amazing benefit, and took only a couple of weeks of classes to kick in. After months of fitful and nightmare-filled sleep, waking from a restful sleep was life changing. I could face my days with more positivity, and started to feel not only more alert but also more optimistic.
I stopped needing so many pain killers
I had been on some pretty hardcore anti-inflammatory drugs for my back. I was keen to stop taking them as I don’t really like being on medicine long term, and these ones had an increased risk of stroke, which is a hereditary issue in our family. I stopped needing to take them daily. I was down to once a week. I also found that I stopped taking other pain killers. Things like paracetamol for tension headaches, ibuprofen gel for my swollen ankle or my RSI injured wrist. They all started to fade, and I found myself not needing them for weeks on end.
I took control of my breath and my panic attacks
The focus on breath really helped me take charge of the panicky feelings. Through learning to tune into my breath, I was able to pinpoint the early signs of a panic attack. I was able to slow my breath down, and lessen or stop panic attacks before they hit. It gave me a sense of control again; I felt I could manage my own head and my own breath, and therefore manage my reactions to the world around me. It was a feeling of power I hadn’t felt for a long time, and gave me the motivation to keep going.
I stopped responding so strongly
This probably has a lot to do with the fact that a) I started getting sleep, and b) I could regulate my breath and therefore my emotions. Prior to the yoga classes, I was snappy, I was overwhelmed, I was blowing situations wildly out of proportion and I was quick to anger or tears. I’ve done a lot of reading around the topic, and there is research to suggest that the reduced stress levels and improved emotional regulation are due to the changing circulation and patterns of blood flow. Regardless of the science behind it, my emotions became much more manageable. Not only was I feeling less stressed, but I could also calm my responses before they blew up, and to use a terrible cliché, I’m fairly zen a lot of the time now.
I had a focus and a goal
I have always loved physical activity that required skill progression. I was a competitive swimmer through school, and then fell in love with trampoline fitness classes for a while. With those options out due to injury, I tried regular gym classes. But exercising for the sake of exercising has never really been my style. What I love most about yoga is the fact that you are building skills. Each week is slightly different. You reach further, you hold longer, you lift higher. Having something to build towards – poses I want to master, new styles and experiences to try – has helped my mental health exponentially. I am looking forward to getting out of bed on weekends, keen to get to a class or to try a new studio or a new yoga experience. I have direction and drive I haven’t had for a while, and yoga has definitely provided that guidance.
I am certain that without accidentally falling in love with yoga, I am not quite sure what my life would look like now. It’s often surprising to me that my love of yoga has been so recent as it has been so influential in my life already. I am still not fixed, physically or mentally, and I have a way to go for both. But for now, I have something that is starting to put me together, and for that I am forever grateful.
By Katie Ritchie
Connect with Katie @the_reluctant_yogi and read more at reluctantyogiadventures.com