Today I feel that I am sick of talking and writing about depression. I’m sick of talking and writing about hypomania. I am getting fed up with being unwell and thinking about bipolar affective disorder. Today I’ve decided that I’m going to focus on the positives, and start sharing some the strategies I’ve found to help – starting with yoga.
I am a very uncoordinated person. I have poor aim and catching is very difficult for me; I find it difficult to gauge where I am in space, and frequently walk into walls or knock my shoulders and elbows on objects I should be easily able to avoid. As a child, I struggled to learn fine motor skills like tying shoelaces and using scissors. Unsurprisingly, as school child PE was traumatic for me, week in, week out. Anyone who has poor hand-eye co-ordination will relate to the humiliation that results from the most sporty being nominated team captains, and then being allowed to select from the pack of lesser mortals. Inevitably, I was always last choice, and whoever got stuck with me would wail at the teacher, “Oh, Miss, do I have to have her?” Once the game got going I heroically missed shots in netball; was unable to serve in tennis; got hit in the mouth (repeatedly) by rounders balls I had failed to field; and had my ankles bruised by hockey balls my stick had been supposed to stop. By around the age of 15 I rebelled, and just plain refused to participate in the latest insult (volleyball). All of this had left me with the belief that my body and I were on bad terms. I felt that it would not do what I wanted it to, no matter how much teachers or team-mates begged, cajoled or yelled at me. It wasn’t my fault – I would have loved to have been able to do a backflip, whack the ball across the field, or score the winning goal. But my body didn’t know how.
Finally, around year 11, someone in the PE department got a bit more creative and began offering tasters of non-competitive (gasp!) physical activities. I enjoyed a session of aerobics, and discovered I could move in rhythm, even somewhat gracefully, if the pressure of someone else depending on me was removed from the equation. The other taster I participated in was a one-off yoga class in the 6th form lecture theatre, which was one of the few carpeted rooms in the school. I can’t recall what positions the teacher had us do, but I vividly remember the relaxation she led at the end, which involved envisaging a ball of white light and “rolling” it across our bodies. I loved it, and it left me curious to know more.
When I was 20 and at university, I found a leaflet for a centre offering classes in yoga, t’ai chi, circle dancing, etc. I thought about it for a while before I finally plucked up the courage to go and a friend signed up too, to keep me company. The course was taught by a tiny, wrinkly old lady named Elaine, who always dressed in a black cat-suit. I liked the first class, and as the weeks went by and I became more flexible, I started to really enjoy it. I began to practice during the week between classes, and was soon doing an hour’s practise every day. Now, I know that yoga is supposed to be entirely non-competitive (although there have been suggestions that it should become Olympic sport). You’re not supposed to worry about what anyone else in the room is doing; it’s just about your practice and how far into the positions you can get on any given day. But here’s the thing: I found I was good at it. By “good at it”, I mean that here was something I would ask my body to do, and it would get on and do it, and do it better than the other people in the class. About a year later, I had switched to another class nearer to home that so that my mother could also attend. This class was taught by a rather formidable German woman, also rather wrinkly, called Inge. “Is this your daughter?” she demanded one evening at the end of the session. My mother allowed that I was. “Hmph. She is… rather good,” sniffed Inge, as if disgusted by the prospect.
Yoga gave me a sense of my body being useful, strong and co-operative. I learned to trust it and to feel that I could rely on my body as I never had before. I also learned how to fully relax for the first time in my life – before starting yoga, if someone said, “relax your arms”, I was so out of touch with my body that I literally had no idea how to obey the command. Yoga also taught me how to watch, understand and control my breath. It taught me how to respond to discomfort by breathing and relaxing into it, instead of fighting it. All of this at a very troubled time in my life, when I was going through horrendous depressions and having a very unsupportive first contact with the psychiatric services.
I still love yoga, but I only do it semi-regularly now. It is something that I struggle to keep in perspective; I can be very all or nothing about it, feeling that if I’m doing anything less than a daily hour, there’s no point (not that this is limited to yoga; I get the same way about running, healthy eating, blogging… I am not good at moderation). I sometimes get frustrated by the way that age and the weight I’ve gained stop me from being as supple as I was when I was 20. I don’t go to classes these days, although I probably should, because I prefer to practise in the privacy of my own home, sometimes using DVDs (if anyone is looking for a yoga DVD, I thoroughly recommend Gaiam’s range). The positive effects of exercise on mental health are well documented, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists also recommend spiritual practices, including body disciplines such as yoga or T’ai Chi, as beneficial for psychological well-being. Purely anecdotally, I always feel both physically and mentally better after a yoga session. My muscles feel warm and loose, and I can definitely feel a buzz from all the endorphins the stretching releases. Most of all, being in my body for a while gives me a much needed holiday from being in my perpetually whirling mind. It’s an indispensible part of my self-management toolkit.