Last month the news reports about stress at work caught my attention. Absenteeism due to mental health issues is rising despite many choosing not to speak up about their difficulties. This saddens & resonates with me simultaneously. More importantly, it inspires me to speak about my own experience and how yoga & mindfulness helps me every day.
How does stress affect us?
Stress is a normal response to life events, but beyond a certain point, it stops being helpful and begins to play havoc on our body, mood, productivity, and quality of life. It is a vicious cycle. Mental tension escalates and the strain manifests itself physically. We become taut. Our teeth & jaw clench. Hands ball into fists and our stomach tightens. As the body stiffens our breath gets restricted and shallow. Does this feel familiar? It does to me, as you are about to find out.
I attended my first yoga class only days after I wanted to punch someone at the gym. At the time I was living in London & working in the fashion industry. It was normal to work ten to twelve hours a day. Taking a lunch hour was a seldom occurrence, I usually nipped out for a sandwich to eat at my desk. I spent a lot of time sitting so I went to the gym a couple of days a week on my way home. As you can imagine I wasn’t alone. The gym was always packed. The music was always loud. I was often wound up from a busy day at the office & impatient to get home for a glass of wine. It was far from ideal, but it served a purpose.
Waiting, waiting, waiting……
On the evening in question, I was waiting for a cross-trainer to become free. The longer I waited, the more pissed off I was. Having left the house not long after 7 am it had already been a long day. I wanted to get this over & done with. I remember feeling annoyed at the person using the machine. I was angry at the loudness of the music. I felt my fists tighten & at that moment I wanted to punch someone or something!
This all happened a long time ago and the details are not crystal clear. However, if I shut my eyes & take myself back in time, I can feel the same physical sensations of tightness & pressure building. Going to the gym was supposed to help release stress yet I would leave feeling more het up than when I arrived. I knew that something had to change.
Trying something different
Having already paid for my gym membership I checked the class timetable & booked myself in for a yoga class the following week. I had no idea what to expect but the thought of being in a quiet studio for an hour was more appealing than my usual workout. I knew nothing about yoga & its benefits. However, it only took one class for me to know that I enjoyed it and I felt better for it. Much better! I appreciated the calmness of the class environment.
Reading over what I have written, this sounds like a romanticized version of events, but this is how it truly happened. One yoga class per week led to two, then three. At this point, I hadn’t read any books about yoga, so I came to it without preconceptions or expectations. My understanding was based purely on my experience of what I felt rather than what I thought.
The benefit of hindsight
Twenty years on I have learned a thing or two about the detrimental effect of stress on our health & well-being. I also know a bit more about yoga. Our nervous system is continually stimulated as we go from one busy environment to another. It is all too common to be switched on twenty-four-seven. We are practised at being switched on & less adept at switching off.
“Yoga takes you into the present moment, the only place where life exists.” – Patañjali –
So how does yoga help? This is a question that I continually come back to in my personal practice & my teaching. I will be writing more about it in the coming weeks & months as well as touching upon it in class. There is no definitive answer, instead, there are innumerable ways in which yoga can benefit each & every one of us. Quite simply, the practice of yoga & mindfulness helps us to get better at being in the present moment. Or in other words, yoga, because punching people is frowned upon!
Yoga in the felt sense
The experience of yoga is individual to us all. When I attended my first class, I felt something which to this day I cannot put into words. Does it matter? Not a jot! But I do understand why we want to know. My groaning bookshelf is a testament to this. I also appreciate that science is getting in on the act with research papers substantiating the benefits of regular yoga & mindfulness practice.
I will leave you with a passage written by Peter Blackaby the author of Intelligent Yoga as his words sum up quite perfectly what yoga means to me.
“The practice becomes about how we notice ourselves and how we deal with what we notice. Do we know when we carry tension? Do our bodies move as we intend? And can we discriminate discomfort and act intelligently to move away from it if possible?
As we become better at these sort of discriminations life slowly takes an easier turn, we learn to act usefully sooner rather than later, we age more gracefully, and adapt to change with less rancor.” – Peter Blackaby –
If you want to read more I highly recommend buying the revised edition of Intelligent Yoga. Click on this link to read more and to download the introduction.