This is me, I am here


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This is me, I am here…
My name is Frankie and I am writing this blog 3 weeks in to the 6 week Minded Yoga Therapy course that Edinburgh Community Yoga (ECY) are running alongside Health in Mind  (HiM). I am lucky enough to have already benefited from the work of both of these organisations before I started this course. I regularly attend ECY’s Women’s Trauma Infomed Yoga class and HiM’s Depression and Anxiety Support Group. So I was really excited to be involved in this collaboration! The course is a mixture of information on why yoga has the potential to benefit our mental health alongside physical practices that allow us to start to witness those benefits in action.
The first couple of weeks covered a lot of neuroscience which I could never summarise as eloquently as our instructor Laura, so I won’t try! Instead I’ll tell you what I have learned:
Breathing is at once automatic and within our power to control. So although breathing is a function of the oldest part of our brain which usually deals with things that we cannot control (like digestion) we can use the power of our rational mind to adjust our breath in deliberate ways. This means we can consciously breathe as if we are safe and relaxed and this will send signals from our body to our brain that we are actually safe and relaxed. So in week 1 Laura taught us how to breathe for optimal relaxation and introduced us to The Breathing App which has allowed us to practice this with ease at home. I also learnt that ‘Belly Breathing’ isn’t just a term for breathing in really deeply, but refers to the fact that we have a lot of vagus nerve fibres in our diaphragm which can be exploited to help us send relaxing signals to the brain.
Emotional resilience is being able to move between ‘rest and digest’ and ‘fight or flight’ mode and back again quickly. I knew already that I find it extremely difficult to relax again after something triggers my anxiety. What Laura explained is that yoga replicates the process of lifting and lowering the nervous system. Strong poses like chair pose are interspersed with softer more relaxing poses like child’s pose in order to develop our emotional resilience. Yoga can also help us learn to sit with discomfort and breathe through it. What my regular ECY yoga teacher Lorraine calls ‘finding softness in the challenge.’
The brain can build new neural pathways through practice and repetition. I’d heard this quite a few times before but other than ‘think positive’ or ‘practice gratitude’ no one had told me how to actually go about building more positive neural pathways. This course is full of practical instruction on how to do just that. Plus we are encouraged to complete regular home practice to start the process right away. Laura covered this concept of neuroplasticity in week 2 of the course and to me it felt like a concrete offer of hope at a time in my life when I had felt the possibility of hope was near totally extinguished.
The way we hold our bodies impacts on our mental health. Our posture affects our mood because our bodies send information to our brains. So yoga poses that help us take up our space in the world indicate to our brains that we are confident and in control. This is me, I am here. I am allowed to take up space. These are powerful statements for someone like me who feels a near constant instinct to shrink myself. I may not feel ready to walk down the street swinging my arms with my head held high, but yoga gives me a safe space in which to unfurl my body and experiment with taking up space.
So as you can see I’ve learnt a lot during the first 3 weeks of the course. I already knew that yoga offered me a sense of healing that I couldn’t find elsewhere. What this course is doing is helping me to understand why that is (I have found myself repeatedly thinking ‘so that’s why Lorraine does that at Trauma Informed Yoga!’) More than that the course is encouraging me to cultivate a home practice to deepen the benefits of yoga in my life. Fingers crossed I can keep it up and see the benefits unfold. I’m really looking forward to the next 3 weeks – I’ll let you know how I got on at the end of the course…

I am enough…

I have now completed all 6 weeks of the Minded Yoga Therapy course that Edinburgh Community Yoga (ECY) has been running in partnership with Health in Mind (HiM). This post is about my experiences of the second half of the course.

Self-compassion. Throughout the course our teacher Laura has been encouraging us to notice our own inner critic. (‘I’m not as flexible as I should be… My down dog doesn’t look as good as her down dog…’) In week 4 she asked us to gently start to replace the negative inner narrative with kindness. She spoke about the potential self-compassion has in reminding us how to be well. I admit that I initially found the idea of replacing the deluge of critical self-talk with kindness quite overwhelming. But then I compared it to the relaxing breathing practice we learnt in week 1. I had no difficulty in believing that 10 minutes of relaxing breathing exercises each day could help me start to build new neural pathways, even though the other 23 hours and 50 minutes of each day are spent breathing in my natural way. In the same way, perhaps noticing and replacing a small proportion of my negative self-talk with kindness can start to make a difference to my self-esteem and self-worth.

I am love and light. In week 4 of the course Laura also spoke to us about there being a core part of ourselves that is love and light, a core part that is already enough. This has the potential to act as a powerful challenge to the narrative of depression. ‘I am a failure – no, I am enough. There is only darkness left in me – no, I am love and light.’

A journey inwards. Week 5 was all about returning to body. Laura introduced us to the idea that we spend a lot of time living from the neck upwards, largely rejecting our bodily experience. This can impact on our ability to take care of ourselves. As a victim of physical and sexual trauma I have an additional layer of difficulty engaging with my body as it holds difficult memories for me. The idea that, like our breath, the body can only exist in the present moment was a particularly challenging concept for me when my body holds such strong associations with my past. However, I did manage to acknowledge that I am more than just a brain floating in space. That my body is incredible at keeping me alive, active and able do yoga!

“What’s not wrong?” (Thich Nhat Hanh). The final week of the course focused on noticing the positive. Laura introduced us to the idea that humans tend to have a negativity bias. She encouraged us not to ignore our negative experiences but to try to notice our positive (and or neutral) experiences more regularly. In our physical practices Laura invited us to be conscious of the pleasant sensations in our bodies. Just like the other practices in the course, the idea is that with repetition we can build more positive neural pathways – neurons that fire together, wire together.

Home practice. By the end of the 6 week course Laura left us with a toolbox full of practices. This included a range of breathing, physical, meditation and relaxation practices all of which we had been introduced to us as a group before taking them away to practice at home. We also have a WhatsApp group for the course participants in which we can share our experiences of home practice. With the encouragement of Laura and the other members of the course I have now developed a home practice which I am hoping to stick to. Christmas and New Year are coming up and many of my regular activities will be taking a break for the holidays, so it is very comforting to think that I can return to the steadiness of my home practice over this period.

Overall I have found the second half of the course to be more challenging than the first, but not in a negative sense. The second half of the course has invited me to notice and gently challenge my inner critic, my negativity bias and my tendency to live in my mind and not in my body. It has encouraged me to gently introduce more love, kindness, positivity and sensitivity into my life.

I feel very fortunate to have been one of the lucky few to participate in this course. I will miss the weekly sessions but I leave with new perspectives and a wealth of tools to incorporate into my new home practice. I can’t thank Laura, ECY or HiM enough for this wonderful experience. I really hope that they are able to run the course again in future and that more people will find it as beneficial and uplifting as I have.

This is me, I am here. I am enough.