Yoga: What I've Learnt
I figured something out in January, there was one common denominator for all the periods of my life where I felt happiest - yoga. The other part of my epiphany was that my life isn't worth living without regular yoga. This might sound shocking to you, but for all the times that I've missed out on an expensive class or saved money on rent for a smaller room that couldn't fit a mat I'd inadvertently screwed myself over. You see, yoga has consistently been there at times where I couldn't cope with life. So, next time you see me with my mat slung over my shoulder on my way to pay £20 for an hour session I promise you I will not feel guilty.
Let's back-track a bit to when yoga first became a part of my life. I was 13 when I started attending yog-ilates classes on a Monday afternoon at school. My mom had recommended I give it a go after all the benefits she'd seen, so I would quite literally run from my hockey training and squeeze into the corner of the room 5 minutes after the instructor had started. Instantly, I could feel the benefits. I'd leave the classes without a care in the world, I was nicer to my friends and I found sleeping was no longer a problem. Cravings for more stretching started early on and it wasn't long before I was jumping up and down in lululemon begging my mom to shell out $80 for a top-of-the-range violet mat.
YouTube was my best friend in the early days - and continues to be - but this was 2009 and yogis with channels was severely limited. Tara Stiles quickly became my favourite, but looking back at her older videos now I don't know how I coped with the poor sound and visual quality! What I've realised since is that those 30 minute sessions on the floor of my bedroom, where I'd wedge a chair under the handle so as not to be disturbed, were way more than weight loss orientated. The repetition and focusing on my breathing became the closest to effective therapy I'd ever felt. My strength, better metabolism and flexibility were all merely a happy by-product.
For two years I was carving out time to get on my mat at least once a week and when I'd go back to Canada for the holidays mom and I would bond over our hot moksha sessions. I loved the community, the endorphins and for a long time yoga was the only part of my life where I felt truly happy. Coming out of a class repeating the mantras allowed me for a couple of hours at least to get in touch with my inner child that I was too often beating back into submission in my daily life.
Unfortunately, external pressure got the best of me and with the onset of GCSEs I declared I no longer had time for yoga. Instead, all time must be spent revising, frantically researching university opportunities or vegging out by illegally streaming Vampire Diaries. In reality, of course I had time for yoga but as I became increasingly critical of the 'indulgent' parts of my life all the extras that actually made life worth living were scraped out of my schedule. What I didn't know at the time was all the dreams I had for my future were cultivated from the self love I'd been practicing with yoga.
If you've never really gotten into it or don't really understand yoga I'd like to break down how it's impacted my life. As someone who suffered with severe anxiety and depression for many years, studies have shown that yoga can relieve symptoms dramatically by changing the neurochemistry of the brain. What this meant in practice was that during the time I moved my body and for a couple hours afterwards I was running on a high of self-satisfaction. All my worries about exam marks, my physical appearance and feeling left out of friendship groups melted away. Deep breathing and moving meditation became a crutch of healthy habits. Before I'd turned to binge eating, binge watching series or crying when I felt crap - finally teenage Sam had a positive way to discharge all her feelings of discomfort.
From giving up a regular practice from 16 - 19 years old I entered into one of the darkest periods of my life mental health wise. Undeniably, there were other factors at play but not leaning on my yoga for release plunged me into an identity crisis. When I finally took yoga back up on my mom's recommendation before starting university I instantly started loving life again. In fact, for four months I practiced yoga most days and got a hot yoga membership at the local studio. I'd forgotten how good it feels to take time just for me. Just to look after my mind and body and clear my mind of the incessant criticism and pressure dialogues that spun around. You're not good enough. You'll never feel happy again. Why can't you just be like everyone else? Were substituted with silence.
Stupidly, when freshers kicked off I let my practice fall at the wayside once again. A combination of not wanting to pay for a new membership and distractions of falling in love meant that yoga was side-lined. I don't think I truly understood at this point how crucial yoga had become to my sense of self-worth and general well-being. What followed was another two years of stress, depression and feeling unable to cope with all the crap that was thrown at me starting university. Old crutches came back like binge eating and tv, coupled with new tactics like drinking to excess and causing arguments with my boyfriend. Looking back it felt like an out-of-body experience, I've never gotten so far away who I really am.
The irony is that my mom and even my boyfriend could see how much the sporadic yoga I was doing helped me. Both of them would plead with me to attend classes more regularly, regardless of the price, or get up early to squeeze in time for stretches. But, I pushed away their suggestions as them trying to control my physical appearance. That's the tricky part about yoga, for most of my life my primary motivation focused around losing weight and so yoga became tied to my self image. But, really underlying all that body dysmorphia baggage was a subconscious knowledge of the mental benefits I was receiving.
Flash-forward to January of 2018, I was exhausted from 2017 and all the emotional pain I'd been dragging around for years. When I decided I wanted to take steps to turn my life around for the better regular yoga was at the top of my resolutions list. Signing up for Yoga with Adriene's 30 day challenge was all the incentive I needed. January was one of the best months I've had in awhile and through therapy it started to click that the common denominator for the moments of happiness in my life has always been yoga.
Today marks three months of doing yoga daily (I've missed 5 days total) and I can honestly say I'm in one of the best places I've ever been. I'm not the skinniest or strongest I've ever been. My life isn't the most fulfilled it's ever been. I'm not eating the healthiest I've ever been. I've even experienced a significant amount of pain over the last few months. But, starting my day with 30 minutes of yoga or ending it with some light stretching has made me feel like life is manageable. I'm doing crazy things like smiling for no reason in public places, I love looking in the mirror now and I'm choosing outfits that are more revealing than I used to feel comfortable with. Finally, I feel like loving myself and life is easier - I know that yoga has a major part to play in this.
Walking to my expensive yoga class on a Sunday afternoon not one part of me starts to worry about the cost or 'wasting' money because investing in my mind is the most powerful gift I can give myself. My happiness and mental health is worth bankrupting myself over. Life isn't worth living without treasuring my body. Life isn't worth living without spending generously with time and money on self love. I want to cry for all the time I've spent fighting myself when I'd unlocked the key to happiness when I was 13.
If you've done yoga for years or you've never even sat on a mat - please today give it a try. Below are three 15 minute sessions you can try on a towel on a floor anywhere in the world. What do you have to lose? The only risk is postponing the inevitable self love that can ensue. Please do not be discouraged if your body, mind or breath struggles to acclimatise at first. The biggest principle I've taken away from yoga is self-acceptance. So, have fun, build your triceps and cultivate radical self love with me - I believe in you.
BTW, I still use the same mat my mom gifted me 9 years ago - talk about value for money!
All my love, Sam