As a yoga teacher in Essex I’ve long known the benefits of yoga and meditation on our mental health. So, you can imagine my excitement when invited to the Yoga & The Brain Conference at UCL, London. Scientists, Drs, psychiatrists, medical as well as yoga practitioners, from around the world have been conducting extensive research and experiments on the effects of yoga on our mental health and this was our chance to hear the results. And wow what results; blew my mind actually. And what I loved the most is that it proved what yogis have been saying for years. But we love a bit of science in the West right? We love to prove things.
First, let me give you an idea of the need. Depression, stress and anxiety are positioned as the THIRD biggest global burden. Get that!!! Simply, this is the cost of all of those suffering with any mental health issue from generalised anxiety and depression to OCD and phobias. Think about it; this is a HUGE problem, which costs the world billions in medication, time off work and treatment. Plus the findings show that it’s only set to increase. Anti depressants and anti anxiety drugs just aren’t fixing it. Additionally, if we estimate that 1 in 4 people in the UK alone – that’s 25% of our population or around 16 million people (and that’s only the reported stats, what about all those who don’t even know they are depressed/anxious?). On top of this, the results show that people suffering like this are more likely to struggle with physical illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer and such like. For want of a better word; pretty depressing huh? But my friends there is an answer and now the science proves it – practice meditation and yoga.
The first thing they found is that it’s all about the breath man! Many statistics were shown indicating that as much as ONE THIRD of the population have an “over driven, catabolic metabolism,” and this can be attributed to the fact that they “over breath” every day (e.g. short fast breathing, many up to 20 breaths a minute). What we don’t realise is how damaging this is for our health – it can mean the body stays permanently in a fight, flight or freeze state, which means the rest of our system quite frankly shuts down, such as our immune system, or our digestive system – this amounts to no end of problems. Our bodies can’t get the oxygen they need and are left full of carbon dioxide. So, it makes sense that stressed/anxious or simply overly busy people get sick. Therefore, if all a yoga teacher does is teach you how to breath SLOWLY, into the belly without tension (ideally a count of 6 in, 6 out) you are well on your way to becoming a healthy, happy person. It’s this long, slow breathing that’s key – ultimately aiming for 5 breaths per minute. Interestingly for yogis, what most of the speakers got excited about was the influence of yoga’s UJAYI breath (where we constrict the throat), specifically on the exhale. What their experiments proved is that this breath stimulates the VAGUS nerve. This is the nerve that stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system and puts us into a “total health” / relaxed state (the optimum state for us to be healthy and happy). Much time was devoted to the holy grail that is the vagus nerve and the many breathing techniques that affect it. This is also why yoga is so much better than just exercise; you aren’t getting the breathing that goes with yoga in exercise; equally look out for an experienced teacher also. Come & let us show you the way – the yoga way!
Namaste, Jess, Founder Wellbeing Yoga Brentwood Essex
Yoga has taught me to work on my judgemental mind. And I don’t say that lightly. I practice this daily and it’s not simple. A good friend/mentor of mine says “the human mind is a cesspit” – that makes me laugh but I get it. Watch your thoughts for just one hour and notice how judgemental you may be, notice if you do some of this: “ooh she’s fat, what the hell is he wearing? She shouldn’t be eating that; look at the state of her! She said this or he said that… And that’s about others; I haven’t even started on your inner voice: “Aaaargh I’ve put on weight, I’m getting old, I shouldn’t have said that; she’s prettier than me, I’m an idiot, I drank too much… it goes on and on. Give it a try.
Subconscious programming comes from day one; I believe we’ve been conditioned to make subjective judgements about every little thing. Think about how you get up as just one moment in your day; how you get out of bed, the style of your bed, type of mattress, pillow case material, your “trendy” throw, carpet underfoot, down to the toothbrush you use are all based on your value system and your judgement of what’s right in the world.
But who said what’s right? (And do you want to be right or be happy? Something I now live by). Have you ever examined where your judgements come from? How did you know that particular throw was the one to buy? And why does it all matter so bloody much in the first place? Can’t take any of it with you. And yet in our world it does matter… or so it seems.
Why do we think we have the right to judge others – and ourselves? Who gave us that right? I like the expression, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, as I believe that none of us have the right to judge others and none of us know what’s round the corner or how we might behave in different circumstances until we’re in them.
If we’re making judgements then it dictates we’ll look to things or others to validate them. I think material things have become our validators. How many of us if we really got honest with ourselves have equated our “worth” – our place in the world – by our job, the amount of money we have, the size of our house, the stuff in it, holidays we afford; what we look like (and that’s a whole “nother blog); or friends we aspire to. Attaining wealth is the holy grail. What we get paid for our identity.
Judgements are necessary, we are animal, we need them to survive and we judge in order to organise our place in the world. Yet I see a society now so dominated by the global powers I wonder how many of our judgements are in fact our own and how many are based on what’s been fed to us via advertising, magazines, internet, social media, TV, books or what our parents taught us, what a school teacher told us we could – or could not – be.
So how the hell do we really know WHO we are? What we really believe in or what’s right for us? Where is our own sense of “self”? I think most people don’t have a clue who they are and are journeying along the hamster wheel of life trying to work stuff out, awaiting retirement as some sort of nirvana. The truth is – and I’m sorry to be depressing – people ignore their health at the expense of building wealth then retire and suffer ill health throughout retirement reaching the end full of regret.
I’m determined not to live my life like that. I’ve made a pact to live it NOW.
I believe the image projected to us perpetuates a cruel & negative take on the world. Just look at women’s mags, so many adopt a harshly critical, cruel stance on women, with an airbrushed reality. Basing their sales on that sick, voyeuristic part of ourselves that dines out on looking at a celebrity’s wobbly bits, sending them to the guillotine (OH MY GOD!) for a fashion faux pas or looking older than two.
To judge others is encouraged – revered even – we’re being TAUGHT to do it, it’s a sport, an amusing past-time — are we surprised then when our daughter’s feel constantly insecure and teen eating disorders have increased by more than 50% in the last 10 years? (A shocking statistic in a recent Sunday Times article). Judging has become habitual behaviour. Apparently we have about 60,000 thoughts a day – so how would one feel if 90% of those thoughts are negative, critical and judgemental?
We all have a role to play, and I’m getting my accountability in the things I do and say. In Yoga this is karma – understanding that for every action, every decision there is a result. There is great power in that and we would do well to to understand it more.
I can judge up there with the best of them and I can be particularly hard on myself; but I’m learning it doesn’t help me one bit. Yoga has taught me to consistently review my judgemental mind and switch to a compassionate, forgiving state of being. Ahimsa – one of the Yamas and Niyamas – is a code us yogis follow – it’s about leading a life of non harming, non judgement – “non violence in thought, word and deed”. So we work on this as an ongoing process, right down to examining the food we eat. I’ve found it interesting as I have engaged less in gossip – which is slander if you think about it – and the result has sometimes been that I’ve been “left out” for behaving differently.
I know how it feels to be judged, we all do right? When I was 15 life was really tough for me and through that I lost friends who judged me; understandable we were teenagers but very painful for a young girl who knew nothing about the world. I take pains today to help anyone who I feel is being unfairly judged.
As the years have passed & the more I’ve followed the yogic path I’ve gravitated to the least judgemental, more accepting types – the live and let live people. Moving away from certain groups has meant I have been judged for these changes. In fact I’m not a conformist and that has consequences, but I won’t change that; it’s my father in me.
To be fair such values run deep, as a daughter of socialist parents who wanted to change the world in my small way I’m changing it too. My parents taught me not to be rude, not to be cruel, ignorant or judge people by their colour, creed or sexual orientation. I take pains today to get to know people, to understand them, to listen deeply when they tell me about themselves. To give them value.
Yoga reinforces this, it says we’re all one, no-one has more value than the other. Tony Robbins (look him up, you won’t be disappointed), says humans spend their time oscillating between feeling “less than” or “better than” others i.e. we either compare ourselves and believe we aren’t as good as someone or make ourselves feel superior by judging them. Yet this leaves us in a perpetual state of unrest; not a pleasant mental or emotional state to be in.
So I invite you to learn to live life with compassion. Practice every day being compassionate to others and to yourself instead of judging. Look out for your judgements, laugh at them, become the observer, be kind, be forgiving. If I’m angry with myself or another I often repeat this mantra: “forgive them lord they know not what they do”.
See how much richer your relationships are when you become more forgiving, see how you shift into a state of joy, love, contentment and even bliss when you step out of judgement and into “letting go”.
Deep down we all want to connect; we all want to feel connected, not separate – I believe it’s this separateness that’s the root of our unhappiness – compassion is the fastest route, to connect with your true self and to connect with others.
So take some time out of your day – every day – to sit, to breathe, to let go; maybe learn about the vastness of yoga. Take time to connect with your true self through stillness away from the opinions of the world (this is meditation) then get up and go and give someone you’ve judged a big heartfelt hug.
I walked past the newsagents this week.
I don’t usually look but the front page jumped out at me: “TOWIE’s Gemma Collins: “I’m saving my designer vagina for Mr Right”!
Underneath that was a photo of Chantelle – whoever she is – in a bikini – apparently she’s “overweight and (heaven forbid, lock up your daughters!) has CELLULITE”.
Next to that was Cheryl Cole’s diet secrets; then Jordan’s fruit-shake weight loss… and it went on… and on… this was just the front page.
For the blissfully ignorant among us, the designer vagina is where women get their vaginas tightened through surgery.
Maybe it’s because I’m in my 40s. Maybe it’s because I’m a mum of two, or that I’ve got body insecurities as much as the next woman. Or maybe it’s because I’m a yoga teacher that I find this increasingly worrying. I wanted to grab the mags and run out of the shop wailing hysterically: “What the **** is happening to us?”
I grew up in the 70s when there were only 3 TV channels; when something finished you had to wait. There were no mobile phones so if you were out, you were uncontactable. Nowhere near the profileration of magazines & sites out there now – all telling you how you’re supposed to be.
At school I was taught that my role models were nurses or teachers. I liked a few pop stars – had a crush on David Bowie – but that was about it – reality TV and social media were unheard of. And I still ended up with body issues; so I’m thinking how the heck do our teenagers feel now? What is it really like for our kids now? Those days seem blissful to me and I do realise I’m sounding like the older generation. I also know that I can be as seduced by this image-based airbrushed world out there with the best of them.
I’m trying not to judge as Yoga has taught me that non-judgement is a much happier place to be but I can’t help be saddened and I can’t help but be concerned. My 8-year-old daughter said to me the other day,
“Mummy, my legs are fat” – this makes me so sad.
Mental health issues among teenagers are at their highest levels; women are spending more now on plastic surgery than ever – is it any wonder if we are constantly bombarded with such images & fantasy?
I see a world of people continually craving to attain the unattainable; air-brushed images of stick thin girls with totally flat foreheads and massive lips. “Living dolls”, where girls literally try to look like Barbie, is the latest craze. And how young did that programming start?
One of the reasons I fell so in love with yoga is it’s a haven for me; a place of sanctuary from the outer world. A place where I learn that accepting myself as I am is a practice, where I learn to get away from the perception of oneself as a body, how to focus on gratitude for what I have instead of always looking for what I don’t, learning to live in the present, with compassion; taking time to rest, meditate, take off the mask, connect with what is; a higher power if you’re that way inclined… and so much more are all celebrated.
Where success is not measured by the size of your house but how kind you are – WOW what a concept? The Dalai Lama when asked what religion he was, replied “My religion is kindness”. My world becomes so much easier when I start my day with “who can I help?” instead of “what’s in it for me?”
Now I get to see how the western world filtrates through yoga – it’s bound to right? The Swamis (wise yogi masters) came over here in the 70s and we’ve taken it up in our droves – it’s a multi-million pound industry in the states. What does that say? Many things – one how miraculous it is that all these people are being shown a different way to lead their lives, it also says how many yoga mats, crazy leggings & OM jewellery has been sold – what’s winning I wonder?
I’m a teacher in the west, I grew up here; it’s what I know. I can’t help but work with what I know yet I have been practicing & teaching long enough to see what’s happening. Increasingly I see images of yoga teachers in stylised poses here and from the states, wearing very little (not wanting to sound like Barbara Woodhouse sorry) in asanas (postures) that at times seem to me more akin to gymnastics or dance.
I get that we need to celebrate our bodies, I get it if their practice includes one on a beach. I am the grand-daughter of a naturist so I’m all for freedom however there’s something behind some of these images that doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s the intention behind them that makes all the difference.
One of my team posts lots of pictures; I like them. There’s an inherent softness and love in them and a rationale to go with them that teaches what’s behind yoga giving you the benefits and the whys; I know she practices what she preaches and yes they are inspirational.
So, I’m asking the question, I’m undecided – how do we take yoga into a western world in ways that help us spread the true meaning of yoga but that doesn’t alienate people? How do we show that the goal of yoga is to give up the illusion that the outer stuff – the perfect body as an example – isn’t the route to happiness?
How do we find the balance between the “look at me” imagery versus look at what yoga can do. How many so called “yoga” images are sexualised & objectify women – or men? How long does it take for a woman to beat themselves up for the way they look when they see an image of a woman in a bikini on a beach doing a one-handed handstand (without cellulite of course – I refer back to an article in 2000 that it takes 0.1% of a second for a woman to feel bad about herself when turning the first page of a magazine).
Maybe they don’t, maybe they think “one day that could be me?” If certain photos get people to class and then they learn about all the other aspects then why should I worry? But I do, I do worry because I – we – as teachers are trying to blend an ancient Indian spiritual way of life into a capitalist world and we have a responsibility. I feel this responsibility.
Yet I do believe we do need to speak in a language that this world understands. And some pictures ‘say a thousand words”. One way is through social media, so I’m on it & it has wonderful benefits there’s so much information for us to share.
But I also see the down side of how it can propagate everything yoga seeks to get away from – a sneakily seductive world of images and followers and LIKES that can attract vulnerable people into gaining their sense of self from how many comments they get. Identifying yet again with external validation. If they like me then I’m OK.
How many people or teachers have set themselves up with the pressure of having to post photos; how many spend time making sure their outfits “look just right”; how many wait anxiously for the LIKES? How many miss the moment because they’re busy posting on Instagram?
And are we becoming attached to achieving “the look” of a pose? Yoga is supposed to be the opposite of an achievement-focused experience right? Yoga asks that you to learn to listen to your body, accept where you are, stay in the moment, work with the breath, see what opens, be loving to yourself.
Yoga explores the root of suffering as an attachment to the external, for example, to material things, a constant quest for more, an insatiable desire that once triggered is never filled. If we’re living in a body-obsessed world – I truly believe we are – how many pictures of yoga teachers perpetuate this? How many students never even come because of this?
One of the most common objections I hear is “I’m not flexible enough” – are we surprised if all they’re seeing is teachers in incredible poses. How many teachers can do all the asanas (postures) brilliantly but their heads are a complete mess?
If they come through the door for these reasons and find peace along the way then hallelujah – but you see the conundrum we face here?
There’s a reason they call us the spiritual warriors in the west – because we’re constantly bombarded with so many distractions and temptations – much harder to maintain a modicum of humility and spirituality here instead of atop a mountain. Yet I believe people don’t get that spiritual development is ultimately about forgiveness i.e. forgiveness of our humanity – how human and fallible we all are, how much we cock up – and that it’s really OK, it really is. As teachers we don’t have to “out spiritual” or “out asana” the other.
Wouldn’t it be great if we started to celebrate people as they are; the most of the nation – instead of Britain’s Got Talent what about Britain’s got Wobbly Bits (I jest but you get my drift), if “mum tums”, wrinkles and a range of sizes were upheld as beautiful and a sign of wisdom, difference and experience (Marilyn Monroe was a size 16 ladies). People can be healthy and still carry some weight – don’t we really fall in love with the glint in someone’s eye?
I’d love to see more images of teachers hugging a student at the end of class because that student was so moved by the practice. More of the real-ness of a teacher who some days just just doesn’t know when she’ll meditate when she’s dealing with her kid’s sick in her hair. More of the times when we haven’t slept & our bodies are weak, more of the student who’s done her first shoulderstand after years of chronic fatigue, more of the smile of a father who’s yoga helped end his battle with depression, more of the 79-year old’s first steps on the mat, and quite simply just more of real life, what really matters. Life as life really is.
That’s what I want, a celebration of reality – a clap for reality. People may not want to see real life but only because we keep celebrating the other. So let’s raise a cheer for real yoga for real people. Real life, moment to moment.
Namaste my friends (the light in me bows down to the light in you).