Have you ever felt scared to be in your own body? My story
For Mental Health Awareness Week, one of our yoga therapy trainees, Amanda Rowe, has offered to share her story about her psychotic episode and subsequent breakdown, how yoga supported her recovery, and how all the learning lead her to train as a yoga therapist...
Amanda says "I feel passionately that too much is covered up or unspoken within mental health. Consequently I promised myself that whenever I speak or write about my experiences they will be factual, truthful and never ever filtered and hopefully that will enable others to become 'real' and express themselves in a truly authentic way also".
Have you ever felt scared to be in your own body? I have daily. In the darkest moments, coma seemed like a welcome escape. Funny that I should later read that when patients are in a coma, their soul has temporarily departed, drifted to another plane, a nicer one maybe? Who knows? When I was unwell, I took solace in my writing. The piece that follows was written six months after my brief psychotic episode and subsequent breakdown. I have chosen to include it to give you a clear insight as to the mental and physical space I inhabited at that particular time of my life journey.
"And now the diary of a woman afraid to live, afraid to die, afraid of being alone, afraid of company, afraid of her own fight or flight reflex and the panic which my body has stored layer upon layer within each vertebrae of my spine, my neck and the frozen side of my head. Frozen with fear flashes repeatedly within my brain, illuminating the dark foggy aftermath of my breakdown" (2009)
My breakdown, the consequent stigma and the fear had closed down parts of me that I have struggled to access ever since. I had managed to heal mentally but was left with a body that did not feel connected or flowing anymore.
I remember my first yoga class on my journey to rehabilitation so clearly. The tears flowed like a never ending river, tears of grief, tears of pain, tears of relief even but mostly tears of fear. So much fear.
The right sided hemiplegic pain that I had intermittently been experiencing had felt like I was having a stroke. Intense pain on one side of my head which clawed above my ear and sent that side of my face into spasm. At times my speech was affected and pins and needles would cause my arm to feel numb. These symptoms understandably lay down the foundation for the now deeply ingrained fear of stroke. It wasn't until I entered that class and stepped onto my yoga mat that I realised how rigidly I had been holding myself and how afraid of my head I had become. Forward bends were a no no, inversions an impossibility and even twists were attempted with trepidation. The breath became my saviour. I found I was actually very good at ujjayi breathing sometimes known as ocean breath. Both the IN breath and the OUT breath were taken through the nostrils and I found it very balancing and calming breath. It helped me to stay present, self aware and grounded. It also gave me a good connection, an anchor even back to my body.
I have breathed myself through pain and fear and into calm and relaxation using just this breath ever since - so powerful to know what was not good for me, what worked and how finding something that ‘you’re good at’ can overcome fear so strongly. So not only offering breathing techniques, but finding what our clients ‘are good at’ has been a helpful insight in my yoga therapy training.
Alternate nostril breathing had been introduced to me a few weeks earlier by an Indian teacher who was actually giving me acupuncture to try to help with the migraines and the symptoms they cultivated for me. He said that my mind had been so busy, it was unable to switch off and that the pathways were overloaded. He showed me alternate nostril breathing as a way to calm and soothe my now frazzled brain. I used it as a holistic Diazepam if you will, in acute episodes of panic but also whenever I felt I just couldn't cope and my anxiety levels started to rise. Immediately my focus would be switched to the breath and once more a positive connection was made to my embodied self.
This became the start of my yoga path to holistic healing. Where my whole self would be welcomed and gently I could start to make sense of all the layers of trauma, grief, longing, shock, tightness, numbness and anger stored deep within my physical, emotional and etheric body. Each twisted memory, each knotted muscle, each frozen thought and the subsequent release of over exuberant adrenaline began to be sorted, sifted and filtered to enable the pointless war between fight and flight to be tamed and the true healing to begin.
We have the power to heal ourselves but as a society we are conditioned to hand that power over to others. Through my own experiences, I found if I could just slow down enough to listen to the messages and signals my body was giving me and then trust what it was that I did or didn't need in that present moment, I could indeed start to heal. Yoga and in particular pranayama gave me my holistic path back to self.
Sadly the scary alternative offered to me by the medical profession was in my opinion to 'lose' myself not find it. To heavily Medicate and numb all that my body had brought to the surface to be healed. I am glad I had the strength, courage and self belief to follow my inner yogi...
As this piece has hopefully demonstrated I feel I have great empathy and experience to offer people experiencing Mental Health problems. I have seen both sides of the coin I have worked in Mental Health and been a Mental Health in-patient also. I appreciate the unspoken suffering, the shame, the guilt and in some cases the neglect of the health professionals who are supposed to be looking after you. I realise that in some cases medication is definitely needed and some people benefit from the psychological effects of taking a tablet to be fixed. But I feel strongly that the current system doesn't accommodate individuals who recognise that they are unwell and need help to get to the root of the cause without being numbed out by medication. Even at the height of my illness whilst I was sectioned all I could think was 'there has to be a reason for this!'. It really did feel like one flew over the cuckoo's nest and I couldn't quite believe how horrifically people are treated and bullied to conform. The prescription seems to be 'let's make you nice and calm, manageable even and then let's send you home!'
Having previously been an Advocacy worker, I hope to work within Mental Health as a yoga therapist. I feel that yoga therapy could offer a safe place for individuals to be heard, seen and never ever judged. The reason is so clear now! Yoga therapy could offer a beautiful nourishing space to be held, witnessed and to take steps towards self healing. Through my yoga therapy training with Yoga United, I am finding this sensitive and intuitive approach to be an amazing way to do THIS - Here are a few ways to describe what 'this' means to me...
- Union...of physical and spiritual self
- Therapeutic integration.... Joining the dots of self, healing and discovery
- Inherent power... A chance to connect with all the resources you actually have inside yourself
- Soul voice work... A chance to listen deeply to all you never heard before
- An anchor back to the body... A chance to reconnect on all levels love this too!
If you would like to find out more about yoga therapy for your Self, or training to become a professional yoga therapist,
CONTACT JUDY HIRSH SAMPATH, the course director