Note: Apologies upfront for any insensitive or judgemental attitudes I detail about the practice of yoga – they are intended to reflect my true thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences at the time.
If you’ve ever met me in person, you’ll notice I’m always dressed in yoga pants. I’ve often been asked if I’m on my way to a yoga class, but my choice of attire was purely down to the flexibility of the waistband and not because I was on my way to stretch it out at a yoga class.
Despite my affinity with yoga pants, that’s really where my relationship with yoga ended. The only Yogi I knew of is a bear, and the only manifesting I’d done was aspiring to the Mad Men archetype in the drinking and smoking department.
If I’m completely honest, I thought of the yoga scene as being for either hippies in search of spiritual enlightenment or hipsters in need of something to do after brunch. I didn’t fit into either tribe but I do like brunch.
Yet, as someone who suffers from OCD, doctors have been recommending yoga and meditation to me for years. Of course, I didn’t heed their advice (see above for judgemental opinions on yoga). But I did flirt with Yoga. Thanks to my reluctance to raise my heartbeat to anything above 100 and the impression that yoga is all slow relaxed poses – I thought it would be a fine way to shift my daily takeaway excess without having to break a sweat. I’d sign up for a midday class where the teacher would quickly jump into routines that I’d struggle to keep pace with. Maybe they’d sound a gong at the end of class that made me think this must be “authentic” yoga. The only real enjoyment I found was quietly smirking to myself when someone in the class toppled over (yes, I’m going to hell). Unsurprisingly, the two hours of yoga practice per month didn’t do anything for my waistline or brain.
So how did yoga end up changing my life? Well, this story starts during a very dark period of my life. I’d reached breaking point. Years of oscillating in a downward spiral of mental health issues, negative behaviors that seemed impossible to escape, and the damage those things did to those I love. I felt broken, guilty, shameful and hopeless. Sure I’d have good days and make promises to make changes in my life (starting tomorrow) but would quickly fall back into my old ways. It was ultimatum time and as any respectable lost soul would do, I booked a flight to Thailand in search of answers.
Externally I’d billed the trip as an opportunity for me to think about my life, what I wanted and how I would solve my problems. In reality, I didn’t have any expectations that would happen. Deep down, I saw it as an opportunity to buy myself a month to avoid all of the issues in my life. I spent the first 2 weeks of my trip trying to avoid thinking about anything and everything. I focused on work. I filled any downtime by playing audiobooks until I fell asleep to ensure my brain wouldn’t, even for a moment, be tempted to think about any of the hard stuff. I thought everything was insurmountable. I cried a lot. I quit my job.
Now at this point, I’d already booked a few days off from work, and on a whim, I decided to travel to Koh Yao Noi for four nights at Island Yoga retreat. Lucky for me, I already had the pants. On arrival, I was still in avoidance mode. I told the receptionist that my boat ride had been a bumpy one so I would skip the first class.
But then, gradually over the next 4 days, things started to change.
Spoiler alert: those four short days changed my life. After years of being stuck in a rut, I was able to start to break down my negative mindset, I had a lot of realizations about my thinking patterns and behaviors, identified what I needed and what needed to change. I learned A LOT about myself and quickly saw that I’d really underestimated what yoga was all about. Since my trip, my demeanor and outlook on life has changed. I feel more happy and content than I have in years and capable of surmounting the challenges in my life. I haven’t stopped smiling and I’m walking taller (thanks, yoga).
OK, I don’t personally have empirical evidence that “yoga changed my life” but I’d expect that if you Google the latest research on the benefits you’ll find support for my subjective experience. If you are a disbelieving sort (like I was) thinking I’m writing this as a hype piece for click bait, here’s an example of how things changed for me. Before I went to the yoga retreat I’d tried to hire a scooter. Despite having a driving license and having ridden a scooter around northern Thailand, I was so nervous and thought so little of myself, and my abilities every word out of my mouth was about how bad a driver I was, how I was effectively unskilled, and a bad person. In what I suspect was a first in Thai history, I was refused bike rental. I walked away deflated and feeling like a failure.
After my retreat, I went straight over to a (different) bike shop and rented a scooter. There was still a little bit of negative talk about myself but I caught it. I hired the bike and drove myself to a yoga class and back that evening. Who even am I?
A (somewhat) more objective measurement is that in the two years of wearing a Fitbit I have never achieved the “excellent” sleep score. But I did for the first time during my yoga retreat.
What follows is a summary of what I took away from the experience and how it helped me. Most of which I doubt I would have arrived at so quickly without the immeasurable skill, compassion, knowledge, and talent that is Francie Fishman–yoga extraordinaire.
I hope the below might help you. No, you don’t need to travel to Thailand to achieve the same results, but there’s some good guidance below on what’s important if you want to use yoga to help you mentally and physically. While it isn’t a silver bullet that will suddenly fix all your problems, you can use the practices of yoga and meditation to give yourself ideas, self-reflection, and tools to face your challenges. Here’s what I learned.
1. Yoga is way more than just moving around on a mat
A 5000+ year history and philosophy surrounds yoga and it forms part of Buddhist, Jainism, and Hindu spiritual practices. A topic on which I am not informed enough to write, but is crucial to acknowledge. While I’m not saying I connected with a religious or spiritual side of yoga, I started to learn about the purpose and broad activities that make up the practice of yoga. I learned about the reason behind different movements and postures, their impact on the body and mind, the different styles of yoga, the importance of regular practice, breathing exercises, music, self-reflection, guided meditation, and mantras. Yoga is definitely more than just a good use of Classpass credits or to show off your latest Lululemon outfit.
Yet, I’d never experienced these aspects of yoga. I’ve since come to the realization that to fully practice yoga and reap the physical AND mental benefits, you need to combine all these elements together. The classes I attended had a theme or focus, they started with meditation and discussions, they involved mantras, music, and breathwork. Not just moving about on a mat.
The mantras, discussions, and positive affirmations were elements I was dreading more than the persistent worry I’d audibly fart during a particularly strenuous pose. But once I engaged in what I would previously condone as “a bit wanky”, the experience changed my perspective.
I’ve been known to mock the proliferation of positivity posters, and while I’m not about to run out to buy a “live, laugh, love” wall decal, repeating positive affirmations made me reflect on my current state of mind and attitude towards myself. While there’s a certain amount of fake-it-till-you-make-it, in terms of truly believing “I am worthy, I am loved”, it led me to realize that ALL I thought and said was negative. People would ask me, “What do you do for a living”. My response? “Oh well, I’m a COO, but it’s not as impressive as it sounds. It’s not at a big company, I kind of fell into the role, I’m just winging it.” There was not a single statement I said that I didn’t caveat with something negative. My husband had on occasions over the years, overheard me speaking to work colleagues and commented on me being too self-deprecating. But I genuinely thought of myself as a confident person, not a Debbie Downer, and the self-deprecation I did indulge in was endearing and displayed humility. I was very wrong on this. I greatly underestimated the impact it had on myself and the perceptions others held about me. It’s also very hard to be around someone 24/7 that only sees the negatives in life.
While in-class mantras and affirmations helped me practice saying positive things, it was before I even stepped foot into the shala that I had the realization. My first memory of meeting my yoga teacher Francie was one discomfort. She kept changing and then repeating what I was telling her? Within 20 minutes I started to twig. Francie was reframing what I was telling her about myself and life in a positive way. I liked how it sounded. It was like a light switching on in my brain, I became instantly aware of just how negatively I was thinking and talking. Break-through number one.
Francie also taught me about non-violent communication developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. It’s an area I’m just starting to delve into and it’s about more than just the words we use but the part that resonated with me is around how I use words that induce guilt, shame, blame, etc.
2. Find a teacher you resonate with
If, like me, you want to practice yoga for more than just physical benefits, you’ll need to find a teacher that goes beyond the “yoga as exercise” mentality purveyed by most high-street gym chains. It turned out to be super important for me to find a yoga teacher that resonated with me.
There were also things that Francie did in her sessions that I hadn’t experienced in any other yoga classes and therefore didn’t realize I needed them until I knew they existed and understood the difference they make. Here are a few:
- A teacher who not only makes adjustments to help you get into the right postures but asks for permission at the start of class. I had another teacher who didn’t ask but was coming around, moving people’s legs and heads, and I just laid there worrying about what I’d say to stop him. I felt stupid for thinking like this, but in reality, it’s a genuine concern, and asking for permission made the experience one where I didn’t have to break my concentration or panic.
- Themes. Maybe it’s my love of order or musicals? But I love a theme or a story. Francie focused each session on a specific topic and the movements, mantras, music, and meditation centered around that. It helped me focus. One session was around the lotus, which has a deep significance in religious teaching. The focus of our practice was on how the lotus plant grows from within the mud layer. The seed then emerges and blooms on the surface. Believe me when I say I’m not one for metaphors, but this really resonated with me. So much so I got some new ink in Bangkok.
3. Yoga helps you answer your own questions
I like to think I’m a very scientific person, a factual problem solver. In the past, I’d sort out therapists with the longest string of letters after their name thinking this would correlate to their ability to solve my problems. I looked for external explanations to my problems, asking questions about what could be wrong with chemicals or neurotransmitters in my brain. Which medication should I try? With the belief that such answers (that don’t necessarily exist in our current scientific understanding) would relieve me of the anxiety I felt during routine everyday tasks. I would usually end engagements after a few sessions feeling like they weren’t actionable or working for me.
But yoga: the self-reflection, meditation, discussions, and people in the community helped ME come up with my own answers. I was able to reframe the questions, move past the blockers stopping me from moving forward and think through actionable plans for the next steps. All things I’d never been able to get out of therapy because I was too focused on the wrong questions to start with.
Another consequence of my previous mindset/personality was that I would actively avoid any sort of discomfort. This led to a lot of issues. The practice of Yin yoga–where you stay in poses for up to 5 minutes at a time was a literal test of perseverance, one which helped me to practice the feeling of staying in a place of discomfort rather than backing out.
Being an expat in Singapore I’m disconnected from old friends back home and not fully integrated into life in Singapore. It’s not something I fully realized until the yoga retreat, but I lacked a fully rounded community in Singapore and the spectrum of friendships and partnerships you develop over time. Don’t get me wrong I have made several very close friendships that I hold dearly in my new home but still lack some of the wider networks that a full community brings. While at the yoga retreat, I met people from all walks of life, from different countries, with their families or alone, at different life stages but we all shared a (new to me) commonality around the practice of yoga. Not just that but it was a non-judgmental, kind, and supportive community. Not a “What’s your role and earning like?” kind of expat one-upmanship. It was something I felt so deeply in love with but didn’t realize I was lacking until I felt it. Covid and lockdowns in Singapore have been pretty severe and as a result, the ability to meet other people and interact has been limited. But humans NEED social interaction. My avoidance of difficult situations combined with a lack of a broad community means I’d bottle up everything until it burst out during a night out. Not healthy. I feel, despite all my previous protestations, that I do have a place in the community around yoga.
5. Regular practice
The final point of importance is that, like with anything in life, you can’t practice yoga once, and that’s it. You need to practice regularly. While at the retreat I practiced yoga for 1.5 hours in the morning and evening. Since then, I’ve felt the benefits waning. It’s something that needs to be done daily or at least a few times per week. To kick start you (and to feel the immediate benefits), I do advocate a retreat – somewhere you can focus, practice regularly and understand the full potential yoga has to offer.
It’s a wrap
So that’s a summary of what I learned over 4 short days. It had a massive impact on my perception of myself, my behavior and thoughts, and the world around me. No, it’s not cured me of my mental health or personal issues, but it has set me up with the tools and practices to be able to work through them myself in a much better way. That is with continued practice. I really hope anyone reading this can find the same benefits I have.
If you’d like to benefit from Francie’s yoga teachings, you can sign up for her free yoga community with a load of free videos and yoga guidance or opt for her coaching sessions (which I’m continuing with) here.