“And now we will inhale, and as you exhale, move forward to Down Dog.”
The voice of the yoga instructor was an octave too high and the cantation style tone of her voice was almost painful as she chirped her way through this short session of televised yoga. As I shifted my hips into the air and positioning my head towards the floor, I grumbled and felt put out by her requests.
My therapist had suggested that I try new routines for when I started to feel a downswing from mania or my hypomanic normal state into a depression. Sitting in his office I had a notebook in my lap and a cheap pen and scribbled down the ideas he had rambled off to me. Breathing exercises, EFT, Meditation, Coloring Books, so far they either didn’t have the desired effects or just simply felt too insane to try a second time. That brought me to this moment, the blood from my spine rushing towards my forehead, leaving me feeling red-faced and not helping add to the annoyance I was feeling.
Yoga was supposed to be easy. It was supposed to be something that anyone can do. As a popular tampon brand had advertised, it was for everyone and that there was no excuse not to do it. So with tampons in mind and a faux hope of becoming a crunchy yogi, I laid out a cheap yoga mat and pressed play.
Twenty minutes later, I was upset. My athletic shorts were bunched up around my buttcheeks, creating a very non-zen wedgie. My workout tank top was rising up my back and drooping down along my midsection, leaving me feeling very exposed. As I pressed my head against the mat, my messy bun became more of like a homeless chic style. The chirpy yogi on the television kept urging me to “breathe deeply” and “maintain your zen.” All I wanted to do was toss explicits out at her and take a nap.
A few days later, I decided to give it another shot. My list had been completed and just about everything had been tried. Breathing exercises did nothing to tame my brain, coloring books left me with scarred memories of my childhood and smudges of marker on the sides of my hands. EFT was interesting, but quite unpleasant as I was asked to tap my face, collarbones and own knees violently and chant affirmations to myself. I spent more time thinking “Even though I am - OW - Bipolar, and - OW, holy shit this is stupid, why am I doing this?!” I decided that the chirpy yogi wasn’t as bad as I thought.
This time, a different yogi appeared on the screen. She sat on her knees, her legs tucked up tightly underneath her. With big brown eyes and dark brown hair, she was makeupless and had a tight ponytail. “Hey Om-ies!” She said, her voice soft and quiet. “Before we get started, I want to talk to you today about where your brain can be in this program.” As she spoke about vibrations, meditations, peace and the harmony of the universe, she finally let out the secret of where my brain should be. “Your brain should be present. When you begin your practice, just check your senses. Your brain doesn’t want to wander when you focus on those senses.”
As I pulled my knee towards my shoulder and touched it to the mat, I inhaled. My mind had wandered to my upcoming doctor's appointments and I felt resentment and anxiety build up as I laid there. “Senses.” I whispered to myself, and closed my eyes to focus.
The smell of the plastic mat was the first sense I picked up on. It was stuffy and only slightly gross, but also comforting and I actually smiled as I realized it didn’t smell like sweat like I assumed it did. I inhaled again, focusing on filling my lungs with air. I felt the stretch and the strain my body weight put on my fingers and palms as I moved, sticking my butt into the air and holding my legs straight. It felt good, a release of an unknown tension I had held in my body.
‘Holy shit, is this actually working?’ I thought to myself as I shifted into the next pose.
It was. It was actually working.
Yoga became a family practice after my husband and I read Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier. The book was more about meditation, but after that audiobook and some articles about how yoga helps children learn how to focus and be mindful, we decided to go all in on it. We’d lay out our mats in the living room and make up power poses, quiet meditation music playing from Pandora off of one of our phones. It was corny. It was cliche. And it was totally wonderful.
Because for that moment, for those few moments a day, we’d be mindful, and present, and deep within our senses. And it was where my mind needed to be to reset.
And that reset made all the difference.
I’m not saying that yoga would work for everyone. I wasn’t even sure it would work for me. But what does work for just about everyone is mindfulness. Being present. Finding a practice that takes five to ten minutes a day and challenges your mind to leave your anxiety, stresses and worries at the door and allows you to be mindful and present and live for a moment. When you live with a mental illness feeling alive takes a bit more work, but when you do feel alive...oh my god, it is beautiful.
And I would hope that everyone would take a few minutes to try to find the beauty.