The ancient art of yoga remains powerfully in tune with modern life, with everyone from stressed-out office workers to time-poor parents and life-long yogis finding sanctity on the mat.
However, for some, yoga hasn’t just been an occasional soul-soother but rather a complete game-changer on both a physical and mental level. Ahead of the Yoga in Healthcare Conference in London in February, we asked women to share their stories on yoga with us.
From a former nurse who endured years of poor mental health after a breakdown to a twentysomething who had all the material trappings of a successful life, but remained deeply unfulfilled, here are five very personal stories on how discovering and practicing yoga transformed their lives:
Ciara Brimfield, 34, from Winchester, Hampshire, has endured panic attacks and severe anxiety since her late teens. A short course in minded yoga ignited an ongoing passion and offered a ‘toolbox’ to deal with panic and stress. She is now studying yoga with the hope of teaching others…
I have practiced yoga and meditation on and off for years but in the past two years I have begun to really understand the value of my yoga practice and how it positively impacts my daily life.
Since the age of 18 I have suffered panic attacks and panic disorder, severe anxiety, and bouts of depression. I was on a lot of medication in recent years and started practicing yoga more regularly as a way to find some balance and calm within myself and my life.
A friend recommended I sign up for an eight-week minded yoga course and I can honestly say that it has changed my life. It’s given me the most incredible tools that I carry with me throughout my day-to-day life. It has encouraged me to look at how I deal with anxiety, stress and overwhelm in a new and positive way. But most importantly, it’s enabled me to reset and realign – and to really start a journey of yoga and meditation that will be with me throughout my life.
I am now medication-free for the first time in years. My ability to deal with the feelings of panic that often would leave me house-bound have come from pranayama and yogic breathing techniques.
I am studying a yoga immersion course to help me learn more about the history and philosophy of yoga, but I would love to teach people who have/do struggle with mental health issues.
I truly believe that if yoga was taught in schools, provided on the NHS as a form of treatment for anxiety and depression that there would be an overall reduction in people taking medication and people really getting to the heart of what causes them stress and unease. Yoga is by far the greatest gift we can give to our overall well-being and I want to learn more to be able to help others to find that too.
Former NHS mental health nurse Trudy-Louise, 46, from Suffolk suffered a breakdown and attempted suicide during a depressive episode. After trying yoga DVDs at home, her interest in yoga formed a fundamental part of her pathway to stronger mental health…
I first learnt yoga twenty years ago at an adult education class run by the local college. I was a weekly asana practitioner, initially, but not much else. My job then was as a NHS mental health nurse practitioner but a combination of personal circumstances, and burn out (due to lack of resources, and concern for patient welfare amidst falling standards of care) resulted in a serious depressive episode.
Following a serious attempt on my life I was hospitalised, sectioned and received an ever-increasing cocktail of medication and also a course of ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy).
I recognise that this intervention means I am still alive today, however for a long time it also left me unable to function as I had previously done. My short-term memory was appalling, I was lethargic/drowsy all the time, had no energy, little to no motivation, felt socially inadequate, and continued to experience suicidal ideas.
After seven years of treatment, I remained chronically ill and was desperate to be a functioning individual for my children. I started looking at my diet, converting to a more wholefood plant-based diet, and decided I needed to exercise. I did not feel able to do this in a gym scenario due to finances, poor self-esteem and motivation. It had to be something I could do at home.
I invested in some yoga DVDs and began practicing every day. The DVDs did not give the best alignment cues and were more vinyasa-style power yoga than I practice now, but they were littered with positive affirmations that trickled into my psyche… the wisdom of the tradition was embedded in the practices – asana, meditation and pranayama. It was a struggle to do an hour’s practice some days.
“Three years ago, I could not go to the local supermarket because it was overwhelming, now I travel into London from Norfolk regularly by myself…”
I eventually stopped the medication. I had been told by doctors I should remain on it for life but I had drug-resistant symptoms. I felt ill and desperate, had lost self-respect and confidence. I eventually stopped seeing the team responsible for my care; their answer to my desperation was almost always more drugs and for a number of reasons I have not put here I had no trust in the NHS to treat me anymore. It was this that led me to investigate other possibilities.
It is not a quick fix, it was hard work… but the results became evident to those close to me and I continued. After six months, I felt the best I had done in almost a decade. I have kept up regular practice and am now half way through my yoga teacher training with Triyoga in London.
Three years ago, I could not go to the local supermarket because it was overwhelming, now I travel into London from Norfolk regularly by myself. I still experience exhaustion; a handful of days each month I just have to rest, sometimes this means bed rest for a day or two.
Yoga has given me permission to begin to know and listen to my body and inner self, to accept myself and be myself. To be kinder to myself. I have enough energy and vitality to be active and to be involved in life again. My memory has improved (it is still not as it was prior to the breakdown but so much better). I sleep better, have motivation, a sense of self-worth.
I understand that other factors may be part of my recovery; yoga has most definitely been a huge factor in getting better and maintaining my health.
I hope in the future to work with others experiencing mental health issues and their carers to promote well-being, either in partnership with the NHS or charities such as Mind.
I have a wealth of experience from my professional years, and personal experience. Changing the narrative of how we work with illness has to be made a priority. I see there is a place for traditional medical treatments but feel they are not the whole picture and in some instances, including my own experience, become detrimental.
Jen Wilson, 39, from Glasgow was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in March 2017. Making yoga an integral part of her healing, alongside medication, left her well enough to ask her doctor if she could go medicine-free earlier this year…
For years, I had always heard that yoga changed people’s lives and for years I would go along to classes every now and again but not understand; as far as I could see I had just done a fitness class.
Then I met my now-teacher Mark and started to understand that there was more to this than just physical fitness.
In March 2017, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and the day I was diagnosed I just knew that I needed to deepen my yoga practice and bring more of its teachings in to my life. It was my intuition shouting at me that this was the path I had to go on.
As the internet does, it had listened in to my conversations and I started to see yoga schools advertising their teacher training, so I started to do my own research in to which one I would go with.
I spoke to a couple of different places but didn’t feel totally connected so I asked my teacher Mark and he said he was going to be doing training. My decision was made there and then that I would do my learning with him.
I started that training in August 2017. In the time inbetween, I had been spending hours of time reading, researching and learning about this new circumstance I had found myself in and ayurveda seemed to be something that was catching my attention to help me heal. I started reading more about that and doing a few online courses, listening to podcasts and it all just felt like it made sense.
For me putting yoga and ayurveda together was the perfect combination to help me really listen to my body and respond to what it was telling me.
The prognosis I got at the hospital was pretty grim, potentially a lifetime of medications that would suppress my immune system, if they didn’t work then it would be surgery to remove my colon; neither of those prospects appealed to me. I knew that I needed to make a start on the medication because I was so unwell, and I needed a base to allow my body to start to heal.
It did take months, but I believe the combination of yoga and some of the most basic ayurveda practices helped heal me faster. When I had follow-up appointments at the hospital, the consultant was really pleased how quickly I was responding and in just eight months he was telling me I appeared to be in full clinical remission, and they would need to do another colonoscopy and MRI to see exactly what inside looked like.
I negotiated with him that if the scans were clear that I wanted to come off my medication to see what would happen. He was nervous about it because I had presented with such severe symptoms not that long ago. The results of the tests showed that all the ulcers had healed, and there was only a tiny bit of inflammation at my tail end which was to be expected due to the severity of my condition. He was happy though to try me off the medication.
“When I had follow-up appointments at the hospital, the consultant was really pleased how quickly I was responding and in just eight months he was telling me I was in full clinical remission…”
The last time I had to get an infusion was 5th March 2018, I have had a follow-up stool test just one month ago and my inflammation markers are still less than 30 (they had been 1800+ at the peak of my illness). I am symptom-free, medicine-free and feel better than I have in years.
Yoga has really helped me ground myself and listen to my body, mind and soul. Before I loved my job (fitness instructor teaching about 20 hours of exercise a week, mostly high intensity).
I was ‘busy’ and on the go all the time; I never took a day off, I slept about four hours a night and would get agitated if I had nothing to do. Meditation was something I thought about doing but never actually got round to doing it. Slowing down wasn’t something I wanted or thought I needed to do.
Since doing my yoga course, I am continuing to learn from as many teachers as I can, I am reading, learning, and now sharing with others. I have started running a few workshops and now have set up a few classes in my home studio. I have had a few people with chronic conditions recently reach out to me and I am going to be helping them as best I can.
I truly believe that yoga is a way of life and I am doing my best to embody that each day.
Bérénice Mertens, 26, is originally from France but now living in London. An eating disorder and running addiction plagued her late teens and early twenties. Here, she explains how two months doing yoga in India saw a complete shift in her thinking…
I used to hate yoga. I was a runner. No way I would go into downward facing dog on a yoga mat one day. That was not for me!
This was three years ago when I lived in Stockholm. At that time, I’d just graduated and started my first job in a software company. I thought I lived ‘the life’: young, pretty, smart, athletic, having the right job, the friends, the partying and social life, the flat. Everything anyone would dream of at 24. Except that I was surviving ‘the life’. I felt empty.
It seemed that something was missing deep inside. Sometimes I would have ‘wake-up calls’. Probably my intuition telling me that I was not aligned, and that life had so much more to offer.
These wake-up calls got mostly materialized with disordered eating behaviours such as restricting, bingeing, purging, overeating and over-exercising to compensate. Behaviours I started to develop when I was a teenager and that showed up whenever something was wrong. Behaviours that I started to use to cope when life, people, situations were unmanageable.
I turned 25 and I felt at my lowest. I knew that my running addiction was one big cloud hiding the shining sun. So, I decided to stop running. And I was looking for a more mindful way to exercise. I went to my first yoga class at my gym club. It was entitled ‘mediyoga’.
I had no idea what it was about… and that I would have to sit down in silence listening to my breath for an hour and a half. I hated it and told myself I would never set foot in a yoga class again.
Except that I kept coming back. There was an inexplicable ‘something’ that happened whenever I would go. I ended up crying on the yoga mat a couple of times. And it was one of the first times in years when I let go. I was reconnecting with my body that I had kept at a distance for so many years.
I was also facing strong resistance at times. Hating to go, I would turn back home and binge instead of going to yoga. And from experience I’ve learnt that the more you resist something, the more you need it. Thus, I went, more and more.
When my company went bankrupt, sadly, it was the sign I was waiting for. I sold all my belongings, said goodbye to five years in Sweden, packed my backpack and left for India.
I got certified after my 200 hours’ yoga teacher training course in Rishikesh. I was supposed to stay two months, I stayed five and got other certifications. I came back to Europe. I started to teach in France. There was nothing else than yoga in my mind: spreading its wisdom, sharing its benefits with as many people as possible.
I am 100 per cent convinced of the incredible impacts of yoga on the overall well-being. It worked for me. It healed my eating disorders, my bad relationship with my body, my perfectionism and rigidity, my anxiety, negativity, extreme introversion and so much more.
Yoga is my daily happy pill I like to say.
Originally from Spain but living in the UK for the last 12 years, Iberia Ortiz, 42, was involved in a car crash four years ago that left her confined to her bed for four months. Here, she talks about how her love for yoga – which she first started in her early twenties – has helped her rehabilitation…
I had a very severe car crash about four years ago at the age of 38. My body was essentially shattered with a broken left leg, right shoulder and multiple other injuries.
After being in hospital for a month, I was forced to stay in bed for a further three months before beginning rehabilitation. The road back to health has been long and hard, with infections and I had post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including flashbacks, panic attacks and memory loss.
I first tried yoga when I was in my early twenties and quickly found a passion for it, practicing all the time with teachers or at home. When I had the accident, after months of endless hospital appointments I knew that I needed more and decided to take matters into my own hands.
I started with chair yoga, then supine movements on the floor or bed and eventually sun salutations. I was encouraged by my practitioners to do the 200 hours of yoga teacher training and eventually I also took other courses in qi-gong and tai-chi.
After months of practice and noticing a significant improvement in my mobility and well-being, my health started gradually improving; my breathing went from shallow to deep and my confidence started to shine.
It dawned on me that I wanted to use it to support others; I felt a strong desire to reach out to those recovering from injuries and trauma – I know what they’ve been through.
I had to trust the process and let myself go; there have been many tears and I’ve been overwhelmed at times over the past four years. It’s helped me develop a genuine intuition – the practice of yoga – including asana, meditation, pranayama – promotes it.
I have been assisting for the last two months at a yoga class four times a week. And 80 per cent of my students come with injuries or chronic health problems.
It’s satisfying to help them and I now fear nothing. Having looked death in the face, I realise I have nothing to lose. My focus is enjoying life, being the best person I can be and being the best teacher I can be.
Yoga is detachment, detachment from the physical body and material world, sitting at ease in any pose, allowing the breath to become pure and settled. Yoga is a way to connect breathing with the body; a practice that sounds so simple but is full of challenges.
I believe yoga needs to be experienced first hand, not just talked about. In my opinion, yoga remains deeply personal to each person, it is the intention you come with to the mat and so the intention you come with from the place of faith. That is what makes it beautiful.