Do What You Can Do Today: My Yogic Mental Health Toolkit

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The average stay at the crisis center where I teach yoga is 30 days, and since it’s an opt-in facility, there are no gates, searches or hospital gowns. When I go into my group meeting every Tuesday at 1:00, there are usually some familiar faces and some new patients.

There is also a broad range of mental illnesses ranging from suicidal depression to schizophrenia, OCD to psychosis. Group is a required part of the program and when many of them come in and hear they are about to practice yoga, the wall goes up.

So I start each class by saying, “Do what you can do today. If that’s just sitting still and listening, that counts. If you can do the breathing piece, even better. You still benefit from being in the room.”

The relief is palpable and more often than not, being in the room leads them to participate. That same reticent patient will likely put in even more effort at the next class. Some of the residents actually get really excited about the prospect of yoga because the results are empiric. That’s why it’s called yogic science; they see it for themselves.

I try to apply some of that spirit to my own practice. It’s hard with juggling a kid and multiple jobs and creative projects and my own mental resistance. Mornings are unusually accompanied by an internal groan, rather than a chipper “yay!”

But just asking myself, “what can I do today?” opens me up to more than doing nothing at all.

One of my teachers told me that when she was having a mental block against practicing, her teacher said, just roll out your mat everyday. Eventually, you’ll step onto it. She said just that act compelled the next act: breathing. Which compelled the next act: moving.

Yoga is no different than any other progression: there are days when nothing gets done. Acknowledging this lets my students apply what some teachers like to call, “imperfect action.” They are freed from the mental burden of having to perform. In a headspace where even the smallest demand feels unconquerable, and an environment where so much of their day is regimented, I give them permission to do whatever they can do.

Another thing that seems to help is giving my students tricks. I teach them easy poses, stretches, even awareness techniques that might come in handy during a bout of rage or extreme anxiety in a public place. I tell them why these actions help, what is going on in the brain, and it gives the smallest effort credibility.

I get anxious in public places on occasion, and I have bouts of rage too. In the moment, it can be difficult to think strategically, but that’s why we call it practice. With enough repetition, we can automate these tricks. Hopefully, we achieve the clarity to label them and activate the antidote. Or at least try.

Yoga is not a silver bullet. Meditation takes a certain amount of stillness and diligence that many of us, for whatever reason, don’t have. Sometimes it doesn’t work.

But to see these patients go from negative and lethargic to awake and relaxed in the course of 35 minutes, I’ll just say the practice continues to prove its worth. Just keep trying, and one of the valves will relieve the pressure.

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