Monday 10 October 2016 is World Mental Health Day #WMHD16. The World Health Organisation recognises this date every year as an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world.
Every day in our communities and workplaces, individuals will be experiencing personal crises. This may be losing a loved one, going through a stressful situation at work or experiencing a serious physical illness. There will be individuals who have experienced abuse and/or violence. All of these circumstances increase stress and the likelihood of developing mental health problems.
The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is psychological first aid. That’s the support people can provide to those in distress. Of course, many of us are already doing this in one way or another. However, each one of us may need to further build our confidence and knowledge of how best to do this with the people we are close to – our family, friends and colleagues.
And where can yoga fit into this picture? Well, for North East yoga teacher Shola Cochrane, yoga is right at the heart of her personal healing and journey. She grew up as the only mixed race child in a pit village in Co. Durham. Bullied and mistreated, she left school feeling isolated, withdrawn and with little self-confidence. She was suffering from depression and chronic anxiety when a friend introduced her to Buddhism, which was the catalyst of her journey toward the light of yoga. After lots of talking therapy, support and 15 years of yoga practice, she began her training to work in Mental Health.
The best antidepressant for me was yoga – it was my vehicle to self-discovery and change. Shola
At each stage, she only ever imagined she would stay at that level. She never had the confidence to believe she would progress further. She can still recall the typical but adverse effects of chronic anxiety – the sweaty palms, shallow breathing and the fight or flight response that is central to most depression and anxiety suffers. Standing in front of her peers merely stating her name at the beginning of her Counselling Degree triggered anxiety.
She still suffers from anxiety to some degree. She admits with a chuckle that her yoga teacher training actually gave her anxiety and stress. She never liked to be the centre of attention, so it was one of the most mentally challenging things she has ever done but one of the best. It gave her insight into why yoga works for her and now she enjoys passing that on to her students. She always believes in preparing an extensive outline for each class partly to support her in those moments when she is struck by a lack of confidence.
It really doesn’t show. Her class has a relaxed flow, each pose building on the pose before. Shola has a wonderfully calm and reassuring manner tinged with a hint of humour. Each class is different, full of surprises, enabling her students to let go of pre-empting and enjoy the moment. Shola has classes throughout the Durham area and between journeys, she uses this time to let go of anxiety and stresses by listening to relaxing music and enter into deliberate mindfulness. Then when she arrives at class, she is already prepared and in the right mindset.
Practising yoga herself is vital to keep Shola on the right track and she attends a weekly class delivered by one of her teacher trainers and also has a daily practice. She will never stand still. When she looks back over her shoulder, it’s a huge surprise to her that she has got to where she is today. And yet she is still hungry to learn, always looking for the next step. She’s fascinated by Somatics at the moment and is keen to attend further training on that.
Stepping onto my mat is always like coming home for me. It healed me and I want to help others heal and to experience the joy of yoga. Shola
Hence Joyful Yoga. That’s what Shola’s company is called. Yoga brought Shola moments of joy at those times when nothing else in the world could.
Because of Shola’s personal experiences and her work in a Mental Health setting, she brings an understanding to her yoga teaching that makes her classes accessible to all. She understands that sense of being hyper alert, that lack of trust that means some students cannot close their eyes. Some students cannot focus on the breath. They’re battling with that fight or flight response that makes it impossible to relax. She introduces gentle guided relaxation. She gradually increases concentration levels. She allows space for tears.
She aims to meet any student where they are and lead them towards greater mental and physical freedom. For those students who are extremely overweight, she uses bolsters and props and blankets to make the experience as comfortable as possible. Many of these students enter with zero self-confidence, believing that they won’t be able to do anything. They spend most of their life disconnecting with their bodies and find it hard to think about their body or touch their own body.
And then older people come with a different mindset. Their bodies are carrying a lifetime of stories and aches and pains. They have to open themselves up to retrain their bodies and find out what their bodies are actually still capable of.
Shola loves to work with all of these groups of people. She works with organisations such as Healthy Horizons, Make Your Move UK and MIND. And from what I heard at the end of the class I attended, all of her students love to work with her. The lady on the next mat to me is going into hospital for a hip replacement next week –
But Shola, when I’m mobile again, I can still come to class, can’t I? Even if I can’t do anything, I can still come and be here and soak up the atmosphere. I’ll imagine I’m doing the poses. That’s OK, isn’t it?
On many levels, Shola is providing psychological first aid. Through her yoga classes, she’s offering support to those in distress and difficulty – physically, mentally and emotionally. With the right advice and training, yoga teachers can and do offer this sort of support right across the UK. And actually in any class, any yoga teacher has to always be sensitive to the fact that they have no idea what’s actually going on in the lives and minds of their students.
Mental Health is an important issue that needs talking about.
So this year on World Mental Health Day, let’s get the nation talking about mental health. Let’s share our experiences of mental health issues. Let’s listen. Let’s get together over a cup of tea and talk. The Tea and Talk programme has some great suggestions of how to organise an event.
Let us know what you’re doing for World Mental Health Day 2016.