mental-illness-art-SayNotoStigma15 October, 2015

Published in Yoga Therapy Ireland's Winter 2015 edition (pp 14-15). Download the full ezine here.

It's "Mensana" week in Carlow - a play on the "mens sana in corpore sano" phrase from the poet Juvenal's Satire X, written a couple of thousand years ago.  It has come to mean that a healthy body needs a healthy mind, or a healthy mind creates a healthy body - either way, that the two are inseparable.  Carlow Mental Health Association organises this annual event to raise awareness of mental health issues and to present various tools to deal with the challenges that arise.

Yoga is a useful tool for self-managing physical and mental health - an ideal "mens sana in corpore sano" activity. I was invited to lead three sessions connecting breath to movement.

In yoga terms, breath carries the vital life energy (prana), and connects the mind to the body. This isn't hard to feel: Everyone who tried the very simple exercise of coordinating precisely their inhale with the raising of hands over head and the exhale with pressing the palms floor-wards was immediately engaged mentally in the activity. The result of this even and focussed breathing is that the central nervous system becomes quieter. This is a kind of "flow" - that gorgeous feeling you get when you're totally absorbed in an activity, like painting or dancing or turning clay - that is highly accessible because it is so easily created, and requires neither skill nor equipment.

Claire O'Neill turned up at the first session I was leading at the Delta Centre, with her microphone and camerawoman, to film a segment for's Carlow Matters. After the brief and amusing interview, our small group started with some breath awareness and a few simple poses, ending with a relaxation - some were lying on the floor in the classic savasana pose, some were seated in chairs. Lovely.

On Tuesday, it was off The Vault for the after-school drop in session for teens. A tough nut to crack: with teens, there's self-consciousness, coolness that must be maintained among peers, unfamiliarity and pre-conceptions about yoga, noisy atmosphere - all sorts of hurdles to conducting a serene yoga session.  Talking above the din, I led a group of 10 teens (6 of which were boys - success in itself!) through the breathing-arms exercise, then we did several yoga poses including balances and backbends. We finished with a lie-down relaxation.

We followed that with a short "mindful eating" exercise, in which each participant chooses a clementine and observes it with all their senses as they slowly peel and eat it.

Afterwards, one female participant said to me, "The relaxation was amazing. I felt like I was floating!" But not all teens are so forthcoming, and out of keen curiosity to know how young minds would react to these activities, I had drawn up a  questionnaire. I got six anonymous replies, and they were wonderful: 4 of 6 respondents were brand-new to yoga. One male participant described yoga as "good fun". Four participants ticked that yoga was a practice for the mind, stress management, and a way to relax, which was encouraging because clearly they saw beyond the "exercise" bit. Two people ticked that their favourite part was the mindful eating practice; one commented, "Really made me think about how much we have that we take for granted". Result.

My final Mensana foray was to the Carlow's consumer mecca, the Fairgreen Shopping Mall, which would seem at first blush to be an exceedingly inappropriate venue for any kind of meditative practice. Yet the most accomplished Buddhist monks bring their serenity with them wherever they go, so it is possible to maintain equanimity in all circumstances (with practice!). As it turned out, it was a superb little group that showed up and sat on chairs in a circle right in the centre of Fairgreen, like the calm in the eye of the storm. Having established (with much giggling) that there was NO WAY we were getting down on the floor, we proceeded with a yoga practice of very simple movements to connect to the breath, then standing poses and finally a seated relaxation. As is often the case, that was the most popular part of the session.

The Fairgreen venue was a microcosm of one of the unhealthy issues we face today as a society: we need spiritual nourishment but are bombarded instead with consumerist fodder, material goods we don't need. Fittingly, Juvenal's Satire X was written as a social commentary, reflecting how wrong desire is a source of suffering. It describes perceived threats to the social continuity of the Roman citizens, which includes excesses of the elite class. The Roman empire fell. Perhaps we should take that as a warning. While you might not put yourself in the "elite" category, in the scheme of things we middle-class consumers are pretty elite compared to billions of others. So, despite my initial misgivings of teaching yoga at a mall, in fact it was the most appropriate place to shine a spotlight on the chasm between what we need for our mental and spiritual well-being and what we tend to reach for instead.

So, thank you to Carlow Mental Health Association for all the work the committee members and coordinators do to raise awareness. And thank you to all the participants who turned up to broaden their, and by extension, my horizons. I have no new advice for anybody, because it's all been said before, so I leave you with a translation of  Juvenal's Satire X

You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Ask for a stout heart that has no fear of death,
and deems length of days the least of Nature's gifts
that can endure any kind of toil,
that knows neither wrath nor desire and thinks
the woes and hard labors of Hercules better than
the loves and banquets and downy cushions of the King of Assyria.
What I commend to you, you can give to yourself;
For assuredly, the only road to a life of peace is virtue. (Source: Wikipedia)

Links: Carlow Mental Health Association 


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