I wasn’t sure what I expected to come out of the doctor’s with when I made an appointment in summer 2013. I’d been feeling inexplicably low and reclusive; I was fearing speaking to people in case they “found out” that I was stupid/boring/both, choking on words – the very thing I’d started making a career out of, usefully – and panicking about possible interactions. It was unlike me – I’d always been outgoing, albeit a little shy. But, somehow, I’d lost the ability to be myself. There must be a pill for that, I thought.
I booked the appointment. I was in there for 10 minutes, jittering, panicking that I was boring the doctor with the same thing she’d heard a million times, panicking I was describing my feelings “wrong”, hoping she could help. When I finished trying to speak, she looked across at me and paused for a few seconds.
“Do you do yoga?”
Do I do yoga? I was slightly incensed. It hadn’t been easy to admit that I was feeling bad. And now what? Putting on some overpriced running tights and a crop top to pose on Instagram would sort me out? No wonder no one talks about mental health, I thought, when medical professionals don’t take it seriously.
I didn’t know it then, but it was one of the best things the NHS has done for me. My doctor – a kind, caring woman – explained that she was referring me immediately for CBT for social anxiety and depression, but there would be a wait for treatment, as there always is while pressure on mental-health services continues to grow. While I waited the six months it would take for the three months of therapy I needed to be available, she recommended I did a weekly yoga class. “Just try it,” she said.
The more I did the downward-facing dog, the more I started to see the world, and myself, from (literally) a different perspective
Not right away, but I did. And, while it was far from an instant cure, for an hour per week I managed to forget how much I suddenly disliked myself. I went to Virgin Active, where the classes were small enough that I didn’t want to instantly run away from a crowd, and the lights were low enough that I could feel as invisible as possible. The instructor’s soothing tone, demanding that I concentrate on the tiny web of skin stretching between my fingers, or on the way my breath felt moving in and out of my body, was a short, much-needed relief from the tangled woollen balls of negative thoughts nesting in my head. The more I did the downward-facing dog, the more I started to see the world, and myself, from (literally) a different perspective.
And, now, there is even more evidence that the slither of lightness weekly yoga brought me was not merely psychosomatic or just a lucky fluke. A new study, which is unprecedented in its size, has investigated the link between hatha yoga and depression. The US-based research, published in Psychological Medicine, found that the breathing exercises involved change the hormone levels in the body, and in turn lower levels of stress and anxiety. Scientists ran tests on two groups of people, all of whom were on anti-depressants – one group who took weekly health-education classes, and one group who did weekly yoga. After six months, 51 per cent of yoga patients reported a 50 per cent improvement in their symptoms, while just 31 per cent of those taking health-education classes said the same.
Its benefits are so far-reaching, in fact, that a new yoga studio is using its profits to fund free classes to help vulnerable women across London. Supply Yoga is launching the first social-purpose studio at the end of this month, where they will work with groups like Macmillan Cancer Support, and services providing counselling for survivors of gender-based violence and independent housing support for women.
It’s warming, isn’t it? And necessary. While the NHS is under such duress, with budgets rapidly cut beyond what seems human, yoga – and accessible, free yoga, coupled with direct access to essential services and real support at that – is an incredibly useful initiative right now. Mental-health disorders are still on the rise and thousands of people in the UK are left with no care. Yoga cannot – and should not have to – replace that care by any means but, like it did for me, it could be the difference of being able to just about function until treatment is eventually available. No wonder, then, that one GP surgery in Manchester is prescribing yoga to patients and even setting up its own studio. More of that, I say.
I don’t do yoga as much as I should now and I notice the difference when I stop. I don't go to classes, but I’ll find a yoga video on YouTube, as anyone could. It might not work for everyone and no one suffering from anxiety or depression should be goaded for not trying it either. But I’m glad my doctor told me to get a mat. If you feel like it, take her advice, too. See yourself from an ever so slightly different angle, one pose at a time.