Yoga and mental health: Answering the phone call from your body

This morning I sat on Justine Cohen’s bright yellow Victorian couch, my shoes off and laptop in hand. She’s the founder of Down Under School of Yoga in Boston and as she sits in front of me, I’m thinking we are worlds apart. She’s a former lawyer, owner of one of the most popular yoga studios in the city, and her parents taught English to monks in Tibet. But when she begins to speak about her experience with panic attacks, we are instantly connected.

She describes a life devoted to cultivating her mind and what a surprise it was to learn that the body had its own intelligence, opinions, and wisdom. After law school while working in long hours in human rights and neglecting her own body, she began to experience rushes of adrenaline, heart palpitations, shallow breath and began deeply interested in understanding and studying anxiety. 

So mindfulness trainings and yoga became tools to slow down her breathing and kick-start the body's parasympathetic nervous system ("the relaxation response"). Observing her physical body and its habits quickly led to observing the habits of her mind. 

You too, I thought. Sometimes when you are in the thick of things, you never think it possible that another person has gone through the same dark path. In both of our history of panic attacks, through research, study, practice and good old fashion time, we discovered the life-giving power of the breath and an unexpected journey of self-discovery. “I was so encouraged to learn about how common panic attacks and anxiety are (with more than 10 million Americans or 3% of the population suffering from various anxiety disorders), as well as the incredibly high success rate in holistic treatment for anxiety. 

My purpose in teaching yoga is to teach my students to feel it all, not just the easy, pleasant parts which we hang like decorations on our Facebook page and but the caves, the shadows, the mysteries, and especially the idea that the body itself has stories to share and songs to sing. I want my students to be deeply curious about their relationship to intensity, to power, to longing, to softness, and to surrender".

Right now I’m discovering all the things Justine is speaking about. There’s nowhere to look but inwards. That’s the beauty of it but also the scary part too. Just remember you are not alone.

This is the first entry of a yoga and mental health blog series. 

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