How Yoga can support Mental Health

I started my journey on the path of Yoga when I was 18 years old, as an in-patient in a mental health hospital because I was suffering from Anorexia Nervosa. Yoga has always been a part of my mother's life so I had heard about it here and there but without paying much attention to it at all.

In a desperate search for escaping the medical routine at the hospital and as a way to get a little "unauthorised" exercise in (keep in mind, people who suffer from anorexia often have compulsive or obsessive behaviours around exercising and being "fit"). I would unroll my mat in my tiny hospital room and play Yoga videos on Youtube, telling my parents and my doctors that Yoga helped me relax when really, it helped me hold on to my disease by feeling like I could move my body to balance out the plate of pasta I was forced to eat at lunch.

One day, I must've somehow come across an actual good teacher on Youtube because the idea of practicing without a purpose was introduced to me and I started wondering "what would practicing without a purpose look like? what does it even mean?". Could I really move my body because it just felt good and not because I felt the need to control it somehow? Could I really lay down for an hour and still call it "yoga"?

These questions made me wonder who was telling me I could or couldn't do these things. I had built a whole persona around my eating disorder that I had become it. Joséphine was not there anymore. But I started to see the possibility that maybe Joséphine still existed in this body, but my eating disorder identity had taken so much place that I didn't know who I was anymore without it. This moment was the beginning of my journey into healing, a key moment in my life, the one that made me want to become a Yoga teacher and help those with eating disorders.

From that moment, every time I would unroll my mat I would be faced with the same question "should I practice to burn calories or should I let the practice tell me what I needed?" which could translate to "should I listen to my anorexic self, the only self I know right now, or should I allow the practice to guide me back to Joséphine". Tough choice. But strangely enough this wasn't even about a choice I had to make, it was realising that I had a choice, that I was the one who could dictate whether I would die or live, whether I would keep controlling or allow myself to surrender.

From that moment on, I started to understand that Yoga had so much more to offer than the postural practice. The richness of the philosophical teachings of Yoga really showed me that I was allowed to be kind to myself, I was allowed to be still and that in that stillness all the answers I desperately needed would come to me. Although the journey I went through to come to those realisations cannot be summarised in a few lines, I now know that there exists ancestral wisdom in which I can rest, on which I can lean to when I need to remember who I am: a spiritual being living a human experience.

This article was written with the purpose of sharing a little bit about my story. As a trained Yoga therapist in eating disorders and mental health, I can help guide you on your own journey to healing. It is possible to live joyful and free of obsessive thoughts around food and/or exercising and life is much more beautiful on the other side. However, the only way out is always through, and that is where guidance can be valuable. For more information on my work or to reach out about how we can work together please visit my website.

Also, if you are interested in learning how Yoga philosophy can help you transform your life, my colleague Céline and her teacher Valérie are teaching a 10-week Yoga Philosophy online course staring January, 22 2022. Accredited as CPD by Yoga Alliance. For more info click here.

By Joséphine Cantona

Yoga Teacher, Mental Health, Holistic Healing

Owner of Urban Bliss Lisboa

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