Health is beyond physical 

Mental Health Awareness Month; much like the other specially designed days, weeks or months throughout the year, isn’t enough. There are so many ways in which to be identified as a person with a mental health condition that we truly need to be on top of monitoring the way we feel each and every day. 

When Inside Out (2015) came out it was a huge success: Joy, Disgust, Anger, Sadness and Fear were adorable and helped little kids (big kids and grown-ups alike…) more easily name their own feels. It also contributed to the huge number of ways schools are teaching character development. Wonderful! 

Unfortunately, it may have also oversimplified how emotions affect us on a daily basis. For instance, Depression is certainly held within the category of Sadness and Anxiety within Fear, but for many people these sensations (feelings) run so deeply that merely saying that they are sad or fearful softens the reaction to these emotions. 

Last year, I read an article about teenaged girls being uniquely capable of functioning well in their lives while simultaneously being untreated for severe anxiety and/or depression. I don’t know the exact article, but I can absolutely relate; as someone with severe anxiety and depression, my therapist once advised that I tell everyone about my diagnosis immediately because I am so highly functioning that without hearing about it first-hand others would never know. 

That’s terrifying, imagine being so good at covering up your illness that no one will help you manage it and help you get better without your expressed request. And as a kiddo, if you don’t have the vocabulary to help yourself speak up about what’s going on and no one sees what you’re going through without your expressly telling them so, how long will it be before you get the help that you need? 

Plus, what we’re starting to learn about stress is that when our bodies are flooded with stress hormones they build-up a tolerance to them. Then, in order to help us understand that we need to be in a state of heightened awareness, our bodies are flooded with even more stress hormones the next time we face pressure. But, there are things we can do, Mental Health America, MHA, created a toolkit to help us recognize and understand when we, or someone we love, might need help. 

The bottom line, be there: take proactive steps to helping manage stress and ultimately mental health concerns. As we mentioned last week and the week before, yoga can help! Take deep, mindful breaths and practice poses which help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the anti-venom to our flight, fight or freeze response. And of course connect; mental illness is extremely isolating and it’s important that we (as those diagnosed with mental illness) seek out love and that our friends and families share love with us everyday. 

Is seeing believing?

The Playful Yogi, in a previous blog post, talked a little bit about the three parts of our being’s whole: the physical body, mental body and emotional body. Each of these plays a role in our overall well being and each needs to be addressed, and this can be done through a regular yoga practice. Pranayama, breath practice, is one way to help calm, or stimulate, all three aspects of our beings, and it can be done anytime and anywhere. 
Meditation, or visualization, on the other hand tends to be something we do in the comfort of a yoga studio or our homes. And, it’s not typically thought to be accomplished as quickly as a breath practice can be. It seems to take more time and pre-planning to practice meditation, but there are so many ways to visualize in an attempt to benefit our bodies, minds and souls. 
For instance, what happens when you lengthen your spine? A lifted spine can be a sign of well being, feeling good in all three parts of our whole self. When we’re sad it’s common to round our shoulders forward to protect ourselves against negative energy that may be coming at us. All animals take on this protective technique, even our pets who we love and care for will only expose, show, their bellies and chests when they feel at their most comfortable; when they trust their environment completely. 
Trusting our environment can seem really scary, and for some of us, trusting is more challenging because of the way other people treat us. But, if you can find one place that always makes you feel safe and comfortable then maybe you could use that place as a space to visualize. Maybe your safe space is the reading corner in your classroom, a place you can go to when you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a break. That’s great!
And, what better way to take a break and calm the body than by lengthening your spine and visualizing a calming light running along our lifted spine? Like this doodle of our rainbow girl, considered widening your feet to hip width distance or wider, point your toes directly forward and send your tailbone low and the top, crown of your head high. Take a deep breath in and as you exhale, slowly bend forward from the space just below your belly button. When you’re hanging upside down take several breaths and imagine and beautiful light fill your spine. 
This folding forward can be really calming and coming back to standing you might notice that your spine has lifted just a little bit, changing your whole mood. Afterwards, stand quietly with feet under your hips and eyes closed for a couple of breaths to just notice and rest in this new shift in your mood. Give it a try, and with your parent’s permission let us know how you feel. 

Breathe Big…

Pranayama (breath practice) is one of the Ashtanga (the Eight Limbs of Yoga) and it’s vital to our lives. As a yoga teacher, we’re required (which personally I love…) to continue our learning, and currently I’m doing that by taking an advanced training with a yoga center in my home town. It’s a lot of fun, and just like learning might be for you, it’s a lot of challenging work. I mention it because at my most recent session, one of my teachers suggested that the lungs are the central part of our being. Modern medicine (i.e. doctors and nurses) might say that the heart is the most important part of our bodies because it pumps our blood, and of course our heart is super(!) important as is our blood. 
But, what if my teacher, who read this in a book written by another teacher whom my teacher respects, is right and the lungs are the most important part of our bodies? After all, the blood’s job is to carry oxygen and carbon dioxide through the body and the heart’s job is to pump the blood. The lungs, on the other hand, are what pulls and pushes oxygen and carbon dioxide (breath) into and out of the body. Yoga tells us that breath is what gives us life. For instance, energy/life are called Prana in Yoga from India, and as I noted above, pranayama is in fact breath practice. 
So, if the word prana (energy/life) is used in order to make-up the compound word pranayama to mean breath practice wouldn’t that mean that our breath and therefore our lungs are the most important part of our body? Again, I’m not discounting the importance of the heart and blood, but I am suggesting that we give more thought to our breath on a daily basis. You see, the breath is housed as a part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS,) which means that for as long as we’re alive we will breathe whether we think about it or not. And, that’s great! The coolest thing about our breath is that not only will it work without us thinking about it at all, but we can think about it and when we do, we can change it. 
We can’t really make bigs changes our heart beat or our digestion (both are also part of the ANS) just by thinking about them, but we can make big changes to our breath just by thinking about it. Have you ever been really nervous or scared, sometimes we refer to this as anxious, and did you notice that maybe you started breathing a little faster and/or a little more shallow, meaning that you didn’t breathe into the full capacity, or depth, of your lungs? If so, that’s a part of the ANS and it happened involuntarily, or out of your awareness; when that happens, we can start thinking about our breath and telling it with our thinking (conscious) mind to slow down, and if we’re patient, after a few moments your breath will slow down and deepen. In my opinion, that is incredible and it makes me appreciate my breath even more. 
One way to practice breathing fully is to sit up tall, with a long spine (backbone,) and place one hand below your bellybutton and one hand at the top of your chest, just below your neck. Breathe in and out and feel both hands lift-up with every inhale (in-breath) and lower with every exhale (out-breath.) Do this and maybe add counting to four (1…2…3…4) for every breath in and counting to 4 for every breath out, and then after 1-2-minutes reflect (think) about how you feel. Maybe you’ll even notice that you feel differently than you did before you got started. Give it a try and, with your parents’ permission, write to us and let us know how you feel. Keep breathing!