Bend It Like Buddha

Yoga as a Form of Mindfulness and Its Effect on Mental Health

 “Just do yoga.” –  A phrase that might just be all too familiar to anyone who has struggled with their mental health before. Suggestions such as this can be frustrating, as mental health is much more complex than this. So, how could a bit of twisting and breathing help with that?

Yoga is widely known and is practiced by millions worldwide. But it is much more than just complex bodily figures. Mindful Yoga in particular, has been proven to help alleviate symptoms of many mental health disorders. So let me bend your perspective on Yoga.

Yoga: more than overpriced sportswear

The term Yoga derives from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” meaning “union”. As a philosophy it originated in the Indus-Saraswati Valley civilization around 2700 BC, before striking roots and flourishing in India. Often only reduced to a form of exercise in western countries, the philosophy of Yoga includes not only the body but also the breath and mind. The body postures (asanas) are used to prepare the body for the following meditation. The goal of yoga is the unity of body, breath and mind to achieve well-being.

A brief look at Mindfulness

Mindfulness was not invented by apps such as Headspace but is rooted deeply in Buddhist tradition. As a central aspect of meditative training the Buddhist understanding of mindfulness is defined by a strong focus on the body, feelings and thoughts in the present moment, cultivating acceptance, emotional balance, and well-being. A modern concept of mindfulness as a therapeutic practice was developed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn with his Mindful based stress reduction program (MBSR). Taking inspiration from the Buddhist tradition, it fosters non-judgemental and non-reactive focus on body and mind in the present moment. Next to other studies, one study conducted on Norwegian university students, showed the effectiveness of MBSR, after students reported a decrease in mental distress after the program. MBSR has also been used to support treatment of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression and can even be linked to neurological changes in the brain.

Mindful yoga: “a method to stop thought waves”

Due to its mediative aspect Yoga is part of the MBSR program. It is important to note, however, that not all mindfulness is Yoga and not all Yoga is mindful. Mindful yoga includes mind-body awareness and paying close attention to your thoughts and bodily sensations as you move through your practice. Applying Buddhist mindfulness teachings, it puts the emphasis on observing rather than reacting. Studies show that mindful yoga fosters awareness of yourself and your surroundings and encourages patience and compassion for yourself and others.  It also helps accept external circumstances and is linked to a higher distress tolerance.

How Yoga helps with my mental health

Apart from increasing my strength and flexibility, Yoga has become a stable rock I hold onto, when waves of anxiety overcome me. It allows me to focus on my body and breath and let go of internal and external distractions. I believe, Yoga is a celebration of what the body and mind are capable of, while encouraging patience and self-compassion. The beauty of Yoga is, there is no one way to do yoga, there is a variety of types for everyone. And while it should never be a substitute for professional treatment, Yoga can be something you gift yourself and your well-being.

So, roll out your mat; inhale, exhale and let it go.

Author: Svenja Gleich

Words, words, mere words or how the English language took over my life (Part 2)

Now that the sappy part of this essay is for the most part over, apologies for my sentimental outpourings, I would like to move on. From the rather unfortunate circumstances that English found me in, to where we are today.

With not much more to do through my formative years than watching Doctor Who, Sherlock and Downtown Abbey while imitating the oh-so-charming accents I heard in these programmes, I would accumulate a rather large vocabulary, as well as a British accent. These days, when people hear me speak, in a classroom setting or elsewhere, they usually assume that my accent stems from a year abroad. And I won’t hide the fact that it does inflate my ego just a little bit every time I get to correct them and say that I am in truth self-taught (I leave out the traumatic abandonment part of the story most of the time; it simply doesn’t have as nice a ring to it, and, in my experience, tends to drag the mood down quite a bit).

The first time I did visit an English-speaking country was after secondary school. It had been my wish to visit London for years, and so finally at the age of fifteen, I travelled there by myself (a decision that my mother was surprisingly on board with). There had always been something about the city that had drawn me to it, and the night I arrived, it took no more than a single sighting of the city lights reflecting in the pitch-black Thames water for me to completely fall in love. I really believe that on that trip I left a piece of my soul in the night sky over London.

Since then I’ve visited the city three more times and still it never fails to take my breath away. So weirdly familiar, like I had always been there, or maybe meant to be there – it’s a sense of home that doesn’t need a domicile to feel real. All this accompanied by the fact that not standing out as a tourist, at least in my mind, and being able to stroll around and pretend to belong there just gives me the greatest feeling of accomplishment.

While in London with my mum last year, she let me handle all the talking (as well as the navigation on the underground, one of my guilty pleasures when in the city. What a joy it is to know which way you’re going.). She was fascinated by me chatting with a member of staff at the Camden Market tube station, mostly, she told me afterwards, because I kept using ‘slang’ or simply colloquial language (I suspect she meant I had developed a bit of a habit of using the greeting ‘hiya’ ever since I had briefly visited Huddersfield the year before). The pride in my mother’s eyes at seeing, or rather hearing, her daughter confidently communicate in a foreign language was not only the greatest reward for my efforts thus far, but also the best motivation to keep pushing myself to be better and to hopefully one day complete the perfection of my English.

Having received a certain certificate from some supposedly smart people better qualified to judge my abilities than me which says, black ink on white paper, that I am already a level C2 when it comes to English, both written and spoken, also boosts my confidence that my goal is really achievable in my life time.  English is a huge part of my life. From writing my first poetry in sixth grade to unironically reading Shakespeare plays today, it has given me more than could ever fit on two pages. It may be words, words, mere words to some, but for me it’s a matter from the heart.

Author and picture: Lea Meerkamp

Words, words, mere words or how the English language took over my life (part 1)

My first contact with English must have occurred somewhere in kindergarden.  As I was only four or five at the time, my memories are admittedly hazy. But I remember a tiny children’s book, colourful and made of cardboard, telling all the toddlers in attendance that some people refer to a Katze as ‘cat’. Not that we cared much – there were sandcastles to build and a whole world to be discovered.

Growing up in a small village in the south of Germany with both my parents native speakers of German, my overall contact with other languages was limited. The only open restaurant in town was owned by a Turkish family, so I learned the word ‘merhaba’ before even being aware of the existence of ‘hello’. So it wasn’t until primary school that I started learning English formally. At that age – I was seven in first grade – I really had priorities other than acquiring a second language. There were letters to learn, trees to climb and, unfortunately, basic maths to wrestle with.

All of this was about to change, however, at secondary. Having developed a deeply-rooted hatred of mathematics and any sort of natural science, I was already drawn to languages and the humanities, but for the time being, my relationship with English still hadn’t moved past the ‘at-least-I-can-do-this-instead-of-division’ stage. But life was about to hit me, and it was about to hit me hard. And, once again, my priorities shifted. Where before there were friends to meet and fun to be had, there was now fear to be felt and a childhood to be lost.

I won’t go into the details about what happened when I was twelve, as my incredibly dramatic, sad story isn’t the subject of this piece after all. The reason I’m bringing up this stage of the journey at all is its significance for my relationship with English. You see, it was at this moment when change became inevitable and I was forced to suddenly grow up and function. When the outside world became chaotic, I, god-like, chose to create a new world, a world inside my head, a world filled with obsessions and hyper focus, just enough to keep me sane. When I turned down invitations until I was simply not invited any more, when I was alone – that’s when it found me. A language that allowed me to express through writing what I could never say out loud, a language that let me run away with the Doctor, a language that would bring me the songs that, after hours of exhausting translation, would bring me the messages I needed to hear to survive. A language that opened up an online community in which I felt a little less alone, where others felt what I was feeling and where I could once again escape it all, at least for a little while.

English found me in my darkest place and carried me through it.

Author and picture: Lea Meerkamp