Yoga is a mat rolled out onto the floor of a gymnasium. Yoga is a mat unfurling across cool sand at sunrise, across the pavement, across the backyard, across the living room floor. Yoga is walking through trees, holding onto the side of a cliff, wading into the ocean at midnight. Yoga is a conversation with someone new, yoga is a connection between souls. Yoga is a connection with the self. Yoga is coming home.
There seems to be an ever-present urge to crawl out of our own skin, to run away from the things we keep hidden. In society today, there is a push to be more loving, more accepting of people and everything they bring to the table–their doubts, insecurities, fears, traumas–because everyone brings something. And more and more of us are bringing more and more to the table. It’s great we can be there for one another, but is there a way to not have to carry so much? Is there a way to not need the table or, at least, such a large one?
It is an uneventful Tuesday afternoon–as all days are lately–and I sit on my porch, steam funneling out of a turquoise mug on a table covered by a red-checkerboard cloth. Sun soaks the wicker furniture, stretches across the floorboards, and reaches my skin as I turn on my laptop and connect via video chat with Karen Donahue, a yoga instructor based out of Massachusetts. She sits in front of a light blue wall in a dark, long-sleeved shirt with a scarf wrapped around her neck, her short blond hair parted to the side.
“When I started yoga,” Donahue, fifty-three, recalls, “it wasn’t for that physical component; it was more for the connection between the mind and the body, being able to stay in your body and not running away from it. Often, when people are affected by any sort of trauma, anxiety, or depression, it’s not living in your body, it’s running away from it.”
In the United States, around forty million people live with an anxiety disorder, and more than sixteen million adults experience episodes of depression. Additionally, it is estimated that 8 percent of the population will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in their life. These are not small or insignificant numbers, and each year they go up. Left untreated, these disorders can result in a myriad of health complications, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, substance abuse, and suicide. Therapy and mental healthcare are invaluable, but what are those suffering to do in the quiet moments they are alone, without anyone to talk to or lend reassurance? There will always be a tendency to internalize pain, to hope to forget, to avoid meeting the pain head-on.
“I have a seizure history,” says Donahue from behind the screen. “For years, I ran and ran, seventy miles a week. I was in so many emergency rooms; it was kind of funny. I can look back and laugh, but I think, ‘Gee, I wonder if I would’ve had less seizures if I didn’t run so much. What was I running from?’ So, instead of running from something, [yoga] is finding a way to return home to yourself.”
While yoga offers a pleasing aesthetic, it is more than just taking a lunge position with arms outstretched. It is about more than flexibility and strength. The Mayo Clinic website refers to yoga as a mind-body experience; not one or the other, but both together. “Yoga…is considered one of many types of complementary and integrative health approaches.” Created with the intent of giving the human body new life, yoga aids in stress reduction, overall fitness, and can help manage chronic illnesses when executed correctly. It looks at the body as a whole, externally and internally, and allows practitioners to focus deeply on themselves, rather than the weight they will lose, the bathing suit they hope to wear on vacation, or a social media post on their exercise routine. The focus is on the union of the physical and spiritual.
The importance of taking care of one’s physical body is obvious, but a person is not just their exterior. Our mental well-being is just as significant as our physical well-being. At least, it should be. Christina Plourd, a twenty-two-year-old senior at Central Connecticut State University, learned this as she transitioned from her well-balanced college life to the new world of self-isolation.
“I suffer from anxiety and depression and have been seeing a therapist consistently for three years,” says Plourd. Despite having a first-rate therapist, she needed a way to cope outside of her sessions after losing her job as a waitress and the stability of classes on campus. “I started practicing yoga due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I felt feelings ranging from stress, anxiety, helplessness, and defenselessness. When I can feel myself inching towards those feelings, I use yoga as a tool to remind me how far I have come and how far I have left to go.”
Plourd is an advocate for fitness and enjoys exercising regularly. In the past two years, she has lost nearly sixty pounds and has made her health a priority; she encourages friends who are on a similar fitness journey by walking them through exercise circuits and posting her routines on social media. For her, similarly to Donahue, she was not searching for a way to get into shape. “Last year,” Plourd explains, “I was diagnosed with an immune disorder which puts me at a higher risk for COVID-19. It’s been hard. As someone who loves to be moving, yoga has given me another way to move my body for much-needed stress relief.”
Plourd and Donahue were both looking to take their health into their own hands. Medical professionals do incredible work, but sometimes it’s important to know you can lean on yourself, too. Finding a strength within yourself can be empowering, and, in Donahue’s case, can work miracles.
“It was my fortieth birthday,” says Donahue, looking beyond the camera in front of her, “and I said, ‘I’ve got to do something. The medical world has done everything they can do for me; it’s now my turn to be a part of it. How can I tap into myself and find internally what I have to help myself heal?’” Donahue, for a period of time, was unable to walk, had lost the use of her right side, and was unable to speak.
“My neurosurgeon said I was going to be perfect. When I went for my four-month checkup, I said, ‘I’m not perfect. I thought I was going to be perfect.’ I had had occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy for quite some time. I had gone from multiple seizures every day to one every two months, so in his eyes that was perfection.” Donahue nods her head, her shoulders upright and square. “So, I decided to try yoga. I had somebody drive me to the studio every Sunday, took a class, and the next thing you know, I was getting my [driver’s] license, and the seizures were under control.”
There is no specific trauma prerequisite or obstacles you have to overcome in order to participate in yoga. “I believe when people show up on their mat, everybody has something,” Donahue affirms. “It doesn’t really matter what it is; it’s how you choose to steer your ship through it.” Whatever it is you show up on your mat with–anxiety, depression, PTSD–Donahue argues yoga can be beneficial. “Yoga is a way of bringing yourself back home to your body and exploring it.”
Yoga gives us the opportunity to open a line of communication within ourselves.
Right now, none of us feel we have much of a choice. What is being asked of us is necessary, but that does not make it simple. We are tucked away into our homes, sitting under our covers, and drenched in fear of the future; our faces are hidden behind masks. They can be made out of fabric with polka dots, but they still suffocate. We are unable to be with the people we love in a time when a warm embrace or kiss on the forehead can make a world of difference. There is so little we can control, and that is often dangerous.
“People are looking for outlets,” says Donahue, “something to disconnect from all the craziness. Yoga gives you that opportunity to be present, whether it’s on your mat, walking or jogging out in nature, walking meditation, connecting to the different animals, the water, the sky, the sun. It’s connecting to people, the social distance ‘hello’ from six feet away with a smile behind your mask.”
Isolation can be incredibly damaging to the human spirit, but unlike a muscle in your body, it is difficult to discern how to exercise the human spirit so it can grow strong. There is no routine or set number of reps to strengthen it, but there is nature, there is checking up on a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and there is yoga.
Donahue believes yoga is a homecoming. After a lifetime of running away, we are living in a moment that forces us to be still. Recognizing the anxieties within us is not easy–worry for our families, discomfort with our bodies, academic stresses, professional pressures–but yoga gives us the opportunity to open a line of communication within ourselves. Just roll out a mat and start the conversation. One day soon, the world will end up in a better place. Hope is within us.
Ashley Judd is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.