Sunday, March 4, 2012

Yoga for Anxiety & Mental Health Workshop Review

        Hot off the heels of a great week working on my thesis and the incredibly busy but very successful fundraiser evening we put on for Lutherwood's Running Club I decided a self care weekend was much needed. It started off Friday with a good friend of mine, Alyssa; she agreed last minute to accompany me to "An evening with The Walkmen" which was excellent! The Walkmen are one of my favourite bands and they played everything I wanted to hear from their catalogue of songs. I then spent Saturday working (read mostly jamming and doing some therapeutic music sessions with the kids) and was really looking forward to my Sunday afternoon at the Iyengar Yoga School of Toronto.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

As a graduate student of social work, I am used to hearing some people say negative, uninformed or downright ignorant things about mental illness. I have learnt not to snap back and be the obnoxious advocate. At the same time as a yoga teacher I am also used to seeing yoga teachers stepping outside of their comfort area into such realms like spiritual guide, life coach, therapist and more; I think it's easy for yoga teachers to fall into this trap - they want to help, I get it.

However, today when I attended a workshop described by the Iyengar Yoga School of Toronto as "Yoga for Anxiety & Mental Health" I was shocked to see that all of the above had come together in one afternoon that turned out to be.. difficult.

The class started with a completely disorganized teacher running through what appeared to be run-of-the-mill definitions googled around the term anxiety. The problem here though was that this yoga teacher had almost zero understanding of what they were talking about. I was curious and inquired about the teachers experience or qualifications in mental health, they had none. The teacher offered the class mental health information with the ease of an expert but muddled terminology, made generalizations, labelled - took part in tautology where presenting symptoms are labelled as a disorder which justified the diagnoses. The worst of the day, the teacher didn't understand the experience of people have with mental illness, the teacher referred to those who suffer with post traumatic stress as "victims" in a demeaning tone claiming they "always act as if the world has done this to them and they have no part in it." That was hard for me to hear. One of the this teachers student teachers, an employee of the Iyengar Yoga School of Toronto joked that someone with post traumatic stress "needs to get a hobby." He laughed out loud and I piped up but respected that this wasn't my space or forum to share my thoughts. I simply protested and explained that traumatic stress can be debilitating. I saw the reaction of other workshop participants and was relieved to find that they also seemed uncomfortable with this disjointed talk about mental health.

Thankfully, the class took a sharp turn. We broke off into small groups and worked on poses which this teacher had handpicked for specific anxiety spectrum disorders. The teachers expertise in understanding the poses was complimented with a dedication to the Iyengar "way" of doing yoga where many props/supports were used (bolsters, blankets, blocks, chairs, ropes fixed to the walls). This really validated my ideas about using yoga with mental health clients who may have physical limitations in participating in yoga or find it intimidating. We spent an hour and a half working on only a few poses per group but really mastering how to get into the pose, how they were prescribed for dealing with anxiety and of course getting out of the pose safely.

Although I was dismayed with the first half of the workshop, I received what I wanted, additional training in poses to relieve anxiety. I will be sharing some of these poses in upcoming posts.


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