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  • Yoga and Mental Health

    Yoga and Mental Health

    Words by Sarah Cattrall

    Over the past month I have been teaching a weekly class at The Maudsley Hospital in Denmark Hill.  The hospital is part of the South London NHS Foundation Trust and provides an extensive range of mental health services throughout the United Kingdom.  The classes I run have been within the Eating Disorders Unit which provides primarily an intensive day-care treatment programme 5 days a week but also offers outpatient counselling and therapy.

    I have always wanted to take my yoga teaching out of the studio.  When I was training I always knew that I wanted to provide yoga to people who, for whatever reason, may not be able to access its benefits so easily, particularly within the mental health area.  This was not by chance.  Over the years I have had to use these services myself in varying degrees from inpatient to outpatient and I knew that having something else to focus on during treatment was very helpful.  From experience, the practice of sitting still and meditating for people with severe to moderate mental health problems is extremely difficult if not impossible whereas yoga, which incorporates body movement with mindfulness, is much more easily accessed.

    At the Eating Disorders Unit at The Maudsley I teach a 45 minute chair yoga class to a group of between 4-8 women.  Before starting I was advised that the class must not be highly active (which is why it is in chairs) and that the challenge here would be getting the women to connect with their bodies in a way that wasn't self-destructive or punishing.  Many people with eating disorders try to disassociate from their bodies and the idea of engaging in a holistic way with themselves without over-exercising, starving or self-harming is a real challenge.  However, the group I have been teaching have all really tried to engage with the practice.  They do find it difficult and I know that they don't enjoy the practice of 'being in their bodies' all of the time but they can also see how this can help them to re-engage in a more 'normal' way with their bodies.  I lead them through a 3 minute body scan at the end of the class which, despite bringing up fear for many of them, seems to be something they are strongly trying to conquer.  After the session ends I ask for feedback, which is not always readily given, but allows me to plan and adapt my class for the next week.

    My yoga course at The Maudsley is only for 6 weeks.  Being an NHS hospital, the funds can only stretch so far but

    the feedback has been encouraging.  I have found this placement to be a really fulfilling way of teaching yoga.  There is no pretension, no posing and no grandeur in the space or the people.  It takes yoga right back to its basics as a tool for calming the fluctuations in the mind and I really hope to continue with this kind of work in the future. 

    Sarah teaches Hatha & Restorative Yoga at Studio Kooks 2.30-3.30pm each Wednesday