For the last twelve years, I have toured the world as the principle lead in Riverdance, co-founded the weighted activewear brand Kilogear CUT and completed training to become a qualified personal trainer and yoga instructor. Meanwhile, I have struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life, which can be hard to believe from somebody who has spent most of their life on stage – I know.
For the majority of my life, I kept my often crippling anxiety a secret and hid it as best I could. My father was my confidant from a young age and really the only person I felt I could talk to about how I would often feel. Anxiety and depression were very rarely spoken about back then. Unfortunately, my father passed away suddenly 10 years ago.
After his passing, I continued to keep my frequent panic attacks to myself. I did this for far too long until eventually, it became impossible to cope on my own. My career as a dancer was coming to an end and quite honestly, I felt completely lost. My mental health and well-being deteriorated fairly rapidly. With support from friends and family, I opened up about how I had been feeling. I then paid a visit to the doctor, was prescribed medication, and went to counseling and hypnotherapy sessions for six weeks or so, before I took what turned out to be a life-changing trip to Bali, the best decision of my life.
I wanted to learn more about yoga and meditation – to learn from some of the most at-peace people in the world. I desperately craved the experience of contentment on a consistent basis.
Heading to Bali, I had thoughts that I wasn’t “good” at yoga and certainly not flexible enough. I’d been going to yoga classes inconsistently for a few years and during those last few months before I sought more support, I could occasionally bring myself to attend a class and it made me feel a little more at ease (depending on the instructor and style of class).
During my first classes in Bali, I felt a tightness across my chest, my posture was rounded, and don’t get me started on my hips; I’d sit with crossed legs and my knees would be up by my ears! Since then, I have learned that these were all physical manifestations of my daily tensions and anxieties.
After only minutes of my first day, I realized that there really was no being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at yoga. I was taught that it was very much a personal practice and a journey toward inner peace. The purpose of yoga goes far beyond just the physical practice, which is excellent in terms of increasing your flexibility, strength, and stability. Yoga at its essence, however, is a psychology. It is a means of working with the mind, body, emotions, and soul. Yoga literally means to ‘yoke’ or combine the two opposites, the yin and the yang, to bring together and optimize them.
In yoga, we are seeking to continually integrate our experiences and then transcend them. We are able to heal after a challenging experience when we can fully embrace it, digest it and accept that it becomes a part of who we are, but no longer define ourselves by it. Then, we transcend to the next level of development.
In an often challenging world where there can be so much that is out of our control – which ultimately can cause people to feel stress, fear and anxiety, it has never been more important to find a way to get into a relaxed place than today; to sit and be still, to check in with ourselves and ask questions such as, “How do I feel” and “What do I need?”
Countless research studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of yoga in reducing stress, anxiety and depression. As these mental health disorders are at an all-time high, I am going to share some of the ways in which the practice of yoga combined with the teachings of Eastern philosophy have changed my life for the better and how you too can learn to manage stress with this wonderful practice.
To the anxious person reading this and thinking, “If only it were that easy, to just relax,” I get it. I was once the person who would feel hopeless when people would tell me to ‘just relax,’ because if it were that easy, don’t you think I’ve probably already tried that?
This is an ongoing journey for me, as it would be for anyone, that has required daily practice to implement these tools. It takes work, but stay with me. As humans, we have thousands of thoughts bouncing through our heads all day long, as the mind swings back and forth from thinking about the past to the future, rarely existing in the present moment. I often refer to this as the ‘Monkey Mind.’ Practicing meditation as a part of your yoga practice allows you to be present – to slow down, check in with your own thoughts, and to learn a little more about who you are.
Meditation allows us to insert a moment of pause and choice before a reaction. We create space to shine some light on our thoughts and emotions. Without judgment, we can simply ask questions such as “Does this thought reduce my energy or does it replenish my energy? Is this thought making me feel better or worse?” As Austrian psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor E. Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” To me, this is the power of meditation.
As soon as our body interprets a stressful situation, there is a whole host of physiological experiences that can occur. Stress can affect each of us differently, but a common physical response is shallow and restricted breathing. This activates the body’s stress response by releasing stress hormones like cortisol into the bloodstream, causing increased blood pressure and rapid heart rate, which can cause fatigue and leave you feeling mentally and physically exhausted. Since we know that the mind and body are connected, your muscles will also become tense. People who experience chronic stress can have consistent inflammation and disease in the body. Studies have shown that the effects of a mindful meditation practice to be profound on easing these physical effects of stress in the body by heading them off before they begin.
By learning various pranayama (control of breath) techniques to slow the breath, we can consciously begin to slow down and decrease the demand for oxygen, allowing us to use less effort and energy to breathe. Coherent or balanced breathing is a very effective way to shift from the sympathetic nervous system (our body’s ‘ flight or fight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (our ‘rest and digest’ response). It’s powerful to understand that we are in control of regulating the nervous system and are able to drop into a much deeper sense of being by simply regulating our breath.
Personally, I am now able to be the witness of my thoughts and no longer identify with them. Because of this, I also no longer believe everything I tell myself. I’m able to look at my thoughts with love, kindness, and compassion and then just let them go.
No longer do I cling on to negative thoughts, which in my line of work have been: “I’m not good or confident enough to be performing on this stage,” or “I’m not smart enough to be starting my own business and sharing my thoughts with others.”
I believe that if we can all learn to loosen our attachments to all of the thoughts and emotions that we experience through the spiritual practice of yoga and meditation, we can reduce our suffering dramatically. Yoga can truly optimize the human experience by enabling us to become more self-reflective and less reactive. It can help us to move through life and the challenges it brings with more ease and grace and to even thrive during times of adversity.
The key really is to start now. Today. And to not wait for stress to arise to begin your practice. With open arms, I welcome you into my community. Community is what makes our yoga practice even more special. You are not alone and I am here to help, along with the other wonderful humans at Oak and Iron.