Breaking down barriers: Accessible yoga for mental health
- Published: 13 May 2014
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Sydney yoga teacher Sarah de Graaff is on a mission to bring the spiritual practice to those unable to afford a yoga class and dealing with complex mental health issues. She spoke with Liz Bowie.
14 May 2014
Unable to reconcile the teachings of her Catholic education, Sarah de Graaff was drawn to yoga while still at school, which she says “provided the answers to my questions”.
The 35-year-old yoga instructor, canoeing enthusiast, camper, avid reader and archer later took her passion for yoga a step further, driven by a personal need to deal with and heal from the struggle of having Bipolar II – a struggle both her partner and maternal family share.
De Graaff began a program to help people who suffer from mental illness. “Yoga was a vital tool in my healing,” she says. “There are definitely other pathways towards health but yoga was the way for me and I want to share this.”
The growing popularity of yoga has placed financial and situational obstacles for many people to access classes, something de Graaff is keenly aware of.
“I experienced that yoga was hard to access, mostly because it’s expensive. Many people taking time out to manage their mental health needs don’t currently work or have an interrupted income so they can’t afford $18 or $25 a class.
“Other times it’s inaccessible because the size of the class is intimidating or the practices make you feel worse as they emphasise what you already feel. I wanted to create a space where all these things could be taken into consideration.”
Wanting to reach those not able to experience the benefits of yoga, de Graaff’s business HerewithSarah offers government pension or healthcare card concessions as well as affordable classes.
Her intention is to “provide access to yoga for those in a break from work or low-income period because they need to manage their mental health.”
De Graaff struggles with the affluent image yoga has become associated with, one that positions the practice as an indulgence or only for those lucky enough to have the means and ability to attend.
“Most often in Australia this looks like a woman who is Caucasian with a fair amount disposable income,” says de Graaff. “She wears ‘engineered’ yoga clothes that hide the fact that all humans sweat and suck in the body in certain places. She can afford to make dietary choices that are, compared to the rest of the world and our third world fellow nations extreme.
“It’s ironic that for my business I need an image so people can recognise HerewithSarah but I believe the main message isn’t about the image, the body, the clothes or the cafe we had our breakfast smoothie at.
“It is about yoga being flexible. So while yoga isn’t for everyone, it can bend to fit you! You don’t have to mould yourself to fit the yoga. It’s available if you want it, whether you have a pair of yoga pants or not, whether you have an injury or not, whether you are old or young and regardless of your beliefs.”
As well as teaching privately and at various yoga centres, de Graaff has been teaching in programs for psychiatrist patients for nearly four years. These are now run in conjunction with The Yoga Foundation, which teaches a variety of special needs groups.
“The idea with these mental health programs is that clients are able to access yoga in a place they already feel comfortable and safe in; often times they are accompanied by their case worker,” de Graaff explains.
“Many also experience poor physical health, so the aim is to get them moving regularly. Long-term benefits we hope for would be in line with increased acceptance of and responsibility for their own pathway towards health.”
Going out of and into your mind
So how does yoga help those suffering from depression or anxiety?
According to de Graaff, the process of using the body brings you out of the mind in order to go into it with greater awareness.
“Many people know that talking about your ‘problems’ doesn’t always resolve them,” she says. “But using the body means that anything locked in it from a past experience or a habit hardwired and practised over and over gets slowly unraveled with the union of the mind, breath and body.
“It’s the magic combination that says ‘Listen and feel; your experience in this body is communicating with you and you have the answers … just be in it!’”
Conditions are what you are experiencing right now and they always change, de Graaff continues. “Yoga recognises this. If you have no money today, it may not be the case tomorrow and vice versa. If you have a cut on your big toe today, tomorrow it could be healed. Conditions don’t define you, there’s endless possibility.”
For those who are unable to access a class, de Graaff suggests following a simple practice of breathing and moving in time, such as resting the hands on the belly and as you breathe in opening the arms to the sides and as you breathe out bringing them back to the belly.
An extension of this is to repeat the exercise but take the hands to the heart and then to the top of the head, remaining at each place for as long as is comfortable. “Five breath cycles is enough,” says de Graaff. “Remember, simple doesn’t mean easy.”
Another practice she recommends is to gather pictures that represent how you want to feel. These can be from books, the internet or wherever you can access them.
“Pictures of nature are good but it can be anything,” says de Graaff. “Images are a great way to remind ourselves visually if feelings don’t come easily, like the feeling of relaxation or receiving energy. Surround yourself and fill your mind with what you want in your life as much as you can.”
The key message de Graaff is passionate about sharing is that you are the agent of your life.
“The way to manage your challenges is to listen to what you really want and need in a world where there are so many messages that confuse and distract us from this. Yoga is one way of doing this,” she says.
HerewithSarah’s studio, The Mind and Movement Centre will open in Redfern in early June for those with mental health concerns. To make a donation towards the purchase of props and mats, contact Sarah de Graaff via email sarah [at] herewithsarah.com
For more information and to read de Graaff’s blog, visit Herewithsarah.com
Images: Sarah de Graaff and Nicole Bird Photography.