How Yoga Helps Me Stay in Recovery

Being depressed feels like being trapped under a heavy wool blanket. I can’t breathe, I can’t see, I can’t move. The immense weight of the world around me is almost unbearably oppressive. I get lost in my own mind as fearful, anxious thoughts overtake my brain. My muscles and bones ache, and I feel stiff and immobilized. I just can’t seem to move my body enough to get myself off the sofa or out of the house.

When I’m manic, blindingly bright electrical impulses fire rapidly through my head. Things that normally feel good are intensified tenfold. Food tastes incredible, music sounds melodious and meaningful, and colors appear more vivid. Like the rush of dopamine that comes with the high of a powerful drug, it’s pretty amazing. Sounds great, right? The problem is, ideas dart around in my mind so rapidly that even in the middle of a pleasurable experience, I can’t simply enjoy it, because I’m focused on chasing the next one.

In both scenarios, my body gets lost in the whirlwind created by my bipolar mind.

My medications are key, but unless I manage my physical well-being, they can only do so much. I need a solid foundation for treatment plan to work. When I’m in the middle of a manic or depressive episode, simple things like sleep, food and exercise go out the window, yet those are crucial building blocks for people with bipolar disorder. Those simple physical necessities most people take for granted are things I can’t afford to ignore.

Trying to find the right exercise program has been a long journey.

I did cardio kickboxing about three years ago. It was at a hip intown studio, and the classes were huge, when they weren’t completely full. The instructors couldn’t pay attention to everyone. It was easy to do things the wrong way, going unnoticed and uncorrected. The 50-minute workouts were intense and grueling. No one came right out and said it, but the environment was also extremely competitive. I don’t know if it’s a bipolar thing or a “me” thing, but I go too far beyond my limits when I sense competition. I looked at the twenty-somethings, their boxing gloves flying and their ponytails slapping the air, pushing myself to keep up. We were all moving so fast that I paid little attention to my body, and I kicked myself into a lower back injury.

I joined a gym two years ago so I could get cardio and strength training from the treadmill and weights. The problem was, I was in charge of managing myself. I alone devised my exercise regime. Even if I’m not having a full-blown episode, I still operate in extremes. I’d go months without putting on a pair of trainers, then I’d get a burst of energy and exercise overzealously. The first time I injured my shoulder, I was lifting way-too-heavy free weights over my head, and I heard a pop. I promised myself I’d be more careful next time, so I rested and went back. Everything was fine until one day, I had a lot of energy, and I again lifted weights that were too much for me. This time, I couldn’t raise my right arm over my head for three days.

Ironically—in my quest for physical wellness—my bipolar brain took over, and my body got lost in the process.

Competitive drive inspires athletes to achieve great things. The high that accompanies running past your breaking point is widely considered healthy. Nike ad slogans like “Just do it” are good motivators for most people. But, because I have bipolar disorder, I have to remember I’m not most people. I often set unrealistic goals for myself, and I ignore my body when my brain is on overdrive. I, like many other people with bipolar disorder, take things to the extreme.

So, what’s the solution? Take smaller kickboxing classes? Get a personal trainer? Sure, but there’s still a missing connection between my mind and my body in both cases. Most forms of exercise encourage you to push through pain to achieve results. I’m sure that works great for some people, but it doesn’t work for me. It feels like I’m ignoring my inner voice. In order to achieve balance, I need to connect with the voice in my head through learning control over my body.

I tried Tai Chi years ago, and I found it frustratingly sluggish. I imagine it’s a wonderful way to find inner serenity, but I don’t have the discipline to move that slowly. I’ve found mindful meditation helpful. It’s a good way to reconnect my mind to my body, but it doesn’t raise my heart rate, build strength or improve circulation. Plus, it’s almost impossible for me to meditate when I’m manic, or even hypomanic. If I meditate when I’m depressed, I focus too much on my inner thoughts, and it’s hard to escape them.

That’s why I love yoga. I’m able to do yoga whether I’m manic or depressed. Yoga helps me feel calm and centered by forcing me to slow down and focus on my breath. Yoga forces me to be mindful of my body, and that mindfulness extends beyond the studio and into my everyday life. Doing yoga has helped me understand and achieve mindfulness in a way that no other activity has, because it keeps my focus on the here and now, and on how my body is feeling at any given time. Unlike meditation, I don’t have to sit in one position for a long time, so each pose is like a mini, non-committal moment of meditation. Yoga moves slow enough for me to build muscle safely, because I’m not throwing my body every which way at breakneck speed. Getting into poses and holding them gives me satisfying stretches, and time to reflect on how I feel—both inside and out—while I’m in the pose. And yoga has helped me build core strength better than any other exercise has. Strengthening my core has strengthened my core, if you get my drift. I feel more balanced internally when I sit up straight and hold my body with purpose, even when I’m at rest. Yoga is all about balance, so every pose has a variety of counter poses that prevent injury and preserve symmetry.

I do yoga at a studio with small classes, so I can get individual attention from the instructor. If I’m doing something wrong, the teacher helps me correct it. The hour I dedicate every week to doing yoga is a welcome respite from the stress and triggers in my life. I leave feeling peaceful, refreshed, loosened up, and strong at the same time. For me, it’s the perfect combination of exercise and meditation, and it’s helped me reconnect my body to my brain. Yoga is the missing puzzle piece in my treatment plan.

Yoga may not be the right solution for you, but I encourage you to find what works best. It took years for me to realize I needed to bridge the gap between my mind and my body in order to stay healthy, both mentally and physically. Just like finding the right medications, it may take trial and error before you figure out what works best. Once you find a form of exercise that gives you a sense of inner strength and peace, stick with it, you won’t be disappointed.

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