Grateful for breathing space

This Friday evening I was lucky enough to spend a blissful few hours with my friend Olly at her gym. If you’re thinking sweaty sports halls, manky changing rooms and verruca-ridden showers, think again: I’m talking a gym with Molten Brown products in the showers and a full blown spa experience for after your workout (plus the added bonus that you might find yourself bumping into the England rugby team whilst you’re there; alas, no such luck on Friday). 

After a hundred-mile-an-hour rush to get there on time, we arrived at our yoga class with minus five minutes to spare, a banging heart not exactly the most zen way to begin your practise (and bursting through the doors to interrupt the initial meditation not exactly the best way to make new yoga friends either), but despite this, it was only at the end of the class that I realised my mind had been thinking of nothing else but the poses and stretches for the last hour and fifteen minutes: I had managed to completely switch off from the stresses of the day. 

I used to take some kind of yoga class fairly regularly, but over the past two years have become completely out of practise. That feeling of clear headedness, of calm and of satisfying exhaustion having worked so many different muscles – as well as the fact that I’m feeling like I’ve been kicked all over by a horse right now – made me realise that I really do want to (and, for the sake of my poor, underused muscles, need to!) get back into it. 

Despite being really rather awful at a lot of it (honestly, I blame the fact that my arms are about double the length of most normal people’s; coupled with a questionable sense of balance, my Warrior 2 looks rather more ‘Drunk Surfer’), and certainly nowhere near the headstand-ing, touching-your-toes-with-your-chin kind of yogi, one of the things I love most about yoga is that it’s not really about anyone else but yourself, and what your own body can achieve. Unlike other sports, there’s no competition in yoga, and the mental benefits are just as important as the physical ones. Friday’s class reminded me that I need to be kinder to myself, that I need to spend more time on both my physical and mental wellbeing. Life is hard, and it’s very easy to just power on through without giving your wellbeing a second thought, but sometimes a glass of wine just doesn’t cut it in the relaxation stakes (don’t get me wrong, it often does): taking some time to relax, to slow down your heart rate and to clear your head can only be a good thing. Because isn’t our mental health just as important as our physical health? 

Sadly, barely a week goes by where I don’t hear about somebody going through some kind of mental health issue. I was about to write ‘of course I won’t name names’ (and I won’t), but why? If I had a friend who had broken their arm or was suffering from diabetes, I probably wouldn’t think twice about mentioning them, but we live in a world where there is still such a stigma around mental health issues; our society still has a problem if we can’t physically see the bandage or the scar. And this isn’t helped by the offhand way in which we use terminology related to mental health: “I’m so depressed Love Island is ending next week”; “If he doesn’t text me back, I’ll kill myself”. We’re all guilty of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, but a casual use of phrases like these only degrades the seriousness of those people who are genuinely suffering. 

I read an article this week about an employee having taken a ‘mental health day’ off work (and received a hugely positive response from her boss, and seemingly the rest of the world too). This is not a term I had heard before this week, but the more I thought about it, the more utterly logical it sounded. If we can take a day off work because we’re suffering a stomach ache or a migraine, why the hell shouldn’t we be able to take a day off to look after our mental health too? Aren’t these invisible issues just as likely to have a negative impact on our work as the physical ones? I’ve also heard of companies offering ‘duvet days’ to their employees, which probably amount to the same thing. 

I’m well aware that for many of those suffering with their mental health, a few days off work is nowhere near enough, but the concept of a ‘mental health day’ addresses the fact that we are all susceptible to feeling down or anxious or stressed out – and that’s okay. From an employers’ perspective, I can see how introducing such a policy could be a bit of an HR minefield, and easily abused – but everybody knows that happy employees are more engaged and more productive. It just makes sense. Such a policy also serves to show that suffering from a mental health issue or illness doesn’t necessarily have to mean months off work on long term sick leave, and I would imagine that by allowing employees the time and space to breathe when they need to, employers could see a reduction in those who do end up being signed off long-term (I would also imagine that as I am in no way any kind of expert on the matter, and have no statistics to back this supposition up, you can also feel completely free to ignore me). 

Of course everybody is different, and I am in no way trying to belittle those who do require much more time, support or medication. Mental illness comes from a chemical imbalance in the brain, and if the best way to rectify that in order to get yourself out of bed in the morning is to take a tablet each day (just like many who take daily medication for physical conditions), who on earth can argue with that? 

I’m lucky enough to confidently say that I’m not suffering from any mental health problems, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be aware of my mental wellbeing and do my very best to look after it. I’m talking about us being kind to ourselves, about taking the time to make sure we’re in the best possible state of mind to deal with whatever the world throws at us. How you choose to look after yourself doesn’t matter: take a walk, do some exercise, meditate, or even visit a doctor if you need to – this week, just take a moment to sit back and breathe: your body and your mind will thank you for it. 

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