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Yoga, Friendship, and Mental Illness

By Danny Szemple
When I first began my internship at Holy Comforter’s Friendship Center I had only ever done yoga twice in my life, both times with the gentle “prompting” of a girlfriend in college. While I would probably never admit this to her at the time, the truth is I enjoyed it immensely. There was something about the esoteric movements that positively mystified me. Even so there was something about doing yoga in a group that always made me feel uncomfortable, vulnerable even.
If there is one place in the world where vulnerability is accepted and embraced, it’s Holy Comforter. The Friendship center at Holy Comforter is a safe, loving, and inclusive community that promotes the mental, physical, and spiritual well being of adults marginalized by poverty and various mental health challenges. Whether your passion is painting, gardening, knitting, baking or doing yoga, Holy Comforter makes space for your passion and vulnerability.
For weeks I watched the small group of yoga regulars gather in the chapel, until one Tuesday morning I mustered my courage and joined them. The first morning I tried yoga I was greeted by a blur of black fur, a wet nose and a wagging tail. Terri the yoga instructor and her therapy dog Avery have been visiting the Friendship Center for almost two years now. While most people usually come for Avery’s gentle company and slick black fur they usually come back for Terri’s wisdom. Their welcoming presence has become a source of comfort and friendship for many in the community week after week.
As the class opened Terri began by explaining that the relationship between health (mental, physical, communal and spiritual) and yoga are intimately linked. The medications, hospitalizations, and diagnoses reinforce feelings of separation and disconnection from each other. Mindfulness and focus are critical aspects to maintaining your physical health. As Terri explained, mindfulness is a practice that keeps you from being overwhelmed by the negative energy in your life – energy that may take the form of stress over work, anxiety over an upcoming final, or dealing with the voices in your head. Where you place your energy throughout the day has a lasting impact on the quality of your mental, physical and spiritual health. This rings particularly true for members of the Friendship Center living day to day with mental illness.
We moved slowly through basic stretches into more complicated postures that emphasized the back and the core. With every posture came a breath and a sigh. Terri asked us to place our focus on how we moved, to bridge the connection between our minds and our bodies. As I watched the others in the group form each pose I began to understand the deep connection between mind and body that yoga seemed able to unlock. The mental, physical, spiritual all moving and working together as one. For me, the class was an important lesson in what it means to live and work with disability, whether physical, mental, spiritual, or social, through a holistic approach to health.
When the class finally drew to a close we leaned forward and with a deep breath, and pulled ourselves upright into a reverent posture. We ended the lesson with a bow and a word, namaste – the light in me sees the light in you – I greet the God in you.
All are welcome.

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