Tomorrow I'm taking part in an event. It is being run by a Hertfordshire County Council funded initiative called Delivering Special Provisional Locally (DSPL). It aims to support parents, carers and schools so that children with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) can be supported in mainstream schools.
I worked for DSPL for four years so it's an organisation that's close to my heart. I learnt how stressful it can be, parenting a child with SEND and fighting so that they get the support they need.
Tomorrow I have to give a ten minute talk on how I can help these parents, carers and schools. I'm the first speaker. I'm one of many speakers from charities and services who will be talking about the support they offer. I've had to think really hard about what message I want to get across, so that I'm not met with a room of people who want me to just shut up so that they can get to the main point of the day. They also asked me if I'd provide cake, so I got rice paper cake toppers printed with my illustrations. If people hate my speech, I'll win them over with cake.
Here's what I think I'm going to say.
My name is Maria, and I'm a self-employed yoga teacher. I'm here as a volunteer and I'm not being paid to be here. I chose to be here today because I'm passionate about sharing how yoga can help with your mental health. I'm guessing that most of you are here today because you need help with something. When we need help, it can be stressful.
I'm not trying to advertise my yoga classes to you. I want to share some tips with you that you can use at any time.
Yoga is not about contorting your body into intricate shapes, to photograph and upload to Instagram. To practice Yoga you don't have to be into chanting, incense sticks, tie-dye clothing, singing bowls or crystals. For me, Yoga is about the connection between your mind, your body and your breath.
Yoga is great for your mental health, because we carry stress in our bodies. About 20 years ago, I was working in an office. I felt under a lot of pressure, and so I worked longer hours to try and take that pressure off. One morning I woke up and I couldn't turn my head at all. The muscles in my neck had seized up.
Then we had a long bank holiday weekend to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee. I thought a few days off work would help. It didn't.
I couldn't drive, and I couldn't cross the road without turning my entire body. Eventually, physiotherapy helped and that led me to trying yoga. It took months to get full mobility back.
When we are stressed, our bodies tense up. If we are stressed over a long period of time, that tension is always there. We are designed to protect ourselves from physical threats such as predators. Any threat means that our brains send a message to our muscles to get ready to fight, run or freeze. Now, we're designed to use that nervous energy to save our own lives. If we just sit there, so do all the stress hormones, and they can keep building up over time. This is why my neck seized up.
Any physical activity can help to burn off the crazy. What makes yoga different?
When we're practicing yoga, we are not just focusing on what our bodies are doing, but on our breathing and on what's going on in our minds. We know that our brains send messages to our bodies. But our bodies also send messages back to our brains. We can use this information to help ourselves feel more relaxed.
I'd like you to try something out with me. Please can you sit forward in your chairs, so that you're not leaning backwards? Sit towards the edge of your seat, make sure your legs are not crossed, and shuffle from one sitting bone to the other, then sit with both sitting bones connected to your chair. Imagine your head is floating upwards towards the ceiling. Now you have a nice, long spine and your lungs are totally free to inflate.
Bring your shoulders up to your ears, take a breath in, and let your shoulders drop as you breathe out.
Try putting one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. I'd like you to breathe so that only your bottom hand moves.
We often hold tension in our bellies, so let your belly expand as you breathe in ... and drop back as you breathe out.
When we are stressed, we breathe more into our chests, and this causes our shoulders and necks to tense up. Remember, our brains send messages to our bodies, but our bodies also send messages back to our brains. So when we're breathing in a quick, shallow way, it just reinforces that we're in danger. We are on red alert, ready to run, fight or freeze.
We often feel stress on a daily basis, but it's rare that we're in physical danger. So when we notice that our shoulders are tensing, our jaws are tense, or we're breathing in a shallow way ... we can pause, and undo this feeling. We can shrug our shoulders, breathe into our bellies, slow the breath right down. See how it feels if you make your out-breath longer than your in-breath.
Your breath should feel comfortable.
How is this making you feel now?
Yoga poses were originally designed to just take the tension out of the body so that yogis could sit comfortably, breathe well and meditate. So the physical aspect of yoga, for me, is about undoing the tension that daily stresses put onto my body, so that I can feel more relaxed. It's about being able to move and breathe with ease.
When we relax, our bodies and minds are not on red alert any more. Our bodies can focus their energies on healing from illnesses, digesting food, and sleeping. Long term stress lowers immunity, gives us digestive problems and keeps us awake at night, because we're using all our energies to stay on red alert.
The same is true of our children. The children we are supporting are still learning how to regulate their feelings. They can learn from us. We are herd animals. I hope you noticed that when a few of us started to slow our breathing down, the rest of us started to tune in with that feeling of peace and safety. We can help our children feel like this too.
When a child feels threatened, they will look to a trusted adult to work out how to behave. Are we safe, or is there any danger?
If you feel that that child is being "difficult" or "misbehaving", or if their distress is really getting to you, you might notice that your breathing starts to get quicker and your muscles tense up. If you remember to notice that happening, try slowing your breath down. When I'm parenting at my best, if my child is distressed, angry, inconsolable, this is what I do. When we do this, we are modeling self-regulation of our emotions. And with any luck, your child will pick up on this and find themselves slowing their breath down too. It's a skill that both of you can practice.
I'm here all day providing free children's yoga classes, and to answer any questions you might have. I have written books of relaxation scripts to help children at bedtime or when calm is needed, and I'm selling them with a 10% discount today. I'm also giving away free bookmarks and stickers. Please come and see me!
Illustrations by Ben and Steph Grandis, and Maria Oliver, from Maria's books. Please visit www.boxmooryoga.co.uk/shop-1 to have a look!