CAMYOGA Bursary Student Leads Fight Against Eating Disorders
- by James Downs
I started attending CAMYOGA in November 2016, after a long time of telling myself that “I really ought to go back to yoga soon”. Although I had tried yoga years ago - at a very different point in my life - I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of yoga at this point was quite limited. In this sense, coming to CAMYOGA was the beginning of a whole new journey for me. At the same time however, it came with a feeling of ‘coming home’, returning to something I had a profound sense of connection with.
Despite not really seeing myself as a yogi back then, I somehow had a sense of confidence and trust in the process of becoming a yoga teacher. As I started to go regularly to classes at CAMYOGA, it seemed as though something was slowly being revealed in me that had been there all along. With every pose I learnt, I was uncovering a greater sense of knowing that yoga was something that simply had to be a part of my life.
Of course, the idea of becoming a teacher was a scary and uncertain one - would I be any good? Was my practice good enough? Would anyone come to my classes? These anxieties however paled into insignificance when I reminded myself of my long recovery from severe anorexia and bulimia since my mid-teens. My life-threatening struggle with eating disorders showed me that if I could cope with that, I could cope with almost anything. For many years, my eating disorder had ground me down and taken away opportunities, time and health. Now however, I took a sense of confidence from tackling such a difficult condition that I (and even the doctors who treated me) thought I would never recover from. Now I was ready.
I already had so many ideas of what I could do with my teacher training: so many ways in which I could use yoga for the good of others. I had a strong background as a mental health campaigner, having organised events to raise awareness and funds for mental health. From charity concerts and vegan cake sales to political hustings and speaking in Parliament, it seems natural to me to use and share personal talents to make a difference. In the same way, I had benefitted from yoga myself, and so I wanted to share it with others, hoping that they might find it useful for their own wellbeing or even as part of recovery from an eating disorder.
The CAMYOGA Bursary has helped make my dream of using yoga to help other people experiencing eating disorders a reality. All of the plans and ideas I had, as wonderful as they may have been, would simply not have happened without the financial support of the teacher training Bursary. Soon after qualifying, I organised a “Yoga Against Eating Disorders” fundraising event, where I taught a class in my home city of Cardiff, raising funds for the Service for High Risk Eating Disorders in South East Wales. They had saved my life, and ever since being discharged I have worked with them to improve the support for other people going through similar difficulties. Having seen first-hand the level of pressure on their resources, I know that the £1000 that was raised at the yoga event will make a huge difference.
I believe that there is so much potential for yoga to help people experiencing all kinds of mental and emotional difficulties - especially where these relate to the relationship between mind and body and anxieties around body image. Of course, yoga can be used unhelpfully and we can punish ourselves by pushing into pain, comparing ourselves to perfect Instagram photos and reinforcing unhelpful patterns of behaviour. This was certainly how I encountered yoga for the first time, when I would push my emaciated body in intense yoga classes to the point of passing out or being asked to leave the class. Because of this, I am especially passionate about promoting ways of practicing yoga that are beneficial for our mental health. Practicing yoga in a very compassionate way is what has given me the confidence to use my own body to help others to learn, and helped changed the way I think about my body from something I once wanted to destroy to something worth nurturing and celebrating.
To try and help promote yoga as a therapeutic rather than competitive or punitive practice, I’m trying to take my own personal experience and beliefs about yoga into my campaigning and academic work. On November 17th I gave a presentation and lead a workshop on the benefits of yoga at a national eating disorders conference in Brighton, exploring issues such a self image, body dissatisfaction and exercise in relation to eating problems. This builds upon outreach events I have already done with the wider student body at Cambridge University, at my own college here, and through teaching at NHS England on World Mental Health Day. As a psychology student, I am hoping to further my connection with the Service for High Risk Eating Disorders as part of my Masters thesis, and have set up an honorary contract with the service to teach yoga on a 1-1 basis with patients. Watch this space!
What strikes me most when I look back on my journey into teaching yoga is how much I’ve relied on the support not just of myself, but of so many people around me. Yoga is all about connection, union, joining. I have been so lucky to have everything fall into place at the right time, and all the necessary dots join together to make becoming a yoga teacher happen. A fundamental part of this was the CAMYOGA bursary, which enabled me to learn from inspiring teachers during an amazing teacher training. It helped me to find the support of tutors and fellow trainees, and I have continued to be supported by CAMYOGA as a graduate. Of course, I continue to learn from my students every time I teach.
The generosity of the Bursary scheme motivates me to be generous with what I’ve learnt. Having the chance to use my skills towards making a real difference to others - especially for those struggling with eating disorders - has been hugely rewarding. For me, this is an example of what yoga is all about.
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