Kayleigh Alwill is a multi-talented performer on a mission to take yoga to those suffering with mental health issues. Poppy Pickles speaks to her about yoga and mental health and how we can help her on her quest.
Zen Monkey: What brought you to yoga?
Kayleigh Alwill: I trained as a dancer, and have always enjoyed exercise, but when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder three years ago I realised a needed a more holistic approach to keeping fit. I went on a meditation course, which happened to have a yoga class in the afternoon and from that moment on I was hooked.
ZM: Bipolar disorder is a serious mental condition affecting 2.4 million people in the UK. How did your diagnosis come about?
KA: It started when I was much younger, when I was affected by chronic anxiety and panic attacks. As I got older I would have manic episodes, where I would have lots of ideas and talk really fast, followed by a total crash in energy levels and bouts of severe depression when I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. As I got older, these eventually led to more serious periods of depression with thoughts of suicide — I actually started to plan how I would go about it.
At this point my partner realised that I needed medical help. Up until then I had been trying to self-medicate using natural remedies, such as St John’s wort. After my diagnosis I was prescribed Venlafaxine, which helped stabilise me, but it does have some serious side effects.
ZM: What style of yoga do you practice?
KA: I practice Vinyasa flow yoga and also do some Ashtanga or Hatha yoga. Vinyasa yoga is the type of yoga that I’d like to train to teach in, but perhaps a modified version, more slow flow, than fast-paced aerobic yoga.
ZM: You’re raising money to train to become a yoga teacher. What was the catalyst for this decision?
KA: Once I started going to yoga classes there was no going back for me. I became obsessed with it — it was all I could talk about! I decided to make it a part of my life, and started practising every day. Once I established a home practice, I began to notice the benefits for both my body and my mind and it was at that point that I thought about taking the benefits I felt as a sufferer of mental health issues to other sufferers.
The aim is to run yoga classes exclusively for those with a mental illness, and make the classes as cheap as possible, if not free. Often classes are around £15 per session which, while being reasonable for some, is restrictive for others. I also have a diploma in teaching meditation, so I can run meditation courses alongside the yoga classes.
ZM: When did you start meditating and how often do you do it?
KA: I started meditating a few years ago, inspired by my mother, who started when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I practice every morning for at least 10 minutes and even longer if I have a free day.
ZM: How do you think yoga and meditation help with your mental health?
KA: Yoga and meditation help me to keep a clear mind, manage my anxiety, and most importantly, put myself first and want to look after myself. I find that when I’ve done yoga I start eating better, and generally making better choices. If I’m low, yoga and meditation help me to get through that depression faster by giving me more control over my mind and the negative thought patterns that can arise. Yoga and meditation bring balance to body and mind, enabling me to live my life on a lower dose of medication.
ZM: Is it safe for bipolar sufferers to come off medication completely?
KA: No; although of course every individual is different. The practice of yoga is not a route to come off treatment. It’s another strategy, which can help lead to being able to manage the condition on a lower dose of medication, as I have done. The meditation, yoga and medication form a balance to cope with your mental health issues.
ZM: What can we do to help you achieve your dream of taking yoga to those with mental health problems?
KA: Share my page, spread the word and donate to my crowdfunding page! It would mean so much to me. Once I’m trained I’m hoping to take the mental health benefits of yoga to as many people and places as possible.
I’ve already got a network of contacts at various mental health charities that would definitely be interested in my classes, such as the national mental health charity MIND, who already run their Wellness Wednesdays. They’d like me to run 8 week yoga and meditation courses to ensure that people get a full introduction to the practice.
ZM: What other activities take up your time and how do you fit yoga and meditation into your day?
KA: Being an actress I have lots of different jobs, allowing me the flexibility to take the acting jobs when they come along. I teach Zumba three times a week, work at a special needs school three days a week and occasionally do promotional work at weekends — every day is different! Because of this I don’t have a set time that I practice, I just fit it in as and when I can, although first thing in the morning often works for me. I do try to keep Mondays free to attend my weekly yoga class.
ZM: Do you think having a performing background helps if you’re thinking about becoming a yoga teacher?
KA: My dance background certainly helps with the physical side of yoga, and having a performance background does give you confidence when teaching, but I think it’s the creativity of yoga that really links in with my performance and dance background.
ZM: What’s your favourite yoga pose?
KA: My favourite is Crow Pose — I find that I can stay in it for ages and it focuses me.
ZM: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
KA: It sounds cheesy, but yoga! I roll out of bed and onto my mat, which stays out in the living room.
A huge thank you to Kayleigh for taking the time to speak to Zen Monkey. If you’re interested in learning more about Kayleigh’s mission to take yoga to those suffering with mental health problems, then click here to go to her crowdfunding page.