how yoga helped her through mental illness
Whether it’s improved physical, mental or emotional health you’re seeking, Sjana Elise Earp tells Body+Soul it’s yoga that has the potential to turn your world upside down – for the better.
Sjana Elise Earp is bendier than a pretzel from a New York City sidewalk cart, but don’t let her insane yoga poses intimidate you. If there’s one woman who will inspire you to take up – or get back into – yoga, it’s this 25-year-old from the sandy surrounds of Newcastle in NSW. She’s living, or perhaps more aptly, spine-twisting proof of the ancient practice’s miraculous health benefits.
From age 16, Earp struggled with depression and anxiety. By the time she was 18, she had moved to Queensland, where she studied photojournalism at Griffith University and worked anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week in hospitality. It was a hectic balancing act and to find solace, Earp would head to the beach at sunrise, where she would teach herself the basics of yoga. “I wanted to heal,” Earp (whose first name is pronounced See-ah-nah) tells Body+Soul. “There’s a morbid comfort in depression, but after seeing many psychologists, teaching myself yoga helped me manage my emotions.”
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As she mastered a posture, Earp would have her camera perched on a tripod nearby, ready to snap. She would then upload the shots to her social-media feeds, and within a few years amassed more than 1.6 million followers on Instagram. That makes her a bona fide influencer, but she may prefer the term encourager, instead – her message, she says, is simply “to share the practice of yoga, and teach people how to bring it into their lives”.
Whether you’re 16 or 86, incredibly fit or slightly overweight, the beauty of yoga is that everybody can do it – in Australia, more than two million of us get on the mat for a session each year – and in turn reap its benefits. A combination of physical, mental and spiritual exercises, it is a practice that strengthens the body and calms the mind. Here’s what you need to know about yoga.
Bends with benefits
Put simply, yoga is wondrous for physical health. A bit like a restaurant menu, really – start with your ailment (sore shoulders, tight hips or perhaps an issue you’re mentally grappling with) and there’s a plethora of poses that can serve as a remedy. “You do yoga to find out what your body needs,” says Earp.
“Done correctly, a yoga practice can give increased strength and flexibility through all of the joints in the body,” says Simon Borg-Olivier, physiotherapist and director of Yoga Synergy. “It can also improve bone-mineral density when it’s done in a practised and balanced way.”
You may hear a yoga teacher talk about “rinsing” or “flushing” out the body. This, Borg-Olivier explains, is because “it can be beneficial for internal organs. It improves cardiovascular health by increasing blood flow while keeping the heart rate low.” And its effects on the nervous system are such that it “encourages immunity and digestion, and therefore is responsible for relaxation, rejuvenation and regeneration. With correct yoga as opposed to cardio, you experience the benefits of exercise and relaxation at the same time, plus benefits at a deeper emotional level.”
Research has linked yoga to improved sleep quality, flexibility and strength, better athletic performance, higher bone density, weight loss, healthy eating, anti-ageing, and an increased libido.
“The first time people do yoga, they instantly notice how energised they feel,” says Earp, now a trained teacher who travelled the world practising before the pandemic hit. One study from Boston University School of Medicine found just one class a week boosts the production of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that helps calm the brain, reduce anxiety and increase feelings of positivity. Other studies have found it can improve concentration and memory, and reduce stress.
How to bend it like Earp
All you really need is a quiet room, loose clothing, a mat – sticky ones are best – and in lieu of taking up the practice in a physical studio, an internet connection.
“Yoga is so adaptable,” says Earp. “There’s something powerful about being in a room with people breathing at the same time, but if you’re self conscious or money is tight, there are wonderful free classes online.”
She recommends trying different styles and teachers to find your fit. Many studios offer a free trial to help you decide. Ask yourself: how’s the ambience and facilities? Are the teachers knowledgeable, helpful and focused on their students? Your class will include poses and postures (asanas), breathing (pranayama) and meditation/relaxation (samyama). Classes may incorporate chanting and music, plus props like bolsters, straps and blankets. Often teachers will call out the poses in English and Sanskrit.
Don’t be afraid to position your mat at the back. Social distancing has upended how we interact with strangers, but depending on the studio and your own personal comfort level, teachers may be able to offer hands-off advice on how you can adjust into a pose if they see you straining.
“Most people struggle with balancing poses,” explains Earp. “So find a focus point, then turn your awareness within. For that moment, you’re not worrying about assignments, kids or to-do lists. All that matters is how to stay upright.”
Perhaps the most welcoming aspect of yoga is that it is not a competitive sport – with anyone else in the room, let alone yourself. It’s simply a way to give your body some love and get rid of self-judgement. Says Earp, “People see me on Instagram doing crazy poses and they’re like, ‘I can’t do that. I’m not flexible enough.’ But half the time I’m on my mat in corpse pose, lying on my back.”
You Will Rise by Sjana Elise Earp (Ebury Illustrated, $32.99) is out on Tuesday.
Yoga styles, decoded
Find the style that’s right for you…
Commonly known as “flow”. You move seamlessly through each pose, synchronised with your breath. Each class is a differing combination of poses, known as a sequence.
Technically this is the physical practise of yoga, but Western studios use the term to indicate a slower class where you learn the correct alignment for each pose.
Strong and rigorous, this athletic style of yoga follows a specific set of postures linked to each breath.
A meticulous style with an emphasis on alignment. Can be mentally and physically challenging as you hold poses for several breaths.
You guessed it, this is yoga for blokes, with a focus on flexibility, strength and fitness.