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Boxing, Yoga and Men's Mental Health.....

This months blog is written by Amy Farnworth, originally a boxer who found yoga who then went on to complete her Yoga Teacher Training Course at the studio. Read all about how yoga can help your boxing performance and the positive effects combining this with yoga can have on mens ( and womens ) mental health.......

When I first started my yoga teacher training, I was adamant my journey down this avenue would see me leading high-intensity based flow classes, with lots of strong, fast vinyasas, something not unlike Jivamukti or Power yoga.

My background and personal exercise practice had always been brutally physical. I was a firefighter for six years and loved the sweat-laden circuit classes, or stamina-testing boxing sessions - something that made me feel I’d expelled and exerted enough energy to release the negative emotions and tension I held in my body brought on by years and years of built up stress and anxiety, and a deep-rooted fear that I was never enough, and I would never be enough. However, as the weeks on the YTTC progressed I began to notice not only how my own practice was changing, but how I was changing as a person too - I could feel the calming effects yoga was having on my body and mind, and I could feel the eagerness to learn and the eagerness to delve deeper into this ancient practice and philosophy sweeping away all that anxiety, all that built up tension and stress that I carried with me on a daily basis; that I’d carried with me since my childhood.

It’s fair to say then, that the YTTC has changed the expectations I had for myself as a yoga teacher for the better. Despite craving the high intensity of a Bikram or Hot Flow class for my own peace of mind, I found that with my teaching, I was edging towards wanting to lead a more gentle, subtler practice, with an emphasis on the spiritual realignment of energies through the body in order to provide an alternative to managing stress and anxiety. I knew I would still want to dive headfirst into strong classes in my own time, but when at the front of the studio, taking command of the room, I found I yearned to help people; to help make them feel their worth, just as yoga had done for me.

I’ll try to place some context around what I’ve just discussed and elaborate some more.

Yoga has been a regular part of my life for around five years now, and even though my personal practice is developing and changing all the time (I’m growing stronger, more flexible and am able to challenge myself with difficult inversions) I always thought my goals would remain unshifted. Because I constantly desired the challenge in my own practice, I thought others would want that from their practice too.

However, a set-back with my mental health in 2018/19, where I saw my anxiety become uncontrollable to the point it was affecting my behaviour and emotions (think bouts of crying and rage, tension headaches and broken sleep), allowed me to appreciate yoga for its holistic and healing values.

Combined with prescribed medication and regular therapy, I found yoga really beneficial in helping to cope with my mental health issues. It gave me time to really relax my mind, giving my brain a holiday and my body a chance to reset.

Outside of yoga, I train in the art of boxing - the technique and skill involved has always fired me up and allowed my endorphins to run wild, so when I began practicing yoga alongside boxing (gaining that balance of yin and yang), I discovered the results to be profound - the breath techniques used in yoga helped in my ability to relax more when training in the gym and sparring; the focus used in yoga enabled me to listen more and take on board what my boxing coaches were telling me. And steadily, I found my mental health improving as well.

If this kind of approach could work for me (disregarding the medication and therapy for the time being), then why couldn’t it work for others, and in particular, men?

That’s when I began to look at why people, why men in particular, take up boxing, and why they should probably take up yoga too.

By just doing a simple Google search and reading articles written in sporting and medical

journals, I discovered that a lot of men find boxing is beneficial as a way of controlling anger, or instilling discipline or giving them a focus, or sometimes all three.

Men may box in order to occupy their minds, to keep them out of trouble, or for something to aim for when trying to cope with mental health problems.

I see a lot of men come through the doors of the boxing gym I attend. Some stick around and train religiously for years; some come for a bit of a confidence boost and become addicted to the community feel the gym offers; some drop in every once in a while when they need to lose a few pounds; some I know for a fact use it as an outlet, a safe place for them to come and train and have a laugh with other like-minded people; but most of all, I see a lot of men use the boxing gym as a source of emotional and mental support.

Mental health issues in men have sky-rocketed over the last few years, with suicide being the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.

Research has found that men who suffer from depression or lack of confidence, low self-esteem or low-worth have trained in boxing and have seen improvements in their mood and thought processes. Boxing provides a grounding and a sense of belonging for some men - being part of a team or a club can make them feel valued.

However, I felt that despite boxing providing a physical outlet for some males, there was still space for an emotional and mental outlet to be explored alongside the masculine bravado that is associated with the sport, and that’s where I think yoga could make a huge difference.

By introducing yoga into a male boxer’s training regime, I truly feel and believe that not only will it improve physical performance by helping to ease tension and tightness in the shoulders, hips, lower back and hamstrings, but it will improve mental awareness too, complementing the very essence of the physical exertion experienced in boxing with a milder, more mentally beneficial exertion (think better control of the breathe while fighting, more space in the hips for twists and turns, and a clear mind to enable quick thinking).

And I know for certain, yoga will give a lot of men the head space they need to process some of the reasons they started boxing in the first place.

But it’s not just boxers I feel will benefit from introducing yoga into their lives, it’s men in general. In my domestic life, I have had first and second hand experience of the devastating effects mental health issues can have on a man’s life.

Men, more often than not, tend to bottle their feelings up, believing it would make them look cowardly, weak and ‘less of a man’ if they were ever seen to express or voice their worries and thoughts to anyone else.

Without going into too much detail, a very close family member was admitted to hospital on several occasions because of mental health problems, and as a result will probably be on medication for the rest of his life.

A friend of mine, following the birth of his first child, suffered intense depression and anxiety and had to take weeks off work.

A man I’d known for some time tried to take his own life after a toxic relationship and destructive lifestyle left him in despair.

Another friend self-harmed just after Christmas, I believe relationship troubles and access to his children had been the trigger.

I also know men who drink heavily and take drugs to mask feelings of worthlessness.

In my line of work as a reporter for a local newspaper, I often attend inquests in which the cause of death is concluded to be suicide - eight times out of ten the deceased will be a man. And a young man at that.

All of these incidents I find utterly heartbreaking and due to the social connotations surrounding men opening up about their feelings, and the lack of timely mental health support available or accessible to some men, I believe offering yoga as an early intervention could vastly reduce the number of men suffering with these types of issues - many of whom could also be boxers.

Yoga is a practice that has been around for years, and is still practiced in some parts of the world by 90-year-old elders who attribute their long lives to staying flexible and liberated in the bodies and minds (among many, many more positive lifestyle choices).

By introducing yoga into a boxer’s training regime or boot camp, and by using yoga classes as a first point of contact call for men referred to mental health services, I honestly believe the rate of suicide in men could decrease and more men would be able to accept, control, and deal with their emotions better.

That is why, as I begin my yoga teaching journey, I want to try and help dispel the pre-conceived idea that yoga is just for women who want to be bendy; for women who look good in a bikini and practice yoga on a beach in an exotic location just for Instagram likes (this is not yoga); or for older women who go to a weekly yoga class in their church hall.

I want to enable men to use yoga as a channel for their emotions and to help them reconnect to their inner selves as opposed to what society is telling them they should be.

My aim therefore over the next 12 months, and possibly beyond, is to conduct a study into the effects a regular yoga practice may or may not have on a man’s physical and mental health. And I have a few men who attend my classes I feel would be perfect for this - some have sports injuries, some have issues with depression and anxiety, some are boxers, some struggle to express themselves emotionally, and some find it difficult to switch off or relax, especially if they have stressful jobs and challenging domestic lives.

My study will aim to check in with each man every two or three months to find out what changes, if any, they’ve noticed in their minds and/or bodies since they began practicing yoga. I will do this by asking a series of questions and collate and analyse the answers. I will then ask a final set of questions at the end of the 12 months and culminate all the data to come to some form of conclusion. I’m positive that there will be some changes, as how can there not be? Even if the

changes are purely physical, then the study will demonstrate that there’s a definite physical benefit for men associated with practicing yoga. However, I’m also pretty sure there will be some psychological/mental changes too, which could be revolutionary and support the idea that yoga for men is, and could be one alternative way of helping them deal with a range of mental health issues. I’m no doctor, and I don’t claim that this study will be in any way a replacement for a professional clinical assessment, but it might just help change someone’s life for the better.

Amy Farnworth

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