We spoke to Yoga teacher and mindfulness advocate, Lily Olsberg, about why meditation is so important for mental health and how you can get started as a ‘namasthe’ novice.
Why did you take up yoga in the first place?
Initially I started trying out yoga for exercise, and I was of the mindset that it was all about your body and the physical element. I did hot yoga and all I could think about was how much sweat I could pump out and the calories I might burn, but things have changed a lot in terms of my mindset and what the practice has actually done for my mind, body and soul since then.
Has it been what you expected it to be?
Not at all, obviously the physical practices can be hard but I’ve actually felt the most benefit from the sessions which aren’t the ridiculously hot and sweaty ones – the ones that work best for me and make me feel content and fulfilled when I leave them are actually the ones where I feel the most present in my body and the most connected to my breath, the most in the room and physically there, on the mat. The expectation of it being just about fitness has been flipped on its head since I did my teacher training and practised yoga more – think of it more like therapy for every part of your body, rather than simply a fitness class!
How has yoga changed your life?
So many ways! It’s made up of a number of things, not just the physical (the Asana pillar), but it’s meditation, a way of life – it constitutes the way you see the world, how you interact with yourself and others, connection to breath, acknowledgement and reaction to your thoughts.
This became apparent especially when doing my yoga teacher training and spending a year focusing and doing my 800 hours, which made me realise how much yoga I do daily without being on a mat, if that’s taking deep breaths when anxious or if it’s taking a moment to be present when alone or with friends, it’s not just about the way my body moves and my flexibility but it’s about the calmness of my mind, control of my breath and the control of my nervous system. Yoga and meditation has given me tools to get through difficult times, it’s been a great way to have fun and move my body in ways I couldn’t have expected, a feelgood way of challenging myself and a way to be a better version of me.
How are yoga and meditation intertwined? Can you do one without the other?
The yoga sutras of Patanjali, the eight limbs of yoga are what make it the spiritual practice it is, and meditation (Dhyana) is one of those eight limbs so yes, they’re very much intertwined, you can’t do one without the other, they’re intertwined on a philosophical level as well as the other pillars of Pranayama (breath control), Asana (the postures), all the way down to concentration and all the other limbs.
What advice would you give to someone who finds it hard to meditate?
Stop forcing yourself into what you perceive meditation to be. Let go of expectations of what you think successfully meditating is and just come back to your breath. For many beginners, those who find it difficult with all that negative self talk in the head, or those who focus on doing it right but it ends up making them anxious, the most important thing to do is bring it back to your breathing. There are loads of meditation apps that are really helpful, Insight Timer is a favourite one of mine or Headspace obviously, but Insight Timer is free and has amazing teachers that offer guided meditations which focus on the classic inhale and exhale trick.
Or, if you don’t want to use an app, breathe in for three counts and then out for three, four or five, whatever feels right. You can really just tap into that meditative state and it’s all about being present, not about not thinking or not having thoughts or not having things rush through your mind because those things are always bound to happen, it’s about being present in the moment and cultivating an awareness of what your body is doing – sometimes that’s about acknowledging those thoughts and letting them pass through you.
What are the benefits of meditation and should we all do it?
I speak lots about the benefits of yoga and meditation in my newsletter The Fig Yoga and I send that every two weeks with loads of tips about how to meditate and how to practice better self love, with some added tips for yoga teachers for teaching in these crazy times (especially on Zoom). The benefits range from a calmer mind to a calmer body, a deeper connection with your feelings both in an emotional sense and the literal feeling sensation in your body. Yoga can help us when reacting to a fight or flight response or when experiencing fear or stress or anxiety, and an awareness of our body and of our breath is just so invaluable to our wellbeing. We truly should all do it, as nobody’s life is entirely stress free! What are you waiting for?