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A Workout for Your Mind

Jess Furmanski caught up with yogini Kiri Spiotta to talk about her mental health journey, and how closely it’s tied to her love of yoga.

I managed to catch Kiri in between jobs, rushing from one yoga commitment to the next. Although she’s juggling work, full-time study and relationships, she’s doing it for all the right reasons and loving every minute of it.

Kiri is a psychology student and yoga instuctor who has taught people of all ages and experience levels. The 22-year-old currently teaches at four different yoga studios across Auckland, all of which have tailored workshops, different views on yoga, and cater to different audiences. From hot yoga, physical power flows and combination yoga to more holistic classes, Kiri is all over the place – and it’s no coincidence she’s building a career out of something she believes in with the strongest conviction.

For Kiri, yoga isn’t just a hobby or a Sunday-morning-before-brunch sort of deal. She’s been practising since she was five years old, when she would hide in her mum’s room with her yoga videos. As an “anxious little kid”, she found yoga helped her where traditional therapy couldn’t. However, it wasn’t until her early teens that her struggle with depression and anxiety led her to regular yoga practice, guided meditation and relaxation. At the age of 18, she decided to get her yoga teacher training certification, as she had begun to articulate the effect yoga was having on her physically, emotionally and mentally.

Beyond just a form of exercise, yoga is not moving muscles, but moving energy, says Kiri. “When you’re suffering from depression and anxiety, you’re in your head; you’re not grounded.” She realised yoga was a way to help her regain control of her own body, stop focusing on her thoughts and start focusing on reality instead. Amid our hectic lives, the need for multi-tasking can be overwhelming, but the focus that yoga calls for is a great way to practice attention control, because, “the second you start thinking about something in a balancing posture, you fall over on your face.”

One of the key benefits of yoga is the awareness of breath, and how different ways of breathing affect our bodies. The parasympathic nervous system is responsible for rest and relaxation, says Kiri, but when we’re rushing between class, work and other commitments, we’re taking shorter breaths, thus not activating that part of our body. No wonder we’re all so stressed!

These short breaths are a function of our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for activating the ‘fight or flight’ mode most students will no doubt be familiar with. But when practising yoga, we draw in much deeper breaths, which teaches us to control our breathing in all aspects of life. “When you’re in a difficult pose everything is burning, but you have to keep the breathing going," says Kiri. Drawing a parallel between being chased by a cheetah and stepping into an exam, she says there’s no reason to be breathing so rapidly in this day and age. The techniques we learn in yoga help us to slow down our breathing when we’re stuck in a position that makes us feel stressed or anxious. “Whatever is going on in your head, whatever madness is going on around you, if you can keep breathing through it, you find this internal stability that carries through the rest of your body and the rest of your life,” she says.

When struggling with self doubt, depression or anxiety, it can be hard to pull ourselves out of that space. One of yoga’s core teachings, says Kiri, is learning how to separate your self from your thoughts. “Your emotions are things you’re experiencing, but they’re not you. The fact that you can acknowledge them means they’re not you.”

“You can have sad thoughts, but you are not a sad person. I was having some really dark, sinister thoughts that I never wanted to act on, but yoga’s core teachings helped me realise that despite the thoughts, I am not a dark person.”

For anyone who’s perhaps too shy to try yoga, Kiri says there’s a huge misconception around the practice in terms of how flexible a person needs to be. “Saying you’re not flexible enough to do yoga is like saying you’re too dirty to take a bath.” She teaches classes for people of all abilities, and while some people can lower their face to their feet, others can only lightly stretch. But, “what’s important is the feeling, not how it looks,” she says. When teaching, she encourages her students not to look around, because “comparison is the thief of joy.”

“Nothing good ever comes from comparing yourself to others. There’s always going to be someone better than you, more flexible than you, and what’s important is how it feels for you personally.”

Keen to give yoga a try? Check out our giveaways page to win a two-week unlimited pass to RISE Yoga.

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