Yoga for mental health recovery: a project with Ruah Mental Health Services

Yoga for mental health recovery: a project with Ruah Mental Health Services

Ruah Mental Health Services works with individuals recovering from serious and persistent mental illness. We worked with Ruah to design a six-week yoga program that would help their clients build the skills and confidence to participate in their community.

We tailored yoga for mental health recovery, rather than relief from mental distress

Research shows yoga can have a positive impact on mental health: it can help with stress management, create focus and improve self-awareness. But ordinary classes may be confronting for those dealing with mental illness, who may be overwhelmed by large groups, uncomfortable with being touched, or have specific learning needs.

Our design process focuses on outcomes that support an organisation’s wider goals for their clients. Because Ruah’s mandate is mental health recovery, we needed to design a program that would help participants do more than just reduce symptoms of mental distress: the course would build their confidence and skills to transition from mental health worker support to being active in their own community participation.

Our design process

Before setting foot on a yoga mat we did background research to understand Ruah’s organisational culture, and their work with clients. We also did a literature review of how yoga can help with mental health. From this broad understanding we scoped a program that would support Ruah’s work in mental health recovery.

To drill into the detail, we offered each participant an individual consult. This revealed their individual needs, the language they used, and their expectations for yoga and health. This information told us where to begin, and led to the design of the first group session. To create the rest of the program we used an action-research method, applying critical reflection after each class throughout a six-week pilot.

We were surprised by the program aims our research uncovered (which is a good sign!)

When we began the process of program design, we presumed we would be delivering a program that reduced the symptoms of mental illness. However, the critical research phase, which included facilitating a conversation with Ruah’s mental health workers, and group conversations with their clients, we realised there was a bigger aim that could be realised.

Together, we decided on this key objective:

Participants in Yoga for Mental Health Recovery develop the skills, motivation and knowledge to undertake a yoga practice at home and in the community, in accordance with their own, personal objectives for their yoga practice.  They can assess their own readiness, and communicate their needs with a teacher and support crew.

Ensure you meet individual needs and the bigger picture

Ruah recognises that recovery in mental health means different things to different people. In their individual consults we helped each person understand if this was the program for them and what they wanted to get out of it.  These preparatory sessions allowed us to work more accurately with the diverse range of mental health needs and the considerable range in physical capacities.

Feedback after the individual sessions included physical and emotional benefits:

“I liked that it took me back to somewhere that is safe”

“You got rid of the shoulder pain without even touching me!”

Take a prototype approach to enable higher orders of learning

We adopted a prototype-based approach to course design, whereby the content of each class is based on learnings from the previous session. One benefit of this approach is the higher order learning made possible, rather than simple repetition. The group participated in six weeks of group classes where they learned yoga postures (asana), pranayama (breathing) and meditation. They were also introduced to yogic philosophy, such as the principle of non-harming (ahimsa) to illustrate that they were allowed to stop anything that felt uncomfortable.  After each session participants and their workers gave feedback that allowed the course to be refined.

Critical reflection for all involved enables success

A key part of our design process is assisting participants and stakeholders to reflect on their needs, thoughts and beliefs. For participants, discussion and exercises helped them observe their learning journey and identify actions they could take to achieve their own needs and goals for yoga. With acknowledgement of the work of MA Baillon (University of Lille) through learning how to learn about yoga, in so doing we learn about ourselves.

Yoga as transition

After six weeks, our yogis were performing more complex yoga postures. They said they felt stronger, more co-ordinated and that their balance had improved.  The group also had interesting discussions about motivating themselves to practice at home, where to find affordable classes in their area and the style of yoga that would suit them best.  Everyone in the group said they felt more comfortable about attending yoga classes in the community and about adapting postures to their own capabilities.  Almost everyone was intending to enrol in a yoga class in the community.

Ruah staff said that it was really important for those recovering from mental illness to have programs like this that offer a transition between the kind of support mental health workers can provide and the step into the community.

Does your organisation work with a mental health recovery model? This course can be run for you. Get in touch.

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