HEATHER MASON is a yoga therapist who has pioneered yoga and mindfulness in the healthcare sector, including for the National Health Services in the United Kingdom. Here, she is interviewed by EKTA BOUDERLIQUE of the Heartfulness Yoga Academy in the Yoga 4 Unity 2022 program.
Q: Welcome, Heather. Thank you for being with us.
HM: Thank you so much. It’s a delight.
Q: How were you introduced to yoga?
HM: I started practicing yoga in 1996, when I was 19, while studying in India, but it was really in 2000, when I went to Asia and Southeast Asia to work on my mental health, that I developed an appreciation of what yoga could offer. I was a gymnast, so at first I thought yoga was an adult form of gymnastics. It took some time to understand the real value.
Q: What is the aspect of Yoga that has attracted you the most?
HM: First and foremost, the philosophy. For many people it’s the movement, the idea of doing all these interesting poses, whereas I have always been drawn to the concept of oneness, to the dispelling of the illusion of the mind. From a young age, I have known that the mind can envision things that are not the truth. I wanted a practice that would allow me to cultivate wisdom and let go of confused and false views. Later, I understood that wisdom is also supported through movement, through breath work, through the further cultivation of the Yamas and Niyamas, the disciplines and observances.
I always had an inkling that there was something more than mundane reality. I have always questioned the nature of truth. I went to Costa Rica when I was 18, took a malarial medication, and had a really bad reaction to it. It led me to realize that there is not always stability in the mind. It was quite an intense realization for a young person to have; I really thought I was crazy.
When I returned to Manhattan, I went to see a psychiatrist.
He said to me, “I’m sorry, I know you want a pill to fix what’s happening to you, but some people have special experiences, and I believe you’re one of them. The only thing you need to manage is your anxiety.”
Soon after that I was on a bus in New York, and a man sat next to me, handed me two tickets and said, “You don’t know me, but I would like you to go to Gurumayi’s ashram in New York.”
So I went to visit Gurumayi, and she gave me a mala and said, “If you want more answers, Heather, go to India.”
I went home and said to my father, “Listen, I know this is a strange request, but I need to go to India. Since you said I could study abroad for a semester, that’s where I want to go.”
That’s where I started yoga.
Q: What an adventure! I can only imagine what it must have been like for you to discover a country like India, the cliché of an ashram, and yet you have done something very different with it. You often speak of mental health issues, which are not easy for people to talk about. Many of us are haunted by these things that affect some part of our lives. How did you deal with your depression? And what were the lessons you gleaned from it?
HM: I worked with yoga and mindfulness practices from the Buddhist tradition in two ways. First, I learned that all mental phenomena are processes. Now that isn’t easy. You have to meditate for long periods for that to be anything more than an intellectual concept. Being psychologically unwell, it was extremely difficult to meditate. Critical thoughts and feelings of self-loathing would overcome me. Thankfully, I was fortunate to have a very dedicated teacher.
Second, asanas helped me to be with very clear sensations in my body. When I practiced asanas that were challenging enough to direct my mind to the body, I would find my thoughts settling, simply by experiencing the pulsing sensation of the here and now. When I stayed present with that, tension would release, and I would have the clarity to sit and meditate. I started to see through the illusion of my thought processes, such as, “You’re not lovable, you’re not good enough.” These thoughts were because of things that had happened to me in the past.
So the dual approach of asanas and meditation allowed me to work with my depression. I understood that it is actually our own processes that give rise to these painful experiences. That is difficult, because it puts the onus of responsibility back on us, but it also means we can let go of the habit of negative thinking and supplant it with clear vision, seeing, and positive thought.
I gleaned that I could help other people, which is probably the most important part of my journey. I went to the depths of being unwell, and I worked really hard to become well, so often I know what it’s like to be there.
Q: Suppose somebody is just a beginner yoga practitioner. How long do you think it will take them to feel well, whether it’s depression, anxiety, stress, or any other difficulties related to the mind?
HM: It’s person specific. We also need to realize that if we have mental health issues we need to see yoga as hygiene, and continue to do it for the rest of our lives. Evidence suggests that months of regular practice, for example, five days a week, thirty minutes a day, yield significant results. Practicing for six months regularly seems to be more effective than practicing once a week for a number of years. Of course, there are people whose mental health challenges are very extreme, and it may take them years.
One of the most important things I learned is that I wear the scars of my past. I had depression and PTSD. I don’t expect to always be a perfect, balanced human being. I accept who I am, with some level of dysregulation. That is the arising Heather Mason in this life, and that is part of the healing.
I could help other people,
which is probably
the most important
part of my journey.
Q: This is the first time I am hearing somebody speak about yoga inducing self-kindness and self-acceptance, especially with mental illness. Could you tell us more about working with trauma?
HM: I’m a yoga therapist and I run the Minded Institute. Some time back, I was delivering an eight-week yoga therapy course for depression and anxiety when one of my students said to me, “There’s a course in Boston on yoga for trauma. Nobody’s done it in this country, so can you do it?”
So I did it, and it was so important. yoga has so much to offer people with PTSD, because it allows a gradual sensing into the body. For many people with PTSD, the body has been compromised in some way, and attending to the body causes fear. yoga offers breathing practices that regulate the autonomic nervous system, and a key feature of managing PTSD and trauma is that regulation.
Yoga allows for gentleness within the self, so that the body can become a place of safety rather than a place of fear. It’s a potent strategy. When I did the training in 2008 or 2009 there were not that many openings for yoga and PTSD. Now it’s burgeoning. The trauma community has a clear understanding that yoga can help their clients.
Q: This is an extremely relevant issue. With war a major reality in Europe, what measures do you think need to be taken? Do we need to do prevention rather than just healing?
HM: Well, prevention for sure. Unfortunately, for the people of Ukraine, prevention is not currently accessible, but for everyone, building the resilience of the nervous system is important.
I’m a huge proponent of breathing practices. Personally, I have found pranayama, the breathing practices offered by yoga, to be the most potent aspect. If you elongate the exhalation, you increase the messaging to your heart through your vagus nerve, the nerve that starts at the brainstem and travels to many different places, including the heart. Every time you exhale, the vagus nerve releases acetylcholine to the heart, reducing the heart rate, which is further picked up as a message from the body to the brain, allowing for a stilling of the mind. Practicing that for ten minutes a day has the potential to calm you down and cultivate resiliency.
Another thing is coherent breathing – inhaling for the count of six and exhaling for the count of six, so each breath cycle is twelve counts. That means five breaths per minute, which has significant effects on cardiovascular measures, and physical and psychological flexibility. I wish that the world would practice pranayama. No matter what tradition a person comes from, no matter how flexible they are, no matter what philosophical system they espouse, everyone can improve their breathing. We would enhance the capacity of our nervous systems to become robust, protecting us from some of the tragedies that befall us. Breathwork could become part of the healing regime offered in different therapies, and it could be done in large groups to support the social aspect, as we do need social bonds in order to support our well-being.
No matter what
tradition a person comes from,
no matter how flexible they are,
no matter what philosophical system
they espouse, everyone can
improve their breathing.
Q: I noticed that through the Minded Institute you have extended your work to the National Health System in the UK. What is the difference you are making? And what do you expect to achieve in the years to come?
HM: Just to clarify, the Minded Institute is a training organization for yoga therapists. Many of my graduates do enter the health system through their own efforts. I’m also the Founding Director of the Yoga in Health Care Alliance, which has created a yoga protocol for health, and that’s what we are doing within the NHS. The NHS has something called social prescribing, which is based on the understanding that social isolation is a major risk factor in a host of different diseases, due to both poor self-care and to the overall effects on the body. The cardiovascular and neurological systems are impacted by isolation. Cutting-edge research also shows that there are different genetic expressions in those who are isolated. Based on this understanding, the UK innovated a scheme of social prescribing whereby people are referred to activity groups, and yoga is one of the activities.
The Yoga for Health program was commissioned by the West London clinical group, created and evaluated by the University of Westminster. Paul Fox, the CEO of the Yoga in Health Care Alliance, and myself have trained hundreds of Yoga teachers in the UK and beyond. I see a lattice arising, where every clinic, or every small region of the UK, will have this program available for people who are isolated.
We built the program for the early intervention of type 2 diabetes, mild depression, mild anxiety, and people at risk of a cardiovascular event in the next ten years. By addressing these groups in the early stages, we hope to save the NHS a lot of money, and also shift the health trajectories of many people. Many health conditions fall into a social isolation risk for a cardiovascular event, mild mental health issues, and type 2 diabetes.
Q: I hope we will see this happening in other European countries. Why just Europe? I know that you have worked a lot in the US, too. How is it different from what you saw in India? Can yoga be seen as something more than just physical exercises in the West?
HM: The idea that yoga is perceived first and foremost as exercise in the West is misconstrued. The US does a complementary health survey every few years. The last one, done in 2012 and published in 2016, showed that a third of the population uses complementary treatments. That’s around 100 million people. 9.5% of those 100 million were practicing yoga specifically for health conditions. If we fast forward another ten years, it will probably be closer to 20%.
So a good proportion of people understand the stress relieving effects of yoga. When I speak to people I usually hear, “It’s really good for relieving stress.” So the common mindset is changing and will continue to do so.
Q: Wonderful. Heather, what is your plan for Yoga Day?
HM: I sent a proposal to the Indian High Commission, as we want to have a big event in Trafalgar Square. Two other things will happen, regardless: Paul Fox and I have authored a book called Yoga on Prescription, and we will launch the book on June 22;and on June 27 there’s a parliamentary group on Yoga in Society that’s going to meet in Parliament. I hope a representative of Heartfulness will come for this.
Q: We will be happy to join you, Heather, and with your future endeavors.
Finally, what led you to call your organization the Minded Institute?
HM: One day I was driving home, and I had an epiphany that I would create programs for yoga for mental health. I thought of Yoga for the Mind, but that was not descriptive enough. I think sometimes things just arise when you meditate a lot. Knowing sometimes comes from the ether, and it’s not analytical.
Q: Thank you so much, Heather. We have benefited from understanding how you set up your work on trauma, and how you see it changing the world in the days to come. We’ll be following you closely, and hope that a lot of people will read this and be inspired to join you. Thank you so much for being with us, and for what you do.
HM: Thank you. It was lovely being here.
Heather is the founder of the Minded Institute, a professional yoga therapy training organization, and the Director of the Yoga and Healthcare Alliance. She specializes in the treatment of trauma and anxiety, and the use of physiological assessment in yoga therapy.