To continue the dialogue on mental health we interviewed Mary Scudella, owner of Mary on the Mat, to learn how yoga promotes emotional wellness. I met Mary while enrolled in an intense, six month teacher training program (RYT 200) at Bliss Body Yoga. Mary served as my mentor and one of the lead instructors. One of the most powerful classes Mary taught was Sensory Awareness Training for Yoga Attunement
(SATYA). She asked us to lie on our back, close our eyes, and focus on the here and now. What followed was an experience of self connection, exploration, and release.
Question: Tell us about your background and how your work relates to mental health?
Mary: I have been teaching - sharing the ancient practice of yoga in a modern way - since 2005. Before that, I found my yoga practice when my daughter was a toddler and I had the opportunity to become a stay at home mom. I knew that leaving the workplace meant that I would have to find time for myself and interaction with adults, as well. My professional life prior to staying home with my daughter was as a social worker. I have a Masters Degree in Social Work from Jane Addams College of Social Work in Chicago. When I found yoga, things really clicked for me - movement in the body was a way to explore and work through some of the things we hold in our body that we can’t necessarily talk about and some that we don’t even know are there. Today, in addition to teaching Flow Yoga, I teach Gentle Yoga, Restorative Yoga, and Yin Yoga. In some of my classes I use essential oils or Tuning Fork Therapy® to access the deeper energies of the body. I incorporate a practice called Sensory Awareness Training for Yoga Attunement, developed by Tias Little of Prajna Yoga in Santa Fe. This practice guides students away from a mode of “doing” and places them more in a mode of “sensing” or “being.” When we step inside of ourselves we can unravel old habits and embody the wisdom inherent in our structure and cells.
Question: Can you talk about your work with trauma survivors?
Mary: According to the National Institutes of Health, 89.7% of the population has been exposed to trauma. In humans, trauma is cumulative. We don’t just get over one traumatic event before moving on to the next one. When we step on to the yoga mat, we have the fantastic opportunity to meet ourselves in all of our traumatic glory. That’s why it is so important for yoga studios and yoga teachers to provide a safe place for people to practice.
The idea is to breathe and move with whatever comes up. Our egos want to judge this stirred up mud, put a label on it and find a way to deal with it. However, if we can just stay in that mode of sensing, without judging, then we can begin to unravel patterns in our body. Maybe those patterns of protecting, battling, fleeing, etc. served us at one time or another, but they don’t serve us in the long run. So, learning how our bodies feel when they are afraid when we are on the yoga mat and creating a safe space in which to explore this sensation, gives us the opportunity to discover what fear may feel like off the mat, in life, and to work with it - explore it, feel it deeper, notice where it exists in the body - so that we can acknowledge those triggers off the mat and use the skills we learned from our yoga practice to help us in real life.
Question: According to the American Psychological Association, 77% of people experience physical symptoms caused by stress. How do you help students with stress?
Mary: When I teach, I suggest to students that they track sensation, notice how it changes. What you feel one moment during practice will change a few breaths later. This helps students to realize the impermanence of experience. We often get caught up in thinking that what we feel now, especially if it is uncomfortable or painful (physically or emotionally) will always be that way. Tracking sensation and watching how it changes helps us to remember that circumstances in our life are ever changing.
Yoga is much more than just movement. It is connecting to breath and working with breath. It is deepening concentration, moving towards a more mindful and meditative state. And, it is a combination of the way we treat ourselves and those around us, ethics - per se. These (and much more) are what distinguishes yoga from other forms of exercise or movement. So, all of my classes and private sessions incorporate these various “limbs” of the yoga practice to make the practice richer and deeper, therefore more beneficial and restorative.
Thank you Mary for your insights and commitment to mental health. Visit maryonthemat.com to learn more about her services!