A few months ago my life was getting hectic.
I was juggling the demands of my small business, the pressure of trying to finish the film, childcare and the usual weight that comes with surviving every day modern life. My regular yoga practice was compromised and I wasn’t meditating enough. My self-care rhythm was being sacrificed because ‘there was so much to do’. My friends were being neglected. I was eating on the run and not taking time out.
And I knew better. I was just about to lock off the edit of my film about how important our mind is when it comes to wellness. I needed a good dose of my own medicine.
In the past I’ve done ‘revolutions’ or taken ‘challenges’ in order to kick start a healthier way of living. These included 40-days of yoga practice, retreats, juice fasts, or other elimination diets like giving up dairy, or gluten or meat. While some of these things contributed to feelings of increased wellness, none of these things saw me recover in the long run. Over time, the lessons I’d learnt would be forgotten and old habits would creep back in. I needed to try something different.
Right on time, my local yoga studio, Qi Yoga advertised a 30 Day Evolution and it was being taken by one of my favorite teachers, Morgan Webert. The program was designed not to revolutionize our lives, but rather to integrate wellness activities slowly over a month. We met up every Sunday night and checked in with our progress.
My husband joined me and together we started implementing little changes. We started eating dinner earlier, which led to going to bed earlier, which led to waking up earlier and feeling more rested and productive. We started cooking together and connecting over our meals. We each started to make room for each other to be able to practice our daily mindfulness activities, whether it was getting to the beach for a swim, sitting down to meditate or practice yoga at home, heading to a yoga class, or allowing time for each other to take an afternoon or night off to connect with our friends.
I know the prospect of making changes towards wellness can be daunting. It’s easy to think that we don’t have time or that there are too many obstacles in the way. Our culture also tells us that in order to feel better we need to simply pop a pill. We look for external things to put into our body, rather than turning inwards.
But there’s some really interesting research by Dr. Dean Ornish, who is one of the experts I interviewed for The Connection looking at this. He’s developed a program for people with heart disease, which includes stress management through yoga and meditation, a low-fat vegetarian diet, smoking cessation, moderate exercise, and social support. He recently joined with one of the biggest health insurers in the US, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield to provide the program to thousands of people in West Virginia, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.
A study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion proved the benefits of the program. Participants showed statistically significant improvements in body mass index, triglyceride levels, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and more. Interestingly, nearly 80% of people were still enrolled in the program a year later. When the insurer looked at the dollars and cents, they found they had cut their customer’s healthcare costs by half in the first year. So the participants were feeling better, they were sticking to the program, and their healthcare costs had been halved.
I’m not arguing against the use of prescription medication to help treat heart disease. These drugs save lives. But Dr. Ornish’s research becomes even more compelling when I compare it to research showing that 60% of cardiovascular patients don’t stick to taking their medications. You can’t prevent heart disease if you don’t take your medication or take big steps towards self-care.
Dr. Ornish told me there’s a good reason for the disparity between people sticking to his lifestyle program versus people taking drugs. “If someone has a heart attack, they’ll do anything for about a month but often they then stop doing it because fear is not a sustainable motivator in anything, particularly lifestyle. But joy is a very sustainable motivator, and because these biological mechanisms are so dynamic, when you make these changes, most people find that they feel so much better so quickly it reframes the reason for making these lifestyle changes from fear of dying, which is not sustainable, to joy of living, which is.” Here's a video taken from my interview with Dr.Ornish.
For my own health journey, completing the 30 Day Evolution at my local studio was one of the best things I’ve done. It was all about making slow and sustainable changes. Like the people with heart disease on Dr. Ornish’s program, I felt connected and part of a group of people also trying to make the same small steps, which helped inspire me.
The best tip our teacher Morgan gave us was to consider this as being a five-day commitment each week. If we slip up two days a week and have a late night, skip a meditation or yoga practice, or eat takeaway, then all hope wasn’t lost and we hadn’t fallen off any wagons. It took the pressure off and made all the difference. I’ve now just finished the world tour and release of the film, facing the biggest challenge of my professional life. All the way through the release period, I carried the habits I developed during the Evolution.
I feel like a completely different person from the person I was nearly 10 years ago when I was first diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and although I feel well today and don’t take medications or need to see doctors for the illness, I know that this is an ongoing journey and that in many ways, I am just at the beginning of my own Evolution.