Taming the Feral Mind: Yoga Lessons From a Mental Hospital

By Vanessa Hazzard for Blavity cross posted with permission

“It took listening to a voice outside of my head, for once, that allowed me to be gentle with myself.”

Growing up in Philadelphia, I realized early on that police sirens were a mainstay of city living. Though I must say, it’s quite surreal when the sirens are for you. In the back of the police car, I was met with a hard plastic bench about as comfortable as a toilet seat. The officers dropped me off at the crisis center a few blocks away. As I got out of the vehicle, the thought of running into the middle of traffic crossed my mind. Psychically, one officer yelled, “Go inside!” I did as he told and spent several hours at the facility wondering what the hell just happened.

People at the crisis center were loud, mad and animated. Two women were yelling at the nurse because it was ridiculously cold and they needed a pair of socks. Another man kept singing the theme song to Sanford and Son. That was the first chuckle I had in what seemed like forever. When I did manage to sleep for a little, it was on a hard plastic bench, not unlike the one in the police vehicle. Fourteen hours later, they found a bed for me at Belmont.

I live with bipolar disorder. When I separated from my then husband in 2012, my symptoms were amplified. That led to my son and I moving back to my mom’s house. The dissolving of my marriage and family led to PTSD. Along with extreme bouts of mania and depression, living with both disorders was a dangerous combination of paranoia, hallucinations, dissociation and insomnia. After a severe psychotic episode, I was taken away to receive psychiatric treatment at an inpatient facility.

mental hospital
Photo: laprogressive

I had mixed feelings about being hospitalized. My previous experience, several years prior, was memorable for all the wrong reasons. I was largely ignored by the staff, the psychiatrist and therapist I was assigned to were very condescending, and worst of all, the food sucked. On the other hand, I needed help. I needed it badly. The outpatient care I was receiving prior to being admitted to Belmont wasn’t enough to keep me stabilized. Along with the symptoms of bipolar disorder and PTSD, I felt incredibly hypocritical. I’ve been employed in the health and wellness industry since I was 20 years old. Throughout the years, I’ve been a group fitness instructor, massage therapist, community herbalist and workshop facilitator. These roles were more than just jobs to me. They were my way of staying healthy physically and mentally while helping others do the same. Ironically, in the midst of this psychotic episode, none of these avenues helped me when I needed it the most. I felt defective, fraudulent even, and questioned my worth as a wellness professional. If I couldn’t help myself, how could I possibly help anyone else?

Needless to say, when they announced at the morning meeting that yoga was on the schedule for later that day, I was less than enthused. I dreaded the thought of practicing yoga after all of my failed attempts over the past few months. Although it wasn’t mandatory that I attend, it was highly encouraged if I wanted to receive other privileges. So I just sucked it up and joined the class. The instructor went around the room and asked us to introduce ourselves and to state if we had practiced yoga before. When my turn came around, I begrudgingly said that I had been practicing off and on for a few years and that I’m a yoga teacher. Her demeanor went from neutral to a sense of joyful relatedness. As if she had just met a peer. At the time, her expression made me nervous because I didn’t want to have any expectations of being “good at yoga” placed upon me. But upon further reflection, the fact that she could see herself in me, a bipolar single mom in a mental hospital, was quite beautiful and affirming.

Photo: J.J. Tiziou
Photo: J.J. Tiziou

When the practice began, I did my best to release any criticisms or judgments I placed upon myself. I just followed the instructions being offered, without being concerned with how pretty it looked. It was a simple class with simple movements and breathing. It was a far cry from the classes I was used to, which were hot and vigorous, with lots of very specific anatomical cues. This stripped down class was easily one of the most powerful classes I’ve ever taken. For months, I was so determined to heal my mind and body with a self-led yoga practice, but my ego had a vice grip on my good intentions, so each attempt was more fruitless and frustrating than the last. This time was different. It was listening to a voice outside of my head for once that allowed me to be gentle with myself. For those 45 minutes, I had control of my feral mind.

The following week, the instructor returned and I was eager to be led. We used the wall for some balancing poses. One of the other patients was having trouble with a pose. The instructor asked me if I wanted to help him with it. I was nervous but I walked him through it anyway. Those few cues I offered allowed him to safely enter and exit half moon pose. He was ecstatic, and so was I! I’m pretty sure I was smiling throughout that entire day…and it wasn’t from the five different medications they had me on!

When I left Belmont after my 10 days of treatment, I had a renewed acceptance of myself. I’ve come to realize that riding the highs and lows of bipolar disorder means taking the scenic route to well-being. I’m optimistic that my yoga practice will sustain me on that journey.


Vanessa Hazzard is a writer and healing arts educator. Since 2005, she’s studied massage, yoga, and Thai bodywork in Philly and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Through her company, Nirvanaland Essentials, Vanessa teaches continuing education for wellness professionals. She’s been featured in Newsworks.org, WURD, and Philadelphia Inquirer for her work combining healing arts and social justice. She is co-editor of the book, The Color of Hope: People of Color Mental Health Narratives. This project features essays, poems, and interviews from POC living with or affected by a loved one with mental illness. Her works have also been featured in For Harriet and Blavity. Vanessa is the lucky mom of her awesomely nerdy son, Phoenix. Read more at www.vanessahazzard.com and www.pocmentalhealthnarratives.com

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