The Birmingham resident was suffering from anxiety and depression—“bipolar disorder” she was told—and remembers being angry all the time. She was put on several different medications, but they didn’t help.
“It seemed like they only made me gain weight and sleep a lot,” Leena said. “I quit taking the medicine, but I replaced it with people and situations that were unhealthy for me.”
Nothing seemed to help.
“I kept getting myself into inappropriate situations that served only to make the anxiety and depression worse,” she said. “One day after a very difficult weekend with a so-called friend I decided that I’d had enough of pills and heartache, so I drifted into a gym that offered daily yoga classes.”
The visit led to an inner peace that medicine could not provide, said Leena, now a full-time Kemetic yoga instructor.
Her personal journey was so overwhelming that she became emotional.
“I remember thinking, ‘There is no way I can keep this to myself,’” she said. “While sitting on my mat one evening in class, I knew I was meant to share my journey with others.”
Leena, 32, a Hollywood, Ala., native who has been in Birmingham for seven years, teaches classes by appointment at the Crossroad Spiritual Lounge.
“Yoga helps one become more mindful and aware,” she said. “When I started practicing yoga [two years ago], my diet changed because I couldn’t keep putting unhealthy foods inside my body. It was like a light switch clicked on and suddenly I remembered how to better care for myself, my mind, body, and spirit.”
Leena isn’t the only person who has seen a healthier change in lifestyle as a result of yoga and other self-care and holistic practices. Many believe self-care is more important now than ever. Research shows that constant exposure to negative news can affect your mental health over time. Data published in 2016 found that a majority of Americans are stressed about the future of the nation. And a Huffington Post article noted that cable news is banned from many fitness-facility screens because of the toll it takes on people.
“Yoga is known to relieve stress and anxiety,” Leena said. “With our current political climate being so uncertain, we should be seeking out ways to handle stress and build mental muscle and stamina. Including yoga in a daily routine can increase awareness and help people gain a much deeper understanding of themselves and their spiritual growth.”
Sanovia Muhammad, a 20-year yoga practitioner, said yoga is much like prayer, but with concentrated breathing.
“It’s through the breath. It’s through an awareness that these things too shall pass; they will not continue. This, [whatever the situation], is just part of the circle we’re now at the bottom of, and it will shift,” she said. “When we know that, we don’t really have to get embedded in the drama.”
Muhammad, a 69-year-old Ensley native, teaches hot yoga at the downtown Birmingham YMCA every Wednesday. She also is the lead yoga instructor for Get Healthy on the Railroad, free exercise classes conducted on Thursday evenings from March through October at Railroad Park.
“Yoga is this practice of becoming aware of who you are,” Muhammad said.
“Once you become aware of who you are, you become grounded in taking care of who you are. It’s a journey of self-discovery. It’s a time that you can be intimate with yourself, and it’s all about you. When it becomes all about you—not in the selfish sense but in the love sense—you’re more apt to honor yourself. And when we honor ourselves, we take better care of ourselves.”
Still, Leena said, yoga is not new and hasn’t just become an option to the challenges many face.
“I don’t think [yoga] is a new alternative. … I believe we’ve just forgotten how to use the practice to help improve our daily lives,” she said. “It dates back to ancient Kemetic culture.”
Kemetic yoga is the ancient Egyptian system of yoga enlightenment based upon the practices of physical movements combined with controlled deep-breathing and meditation. The Kemetic yoga practice inspires inward travel and a personal journey to self-discovery.
Muhammad said, “I think Kemetic yoga interplays with yoga in general and brings us back home, and we can feel it. You can feel Kemetic yoga practice in your spirit.”
Meditation enables people to examine their circumstances without anger and from a point of awareness.
“It allows us to analyze what’s going on and use that strength to change things or to become a part of the change,” Muhammad said. “We will no longer live in the fear of it. We can erase the fear just by sitting inside of ourselves at the moment stuff arises and by breathing our way through it, so we can deal with all the stresses of the environment with commitment and intention.”
Practitioners point to the many benefits of yoga.
“Personally, yoga has helped me connect with a deeper spirituality,” Leena said. “My practice is a gateway to self-discovery. I often find answers to life’s questions while sitting on my mat. The cool part is I don’t have to leave my home or put money into a collection plate to be spiritual.”
Asked how she feels now compared with how she felt at the start of her journey, Leena said: “I’m 5-foot-7, and I used to weigh very close to 200 pounds. I thought I was sexy, walking around obese and in high heels. Little did I know that every cookie I ate led me closer and closer to diabetes. I didn’t even realize I was overweight and so out of shape until I began a daily yoga practice.
“After a really dope yoga session, I always feel light on my feet, ready to take on the day’s tasks with more focus and determination. I always feel mentally strong and healthy, and it reflects in my productivity.”