Inspirational campaigner Jonny Benjamin MBE on how yoga – and mindfulness as a whole – has played a crucial role in transforming his mental health and wellbeing.
In the midst of Mental Health Week, and as part of a wider project with classroom communication app ClassDojo that engages primary school kids in mindfulness initiatives, Jonny Benjamin’s past few weeks have flown past in a flurry of events, interviews and meetings.
In fact, since the 31-year-old ascended, somewhat involuntarily, to became one of the most recognisable and relatable faces in health and wellbeing, his life has taken on a whole new meaning.
“Way back in 2008, I was rescued from the edge of Waterloo Bridge by a passer-by, Neil Laybourn, who has gone on to become one of my best friends,” he begins. “I tracked him down many years later [his story was followed in touching Channel 4 documentary Stranger on the Bridge] and now we work together to help those struggling with the pressures, anxieties and emotions of life.
“I’ve been on a huge journey of discovery since then, but it’s true to say that the day I discovered the power of mindfulness was when everything began to make a lot more sense.”
And while mindfulness can be approached and accessed in a number of different ways, Jonny says fitness, exercise, and yoga in particular, have always taken him to a place of genuine contentment.
Jonny, who has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and who recently launched charity Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma, which specifically targets young people, says that despite delivering in helping others across a number of different initiatives and projects, his own wellbeing is still something he needs to work at every day.
“Getting healthy, mentally, has been a battle every bit the same as getting fit, physically,” continues Jonny. “There are no quick fixes and you need to dedicate yourself to both, respect both, and learn how they interact.
“For me, I’ve always found the use of exercise as both a benefit in its own right, and also something of a distraction technique,” he says. “So when I am doing something like yoga or running, I’m not in my head, I am in my body. When I am stretching I have to be in my body; I am focusing on the stretches and working my muscles.
“That means after perhaps just an hour of yoga, I come out and am so much more in my body. It means I am not consumed by the thoughts or whatever is going on – I am present and grounded and in turn that gives me confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes I know my head can be a pretty negative and critical place to be in, and coming out of that through something like yoga can be such a relief.”
Jonny’s pursuit of physical exercise as a way of tempering the conflicts in our minds has seen him embrace hiking, climbing sheer rock faces, and even when back in the suburban clamour of the capital, there is still a path to escapism through running.
“Running the marathon with Neil was a momentous experience, and for me it provided the ultimate evidence that what I had been training all that time in the lead-up wasn’t my body at all, it was my mind.
“Getting past ‘The Wall’ was probably an achievement all in itself, even outside of running 26 miles. That felt like a very special moment because it endorsed everything I had believed in up to that point. I was justified in putting my faith in mindfulness, and that’s why I’m so passionate about it now, and have continued to build on it.”
Sure enough, as a supplement to that process, and to any form of physical exercise, Jonny says yoga is ever-present. “My favourite thing is Restorative Yoga – it’s really slow and really gentle and you can hold it for a long time. It’s a really amazing feeling when you do the stretch and that’s why they call it restorative because it helps the muscles and releases so much tension in our bodies. That tension is held there unless we can find out a way to locate it and free it.”
Jonny has also taken up Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which work in a similar way. “If you tap the body of your ribcage on the sides, the pain is unbelievable because we hold that much tension and energy. You will be surprised how much emotion is held there.
“This is another example of a technique that is supplementing my exercises and my mindfulness. I tell people, these aren’t one-stop solutions; they are a series of ideas that, individually, can move someone to build strength and positivity. It’s as though you’re constructing your own toolbox, and there’s still a huge gap in this awareness of mindfulness.
“Starting in the schools is important, because this is where we can nip in the bud some of the problems that, if they are not detected, can be allowed to fester and grow over the years, just as they did with me.
“But beyond that, understanding the mind and using techniques such as yoga to connect the brain with the body, can make huge differences to our wellbeing. I can honestly say they have been life-changing for me and I’d encourage anyone to try them.”
ClassDojo’s A Mindful Moment took place in primary schools all over the world. It is hoped the onward path of this mindfulness initiative will help children, their parents and other adults draw closer links between mind, body, wellbeing and happiness.