Once a depressed child with suicidal thoughts, Cheryl Tan now uses yoga to promote mental health and connect with at-risk groups through her social enterprise, The Breathe Movement.
Depression is something that 31-year-old Cheryl Tan knows all too well, having had suicidal impulses as a child. The bleak thoughts accompanied her through to adulthood, until she hit a turning point in 2011.
In a move from Vancouver to Toronto, Canada where she studied and worked for several years, Cheryl met a yoga teacher who later became her psychotherapist. “He took me under his wing in 2012, and things started shifting within me. I have since grown stronger emotionally and mentally,” she shares.
Today, the dedicated yoga teacher is determined to help her students manage their emotional and mental health through breath and movement. Cheryl founded the social enterprise The Breathe Movement in 2014 to promote emotional and mental wellbeing and educate the community on mental health issues.
In particular, Cheryl uses “trauma-informed” yoga techniques – a highly sensitive method of teaching – to help individuals develop emotional resilience and self-love.
The yogi provides two to three classes (some at zero cost) per week to mental health patients, teenage mothers and at-risk youths. “Most of these trauma-informed classes are optional [for clients of organisations I partner with], so it’s heartening to see the same faces coming back to class week after week,” she says. Plus, the ambitious lass just organised Singapore’s first Mental Health Film Festival in February this year – the four-day festival comprised a curated range of films, mindfulness workshops and panel discussions.
Despite her packed schedule, Cheryl found the time to share her heartfelt feelings about the cause.
“I remember feeling suicidal from a young age.”
At around six years old, I would write “I want to die” onto pieces of paper, and stuff them into a container that was tucked away at the corner of my desk. Back then, mental health wasn’t a topic widely spoken about or taught in schools. But those suicidal tendencies were real, and I desperately wanted to put an end to the searing pain that was constantly in my mind and body. In my university years, there were many times when I wanted to climb over the ledge of my balcony of my 10th-floor apartment, and disappear into the dark abyss. I’m grateful to have met several kind individuals who have provided the space and support needed for me to get to where I’m at – [a healthier mental and emotional state] – right now.
“It’s important to understand that all humans have experienced trauma in varying degrees.”
Because yoga is a mind-body practice, it can bring up a lot of emotions for an individual. For instance, if you’re practising next to someone who is able to seamlessly flow through the poses with grace and poise, you might experience intimidation, frustration or a whole gamut of emotions.
Trauma-informed yoga is a way of teaching that requires the teacher to have a great sense of awareness of the language used and actions performed, and cater to a wide range of abilities of her students without the need to control them. It’s about respecting boundaries of the self and the students, and to teach with compassion and empathy rather than with judgement and pressure. It is as simple as asking for permission before doing hands-on adjustments, allowing students the choice to decline or accept it because not everyone enjoys being touched physically. At The Breathe Movement, there is also a huge emphasis on the breath because it helps regulate our mind and body responses, and keeps us calm, grounded and present in our bodies.
“As a teacher, you know when your words start to seep into your students and make sense for them.”
It’s always a privilege to witness the spark lighting up their eyes, and that release of tension in their physical bodies. At that moment, you know that they are fully present in mind and body. Sometimes those bits stay with them for a long time, or for a few seconds. But it’s truly these moments that count.
“Through the Singapore Mental Health Festival, we hope to challenge the stigma of mental illness.”
Films enable us to almost step into the shoes of another – the character on screen. This is how we start cultivating empathy. It’s when we can empathise with another that we can start to experience the complexity of the human psyche. That’s the idea of this film festival, to widen the perspectives individuals have towards having a mental illness. We hope to make this an annual event if we receive adequate funding.
“What keeps me going is my passion and the knowing that there is always a possibility to ignite change.”
The Breathe Movement and the film festival started with a one-woman team (myself) with only a few thousands in the bank account. I pitched the festival to two good friends who willingly came on board to join me. So perhaps another thing that drives me is pure gratitude.
I also do this work because it has been fundamental to my healing journey. It has enabled me see life beyond my own limited perspectives, to be a more loving, empathetic and compassionate person. I’m still learning to be kinder to myself and everyone around me.
“I hope to create a movement of breathing.”
I hope that we can all see the importance of the breath, and its ability to heal, transform and transcend us as individuals. Through that, we can learn to be fully present in ourselves and go about our lives as free, peaceful people.