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AutismBC Connects: Meditation and Mental Health

May 25th, 2021

Noelle Smith is a Vancouver Island-based self-advocate who was nominated for the 2020 BC Autism Awards Self-Advocate of the Year award. Noelle’s inspiring journey as a yoga and meditation teacher is here to help others understand the importance of self-care and mental health. This AutismBC Connects is all about Noelle Smith’s journey. 

Content Warning: Bullying, diagnosis, school, mental health, suicide attempts

“The Journey to Myself Through Yoga.”

Hello, My name is Noelle Smith and I would like to share how the process of self-discovery in the world of yoga and meditation have helped me overcome many challenges since my autism diagnosis, including mental illness, labels, and traumas. 

My story began when I was born, in 1996. I started school in the early 2000s when the school system still had very “old-school” thinking. By that, I mean it considered individuality and uniqueness “wrong,” or that having differences meant disorders. I knew this firsthand because I was clinically diagnosed with autism, or what was once called Asperger’s Syndrome, at a very young age. For those unfamiliar with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, it is clinically defined as a developmental disorder where an individual faces challenges with communication and behaviours. It is very different from person-to-person (which is why it is called the Autism Spectrum) and most of the time it’s not physically noticeable.

I was diagnosed with autism before elementary school, but I clearly remember my evaluation. I remember words like “abnormal,” “odd,” and “different” were spoken in regards to me, gazing at me with disappointment as they evaluated my intellectual abilities. All the while my voice and opinions meant nothing.  I remember being so confused and hurt at this, even losing myself in the process. It literally felt like labels were put onto my body as they basically explained to me how I was “never graduating school.” I hoped that would be my only negative experience as a result of my autism, but it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

 

 

In my school, it was required for teachers to tell the classrooms of any diagnosis or differences that any child had (I know, very old school), because it was for the “safety of my peers,” so my diagnosis didn’t take long to become public. Because of this, I experienced horrible physical and verbal bullying for years. From bullies slamming me into the lockers to acknowledging me as someone dumb, I became so scared that I actually believed someone with my label deserved this treatment. That I deserved it.

As a result of this day-to-day abuse, it didn’t take long for me to be diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses. I was and I still am diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder, Depression, and PTSD. I dealt with my diagnoses poorly by bottling up my feelings and using food as a coping mechanism. I also numbed myself on antidepressants just so I could mentally escape and numb myself from the abuse.

At this point, I am open enough to say that I was lost. I wanted to attempt suicide countless times. I lost friendships and relationships because I opened up about my diagnosis. I was hurting and believed I deserved all of it until I finally chose to listen to myself and realized that I didn’t deserve this treatment.

 

 

From taking the time to sit and actually listen to my mind and body, going past the outer chatter of my mind to opening and feeling my body, I could only describe it as seeing my true ‘self.’ That experience alone made me aware of how ridiculous and how frustrating it is to be dictated by others and have them choose my way of life by labelling me and placing me in a bubble where I couldn’t (or felt like I didn’t deserve to) experience actually ‘living.’ From then on, I made a huge goal to try and prove everyone wrong, by studying hard to improve my grades, taking more advanced classes, and actually standing up for myself from bullies through assertive communication and physically protecting my body (which earned me a lot of detention, but heck, I didn’t care!) until I graduated, with top grades and scholarships.

Graduation was the peak of my true calling. It was a celebration of success as I took my own diploma and saluted the middle finger to the front crowd of those who bullied me for all those years, earning shocked looks towards me. because I was (and still am) the true example of an individual who went beyond the expectations of my labels and succeeded in flying colours.

From then on, I was determined to create a life for myself. The universe brought me to the world of yoga. This subject of exercise and lifestyle was originally introduced to me through school, where it was one of the many subjects deemed not suitable for those with autism and disabilities because the very practice of yoga is to go beyond the comfort zones and listen to your mind, which anyone, especially people on the spectrum, could find very difficult.

 

 

Given that the universe sought this out for me, I used my newfound confidence and knew that the experience I had was essentially meditation, I wanted to make this my new goal. Yet, It sucked. It was beyond uncomfortable, scary, and so foreign to me and my body. Each practice I took only fueled my anxiety symptoms. I would have panic attacks in certain postures, as was uncomfortable in my body. Additionally, the anger of waiting to get out of a pose or going too fast made my mind literally scream at me! 

It took a lot of classes and dedication to finally experience that amazing bliss that yogis and scriptures talked about. It was like I opened up again, yet more intense. 

The voices in my mind silenced, pure love was felt around me, and labels among my environment dissolved. I loved this feeling and I especially loved this new outlook on the many possibilities of making the world see this new way which started me on my path to finding my true purpose. From then on, I knew that this was something that I wanted to teach and share with the world. So without waiting (the universe works in mysterious ways) I sought out Yoga Teacher Training.

Yoga Teacher Training was only a year of training, yet it felt like a quarter of my lifetime (and a good one at that!). I loved it. It was the most vulnerable, tough-loving, and educational experience I had, and it ultimately concreted my purpose to yoga and advocate for others around my journey.

I can ultimately say that by doing yoga and meditation alone,  I rarely experience breakdowns from overstimulation or anxiety, I am fully capable to continue to go past my comfort zones, and overall, I have a much healthier outlook on every part of life. Plus, doing yoga and meditation was always a treat (you grew to love it!)!

 

 

I am happier that the world has shifted better views of autism and mental illnesses, yet it’s far from the best it can be. There are still counts of mistreatment and negative labels placed upon those with autism and mental illnesses. We still treat our ailments by avoiding and numbing them. Yet in all of this, we ultimately know the answer is simple: we must turn inwards. I am a clear example of it!

My beginning of abuse and mistreatment was something that was undoubtedly the worst time of my life due to the negative stigma placed on my diagnosis of autism and mental illnesses, but it was when I was able to finally turn inwards, listen, and feel I began to fully understand my worth and ultimately understand I am more than societies labels.

I hope that through reading and listening to my story, you might begin to take a journey to listen and feel for yourself    — Namaste

 
The Path to Meditation

This basic step-by-step version is made for everyone and anyone! Be free to make it the way you enjoy (creativity and routine help a lot!) Note: those who aren’t into the religious aspects of yoga, no worries! You don’t need to make it so

Through my own personal journey and actual scientific studies found, Yoga and Meditation drastically lower your stress levels and symptoms of illnesses, as well as controlling your actual nervous system (wow!)  

Before mindful living, I had panic attacks and meltdowns once or twice a day, where I used medication to deal with it – dealt with high doses of antidepressants and quick-acting anxiety meds.

Since mindful living, I rarely have anxiety or meltdowns (once every three months, one time!) – I’m on the lowest level of my antidepressants and no quick-acting medications.

Honestly, if it works for me and so many others around the world, it’ll work for you!

 

Be aware and prepared: The beginning in itself is uncomfortable, difficult, and sometimes not peaceful (even though the media promotes yoga and meditation to be peaceful). Like I stated in my story, it took me a long while to experience bliss for myself — and it’s because you are vulnerable and opening your subconscious walls.

So just know that everything you experience is completely normal! As well as give gratitude for yourself.

Step-by-Step Guide:

Step 1:

Start Small: Take baby steps! It’s normal to want to see results right away, but you need to gradually get your mind used to the practice [of meditation]. Start with five minutes of yoga and/or meditation a day. If you’re not very active and are dealing with mental illness, try to do meditation first. You can even do it before you fall asleep! You can do this any time, any place.

Step 2: 

Make Time: When you’re a week or two into the routine, try increasing the time you spend on it. Schedule a time each day to practice. In today’s society, we are taught to believe that to be successful, you have to be busy all the time. That’s not true! Make one-hour of your day for practicing self-care! I usually recommend my clients meditate or do Yoga in the afternoon when we notice an energy drop.

Step 3: 

Missed a Day or Days? That’s okay!: Please, please, PLEASE do not stop doing yoga or meditating because you missed one day or more! Our lives can be chaotic, but we can always come back to it. We have this mentality that if we miss one day, our progress has been lost. In Yoga and meditation, it doesn’t get lost. As you get used to it, your brain actually yearns to have that time for yourself. Don’t stop your progress!

Step 4: 

Accept Help and Start Journal: I never sugarcoat the reality of meditation: it’s an act of self-discovery. As you meditate, you can get into a vulnerable state and you’ll notice that emotions will start to arise. It’s a great sign! If you do, don’t hesitate to seek help or journal your thoughts and feelings. Talk to someone about it. When you have feelings bubbling up, it’s so refreshing to let them out and be able to vent. Accept and embrace your feelings as they come: cry, scream into the pillow, etc. Let it out!

Step 5: 

Branch out! There are endless varieties of yoga and meditation to choose from. You could try Hatha, Restorative, or Flow yoga or Yoga Nidra or walking meditation. Start trying other genres of yoga and meditation. Figure out what works for you; however, when you think you dislike something or experience discomfort, that could be a sign you have something stuck. I encourage you to persist, whether it’s trauma or emotion, it’s hard in the beginning, I’ve been through it too. Continue trying to step out of that comfort zone.

Step 6:

Be Curious and Continue: Yoga and meditation are not about how much time you spend on them, rather it’s about your dedication to self-care and putting effort into it. Be open to trying new things, be curious about your emotions and what you’re feeling. It’s really great to question your feelings and your emotions as they arise. Instead of being upset and bringing yourself down for having emotions, be creative about it and make it work for you. For example, I really like massages, so I do warm oil massages on my skin while I do yoga. Even though it’s not considered “exercise,” it truly fills me up with energy — it replenishes me. Be curious about whatever comes up for you during your experiences — you’ll actually figure a lot about yourself.  

Mental wellness in itself is a lifelong process and needs to be a part of your everyday routine, so change things up, but don’t stop your meditation and yoga!

And Go From There..! 

Resources and Recommendations: cheap and/or free options (’cause no one needs to pay a lot for health)

Insight Timer — free meditations/courses to choose from: https://insighttimer.com/

Youtube — Tons of free yoga and/or meditation classes to choose from

Do Yoga with Me — free yoga classes: https://www.doyogawithme.com/

Local Dollar Store – tons of cheap journals, items to use for yoga/meditation**Note: I encourage all of you to avoid cheap yoga mats and buy good quality ones or no mat! cheap mats have cancer-causing chemicals and it’s not environmentally friendly. So, consider saving for one that’s safe, or perhaps use the natural ground (but be warned and make sure it’s safe ground!).

BC Resources for Support – 

Vancouver Island Crisis Line – 1-888-494-3888 https://www.vicrisis.ca/

 

If you want to connect with Noelle for a Yoga class, visit her Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/empowered_spectrum_yoga/

 

Follow Noelle in some Yoga and Meditation exercises in this recording of our AutismBC Goes to Mindful Movement and Breath Work with Noelle:

 

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