Niyama Yoga Wellness Founder Jillian Mariani on the Importance of Putting your mental Health First in the midst of the Pandemic

It is hard to believe that it has almost been a whole year since the world went into total lockdown and the word pandemic became a part of our regular vocabulary. And while a lot of us have gotten used to staying at home, in a time where so much is still unknown about the future, it is hard for many not to fall into a spiral of anxious thoughts.

Luckily, we had the opportunity to speak with Niyama Yoga Wellness founder Jillian Mariani on the importance of putting your mental first in the midst of the pandemic and how to curb your anxiety during these unprecedented times.

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Thank you Jillian for taking the time to chat with us! First of all, how are you doing and what are you doing to stay sane during these unprecedented times?

Hello! It’s my pleasure to connect with you. I would say that overall I'm doing quite okay. And that i think “okay” is pretty aspirational right now. “Okay’ is the new “really good”. Being able to say I am okay is, I think, incredibly fortunate. So I hope that you are okay too.

For me, staying sane right now entails a few different strategies. Routine is a big one for me - I get that it isn’t for everyone, but I really need it. Consistent bedtimes and wake times, daily movement (almost always yoga, but I’ve also started “running” outdoors twice a week, neither far nor fast though!), cooking dinner with my husband and daughters, and then shutting down the work-related communication a couple hours before bedtime. Ten minutes a day of meditation - whether it is staying in a restorative pose on my mat, or doing one of the headspace app guided meditations. And taking one full day off work on the weekend. Sometimes two, it just depends. And letting sh*t go, more than I normally do. Especially being home all the time with a family. We are going through this together, but also as separate human beings with different pain points and ways of reacting. So trying not to impose what i think is the right way to navigate or behave at this time on my husband and kids. Like does it matter if the 12 year old doesn’t make her bed? I feel better when i start the day by making ours, but maybe she doesn't benefit from that right now, and it is just one more thing she has no control over.

Tell us more about Niyama Yoga Wellness and why you founded the company.

I started practicing yoga around the same time I started my career in the natural health products category in Canada – over 23 years ago now! Like many, I first came to yoga looking for an exercise regimen that I would actually enjoy – I just wasn’t a gym girl. I was immediately hooked on both the physical and emotional benefits of a sweaty, vigorous class – and I haven’t been back to a gym since. I had an amazing 20+-year corporate career in sales, then marketing, and innovation with some of the best natural health brands in Canada; I worked with incredible teams and inspiring mentors and learned so much. With young kids and a demanding work schedule I did a lot less yoga – but still went when I could and also practiced at home.

In 2017, I left my corporate role as Vice President of Marketing at Jamieson Wellness to take time with my family– I was really burnt-out and knew I needed to figure out a new path. I‘d always wanted to take a Yoga Teacher Training course – not necessarily to teach but to deepen my own practice. It was during that physically demanding course (I was in my mid 40’s not my 20’s!) that I realized that the combination of supplements and nutrients I was using to maintain my health and support my needs before and after yoga really weren’t common knowledge. Plus a lot of active yoga practitioners and teachers follow a plant-based lifestyle, making their protein needs more challenging to meet. It was my lightbulb moment – I could combine my love for yoga with my passion and knowledge for natural health and actually help make yogis healthier, and just maybe even happier. That was the seed of Niyama, which roughly translates to “good habits” in sanskrit, but our products are great for non-yogis too. At this point I’d say half the consumers are committed yogis and the rest are people looking to lead clean, active lifestyles.

All Niyama products are made in Canada, approved by Health Canada, plant-based/vegan, non-GMO, with no sugar, soy, dairy, or artificial sweeteners, colours, preservatives. As clean as possible. Yet the powder products still taste incredible, so that you actually look forward to using them. Because the best supplements are the ones you actually take - they don’t do anyone any good on the counter.

Since the lockdowns began, many have found ways to keep themselves occupied. Whether it's through online workouts or picking up a new hobby. But for many, this time has made a lot of people anxious. What are some ways people can relieve their anxiety and what are some resources they can turn to for help?

It’s so interesting, isn’t it? Time has been such a luxury for us; for so long we’ve been time-starved, and now there is more than most of us are used to having. And so we want to spend it, but there is so much pressure on how we should spend it. So many articles and posts about taking up a new hobby, learning a language, developing a skill - all to somehow emerge as better versions of ourselves when this is over. So then we have anxiety about the amount of time on our hands, and then more anxiety about if we are spending it well. It’s a hard one. I’m staying very busy, because as i am constantly re-learning, that is my most comfortable state of mind. Which may or may not be good. I don’t know. I think withholding judgement is key now - especially judgement about yourself. Not looking at what you are doing or not doing as good or bad, positive or negative. It just is. And tomorrow might be different. Or not. For me, I struggle to do nothing. I fill my time. All of it. Niyama is not nearly so busy revenue-wise, but i am very busy trying to get the business set up for more success in the future - doing things i don’t normally have time to get to. But motivation is tough and some days are really hard.

So on those days I am working on cutting myself some slack. Allowing myself to grieve a bit for “normal” and then employing a few tried and true anxiety busters that work for me:

Writing or even just saying my gratitude list. Even listing 3 things when you are feeling anxious or low can make a big difference.

Deep breaths - or “give me zen”. Using the right-hand thumb and placing it gently on the right nostril to close it off. Then taking ten, long and very slow breaths through the left nostril only. The left nostril is parasympathetic; meaning it helps the central nervous system relax. After 10 breathes via the left nostril only, you can do 10 more alternating nostrils on the inhale and exhale, using the thumb on the right nostril and the ring finger on the left nostril.

Go for a walk outside. Ideally in some nature, if you have a park or trail close to you, and can distance safely.

Use an essential oil diffuser with calming oils like lavender or a stress calming blend

Consider taking adaptogens. Adaptogens are natural herbs that help the body adjust to and better manage stress. Niyama’s Daytime Zen contains 3 Ayurvedic Adaptogens plus L-theanine to help reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety so you feel less overwhelmed and upset, improve mental focus, and reduce stress-related fatigue. I take one every morning before I get out of bed. As always, follow all package instructions and cautions.

Get movement in. Maybe it’s just the walk (above) or maybe it’s an online workout or yoga class. Make it something you enjoy so it isnt a chore, and give yourself permission to take days off so that you don’t start to dread or resent it. Motivation isn’t easy right now, but keep doing whatever you can, and mix it up.

And above all prioritize sleep. We actually have time right now to get more sleep - although the chronic stress can make it challenging. Most of us do not get the 7-9 hours of sleep recommended per night for optimal health in normal times, and it is even more important now, for both our mental health and our immune system. I’m a huge fan of sleep hygiene, having suffered from insomnia on an off for a lot of my adult life, so here are my sleep tips:

  • Regular bed and wake times - don't vary by more than 30-60 minutes
  • No coffee or caffeine after noon
  • No screens, work, social media or news a minimum of one hour before bedtime (or if you read on a tablet use blue light reducing glasses)
  • Wind down - maybe a bath, or quiet conversation or journaling
  • Read before you fall asleep
  • If you wake in the night and can’t sleep, use a dim reading light and read quietly or get up and do something relaxing until you are sleepy again. Do not lay there “trying” to sleep. It doesn't work and is counter-productive.
  • If you are still struggling, Sleep Like Buddha may help you. With any supplement, follow all pack directions and cautions and if in doubt chat with your healthcare provider. It contains the three natural ingredients that have helped me most over the years and I take it every day.

For some, they may not even know that the pandemic is causing them some forms of anxiety. What are signs that they need to watch out for so that they can better get ahead and take care of their mental health properly?

I think this is so true and so important. We are just starting week eight (I think) as I answer this, and I honestly thought that about three weeks in I had totally adapted and was not that stressed. I was kind of smug about how well my family and I were dealing, if I am honest. And then we each started feeling blue, or angry or frustrated or just numb. We all process it differently, and also this is such a different kind of stress. For those at home I mean. For those working frontline it must be a completely different stress and so frightening. We owe everyone in that situation our gratitude. Most did not choose that.

For those at home, social distancing it’s almost like a relaxed or distanced stress. We don’t have to be anywhere, we may or may not be working from home but either way there are probably less meetings and zero commute, and no lessons to get your kids to, and just less hustle overall. But the underlying uncertainty and virus fear, the financial worries, parents worrying about their kids, worrying about aging parents or vulnerable friends and family and how they are coping - it’s just a lot and we have no idea what will happen next or how long it will last. So it is a very different type of stress, at least from my point of view because it is almost numbing, with moments of sheer panic interwoven in.

I’m not a mental health expert, but I have personally dealt with anxiety and insomnia at different times in my own life. This is what i am watching for in myself, my husband, my kids:

Sleeping issues - this is always number one for me - if you are having difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or just feeling unrested then stress is very likely the culprit; especially now.

Moodiness and irritability not connected to monthly hormonal fluctuations (my husband is quarantined with our three daughters and me - so monthly cycles are pretty real for him)

Out of character behavior like when our incredibly social and naturally helpful daughter starts spending a lot more time in her room. Or when the easy-going one absolutely loses it over something that would normally not even ruffle her feathers. Or the youngest, who is prone to mercurial drama becomes listless and overly obliging. It might be tears, or yelling or withdrawing. The main thing is, it is different from each of our “normal” selves.

Compulsive behaviour - some of this is ok and actually really productive - it means we are finding things that help us escape or take our minds out of it. But in excess, it is something we need to watch and think about the why. Baking, cleaning, video games, binge watching telly, exercise. For me it is reading fiction. I know i’m stressed when it's all i want to do and everything else feels like an imposition on that time. So watching for it and trying to apply moderation.

What about supporting others who may be dealing with anxiety during this time? What's the best way to speak to and be there for your friends and family?

With sensitivity above all. With kindness and compassion. Regular contact and check ins, by phone, text, video call, whatever works for you and for them. Most of us just feel better knowing we are on someone’s mind. And understanding that we are all experiencing this in our own way, and at different times. I was personally really annoyed with family members who were complaining about the limitations to what they could do and where they could go, when so many others were worried about getting sick or losing loved ones or losing their businesses or jobs or homes. It just felt petty and small and my reaction was anger, and to get a bit preachy. But I think we all have to cut each other some slack. Maybe they just needed to vent that day. So I think being sensitive and just listening is helpful, and then if the person is open and receptive at that time, gently reminding them about what we have to be grateful for. Because for a lot of us, this could be much worse.