Stress, anxiety and depression are increasingly common in our society. It is a subject that is very close to me having fought my own mental health battles. Having found hula hooping at a particularly low point in my life, at first I wasn’t aware of the physical and mental changes it wrought in me over the weeks and months as I practiced my new hobby. It was only almost three years later, looking back at the impact hula hooping had on my life and the transformation in my mindset, that I realised that the hula hoop had changed my life completely, and I began to research just why a simple plastic circle – a child’s toy! – could have had such an incredible positive impact on my wellbeing.
I have recently begin to promote hula hooping as an useful aid to improving your mental wellbeing at the same time as your physical wellbeing. Physical and mental wellbeing are closely related, and a holistic approach to wellbeing is an efficient way of making the most of the little time many of us find in our lives for self care.
So why is hula hooping so good for you? Although the hula hoop is indeed a children’s toy, the adult sized hula hoops you can buy today are an exercise tool that give you an excellent cardio workout, while toning and strengthening your muscles. You improve your balance, motor skills, co-ordination, posture and flexibility at the same time.
But unlike many traditional exercise classes, a hula hoop class is not simply about working out your your body. It is a form of exercise that allows you to acquire a new skill. While you exercise your body, you are also exercising your brain. As you master each new move, and when as many students of mine tell me, they never thought they would be able to do it, the reward centre of your brain is activated and you feel good about yourself and your body. You realise you are capable of more than you ever realised. Both sides of your body, left and right hands, arms, legs and feet are made to work equally on challenging moves, engaging both sides of your brain.
The NHS website suggests that there are five steps we can all take to improve our mental wellbeing. I read them and couldn’t help but relate each one to my hula hoop workshops – take a look at their suggestions (in bold) and my comments (in italics) below:
- Connect – connect with the people around you: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships. A hula hoop class is a wonderful way to connect with people in a safe and welcoming environment. Having the hula hoop around you as a physical barrier and a shield allows you to feel secure and take interaction at your own pace, or simply lose yourself in the joy of hooping without having to interact with anybody.
- Be active – you don't have to go to the gym. Take a walk, go cycling or play a game of football. Find the activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your life. Hula hoop classes are run and rewarding, but you can just as easily hoop at home, in the garden and even in front of the TV! 15 minutes of hoop time in front of the TV or during your lunchbreak at work can be built into your day relatively easily. It can be done without needing to find childcare or can be done alongside your children!
- Keep learning – learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence. So why not sign up for that cooking course, start learning to play a musical instrument, or figure out how to fix your bike? There are infinite moves and combinations of moves to learn hula hooping. Many people find it leads to an interest in learning circus skills and other flow toys such as poi or staff. ( I certainly never expected to pick up the new hobby of fire eating at the grand age of 40, but I would never have done it without starting with the hula hoop!) Every hula hoop session allows you to learn and improve and feel that sense of achievement.
- Give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it's a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks. At hoop class, we have all been there when we can’t quite figure something out or are having a bad day. And there has always been that hooper who turns to you and helps you out – shows you how to place your hand so the move works out, gives a big cheer when you get it, who encourages and supports with a smile and kind words. Sometimes you can be that person reaching out, sometimes you are glad that person is around for you. Taking a bunch of hoops to a community fundraiser for a free workshop is a wonderful way of supporting your local community.
- Be more aware of the present moment, including your feelings and thoughts, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness "mindfulness", and it can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges. Hula hooping can be an excellent aid to mindfulness. Both learning moves and the act of hooping and finding your flow involve emptying your mind and connecting with the physical feeling and rhythm of the hoop around your body, being in the moment and allowing your muscle memory and instinct to guide you. Very often, what is preventing you from nailing a move is that you are thinking about it. I ask my students to empty their minds, feel the rhythm and touch of the hoop on their bodies, and when your mind is clear attempt the move – and 9 times out of 10 they achieve it. The reason is that by the time you have thought what you want to do, and the impulse has travelled down your nerves to the relevant nerve ending, the hoop has moved around and it is too late. By emptying your mind and allowing your subconscious to take over, you have the chance to nail that move.
(Paragraphs in Bold: Source: NHS Online : http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve-mental-wellbeing.aspx)
I will end this article by telling you what hula hooping did for me, after I picked up a hula hoop at one of the lowest points of my life.
I was suffering from panic attacks and anxiety, I was on anti-depressants, constantly fatigued, and my skin was flaking and inflamed from stress induced eczema and psoriasis. I was terrified of meeting people and social situations.
I hula hooped alone in my garden for about three months learning from Youtube videos. Endlessly surfing the web for more hooping input, I found a Facebook group of hoopers local to where I live, and saw a post advertising an LED hoop jam. Plucking up the courage to ask if I could just go along was hard enough, but it took me 20 minutes sitting in my car outside the park talking sternly to myself to pluck up the courage to go and meet up with them!
Having the hoop was a reason to get out of the car and do it – and I was so glad I did. Hooping meant not having to worry about making small talk. I managed a whole hour, and felt so proud of myself as this was a huge deal for me.
I promised myself then that where the hula hoop was involved – just say yes to any opportunity to push myself and see what happened, giving myself permission stop and leave at any time I wished.
A week or so late, I was invited to join them again to hoop in the street for a fun day – I said YES! (terrified). I was asked to hoop in a parade in the city centre. I said YES! (beyond terrified). I was asked to take a hula hoop class for a hoop teacher who needed cover, and who didn’t know how I felt inside! I said YES! And underwent an intensive course in teaching hula hooping from the wonderful teacher, Julia Hula Hurley, who instilled such confidence in me I actually believed I could do it despite the Fear – and I could.
Every time I hula hooped I found I forgot my anxiety and stress. I forgot to be nervous in these terrifying-to-me situations. While hooping felt free, and completely comfortable in myself. As I was spinning and throwing and manipulating the hoop I pushed and spun away the anxiety, externalising and removing the anxious thoughts, and found I had the biggest smile on my face. And as after any good exercise session that has enabled the release of endorphins, after a good hoop session most hoopers report a wonderful sense of joy, satisfaction, and achievement.
I realised that I felt happy and content and at peace with myself. And I hadn’t cried or had a panic or anxiety attack for months. Since then I have performed on stages, at festivals, hooped with a fire hoop, learned fire eating and body burning, appeared on TV and in a commercial for the circus and have I still feel nervous each and every time – but have the confidence to give it a go anyway knowing I always have my hoop to hold onto!