“I can’t deny how scary it is just to make that phone call. It is a fear that has no logic.”
Social entrepreneur Cheryl Tan on mental health advocacy, trauma-informed yoga, and why no one should suffer in silence.
Cheryl Tan is 34 years old but she has come close to ending her life on multiple occasion. “I’ve always had suicidal tendencies from a very young age,” she shares. But the fact that she’s speaking with us today bears strong testimony to her cumulative efforts in seeking help, remaining open to various forms of therapy, and building emotional and mental resilience. “As I go through my own journey with yoga and therapy, I can start to understand what lead me to that space of having these desires,” says Cheryl, who adds that the journey is still an ongoing process for her.
Despite the stigma that surrounds mental health issues in Singapore, Cheryl has found her voice as a mental health advocate and holds space for others with The Breathe Movement, a social enterprise she founded in 2014 that helps individuals build mental and emotional resilience through yoga programmes.
Last year, she also organised the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival, the first of its kind in Singapore, sandwiching films with panel discussions to deepen the conversations around mental health issues. Due to disruptions arising from the pandemic, the second iteration of the festival will instead feature a fringe-event on 10 October (World Mental Health Day) featuring virtual screenings and discussions focused on the impact of the pandemic on such vulnerable communities as migrant workers, the elderly, sex workers, and LGBTQ groups.
Below, she opens up about trauma-informed yoga, the challenges facing Singapore’s mental health landscape, and what drives her to run a social enterprise.
In 2012, I watched Yogawoman, a film on inspiring female practitioners like Seane Corn and Shiva Rae. One of the stories that stood out for me had to do with The Art of Yoga project out in California, where they worked with girls in juvenile homes to teach them the yoga sutras, and how to transition from juvenile facility to society at large. It was really about taking yoga off the mat and into the world; it wasn’t just about your practice but also how you approached different facets of your life. I was really inspired.
In the lead up to 2014, I did my yoga teacher training in Toronto with the mission to come back to Singapore to start The Breathe Movement. I wanted to have a deeper understanding of how trauma resides in the body, and how through a mindfulness practice – be it through movement, a seated practice, journaling or art – we can start to release these threads of trauma. How can we bring them to the surface so that we can at least acknowledge them and begin the process of healing?
My core mission for The Breathe Movement has a lot to do with facilitating the inner work of trauma. It’s not something that every yoga teacher can do as one needs to be trauma-informed to lead a class. And in order to be trauma-informed, you need to really go through your own storylines and be able to approach yourself with a lot of compassion first before you can go into a class without any knowledge of what sort of trauma everyone else holds. As I don’t think we can necessarily know all our traumas, I wouldn’t say that a person has to know their own traumas per se – it’s more about being okay with being not okay, or being okay to sit with that discomfort. So when that feeling of discomfort pops up, it’s something we already know how to work with.
I see film as a modality of yoga, one that helps us to feel emotions across a wide spectrum. That’s also what a yoga practice also teaches us – to be in a relationship with our inner self. The Breathe Movement was really the brainchild of the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival. It started because it was a struggle for me to really explain how yoga philosophy allows us to gain emotional and mental resilience. The film festival was an attempt to simplify this by way of a highly accessible medium.
I view my entire life as a yoga practice, but I’ve also added different elements to it. During my university years, I found baking as a way to meditate in motion. I also picked up rock climbing in 2014. Before that, I was just climbing without knowing any techniques. In 2015, something happened and I was on the brink of committing suicide. But that was the same day I had planned to go rock climbing with a friend. As the session was long overdue and I had postponed it so many times before, I told myself I’ll meet my friend and decide on what to do later. For the next two to three hours, I was climbing and solving problems on the wall. The desire to commit suicide had diminished so much that I had forgotten about it. From that day onwards, I started picking up more rock climbing techniques and my weekly session is now part of my self-care routine.
The biggest challenge in Singapore’s current mental health landscape? People know that there is help available out there, but they wonder: “Do I dare to take the step forward to see a therapist, a psychologist, or psychiatrist?”. People are definitely afraid to take that step. Such thoughts tend to surface: “Why do I need to share this information with a therapist? Maybe I can just share with my friends. Perhaps I’m just going through a stressful period. Maybe I’ll just suffer in silence and it will go away.”
There’s a broader world out there trying to eradicate the stigma attached to mental health but it still resides very strongly in Singapore. There’s a huge gap between people who have access to treatment, people who think that they should access treatment but are scared to do so, and people who will not access treatment at all because of the stigma attached to mental health.
The issue I see, even amongst my peers, is that they are willing to share with me, but they are not willing to take the extra step to make that phone call. To access private psychological or therapy treatment, you are looking at an average of $150 to $250 per 60-minute session. The public sector offers a highly discounted rate for under $100, but the stigma of walking into any of these facilities can keep many away. I can understand this fear. When I had to make a call to the psychiatrist regarding my own mental health, I had to put the phone down a few times. I can’t deny how scary it is just to make that phone call. It is a fear that has no logic.
Most insurance policies in Singapore only cover certain psychiatric illnesses and exclude psychological or therapeutic treatment. There’s a major lag in Singapore’s insurance system because not everyone needs psychiatric medication. When you see a psychiatrist, they are likely to prescribe you some kind of medication but I personally don’t think that everyone needs to be on psychiatric medication. In some situations, you might have very bad depression and yes, you do need some kind of medication to get through this period, but I don’t know how many psychiatrists are open to telling patients to counter their condition with another therapeutic treatment such as psychotherapy or take a more holistic approach to walk you through the process internally before using medication to calibrate yourself. This holistic therapeutic approach can be part of a longer-term effort to help someone be less reliant on psychiatric treatment.
I’m Vinyasa trained but my yoga practice this year has been mostly Ashtanga-based. Over the past five years, I’ve been studying with Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, so I’ve learnt more about Ashtanga, and what previously appeared to be a very rigid practice has transformed into something that is more fluid. It’s interesting that I can now see the Vinyasa aspect in Ashtanga and I now approach the practice with more fluidity.
I find time to teach yoga at the National University of Singapore. I’ve been with them for four years now. I teach the students for two semesters a year and they pay a highly subsidised rate, so it’s really nice that the students have access to that. It’s a different environment from the studio but a really nice experience to journey with them through the 10 weeks. It’s something I’m passionate about because I started yoga when I was in university, too.
This year, I’ve been scheduling meetings in the afternoons. I’ve realised I need the time in the morning to process things and prepare myself for the day. If I don’t have this time, I know I will be extremely ungrounded, reactive, and sometimes grouchy. I start my day by drinking a glass of water before spending some time with my plants. I’ll also do some yoga or bake in the mornings.
When I feel overwhelmed or unfocused, I walk away from my desk, head over to my little garden and take some time to fuss over my plants. When I’m ready, I return to the computer. I have a bullet journal where I plan out what I’ll do each day. It helps me stay focused.
These days, I have really taken the step to take care of my own mental health and not be so focused on KPIs even though I’m aware I’m still answerable to KPIs. If I’m feeling really overwhelmed, I won’t force myself to work on the task today; I’ll do it tomorrow. There’s nothing that will go wrong. The worst is that the timeline gets pushed back by a day.
My understanding of yoga has changed a lot over the years. It’s one of those practices where you think you may understand something but the true understanding only comes later. For example, it wasn’t until this year where I felt I truly embodied what it meant to set an intention. It’s such an interesting journey and I’m grateful for all the opportunities that have come up through the years that have allowed me to explore and be on this journey.