Yoga saved Priscilla Hensler’s life, but you might be surprised by her advice for others battling their own demons.
“Find a trusted medical professional and follow their advice,” she said.
“Don’t listen to laymen, don’t go to the internet. Be patient and don’t be afraid of medication.”
Priscilla provided many people who grew up in the Eurobodalla in the 1990s and 2000s with their first experience on a surfboard or a yoga mat.
Before that in her early 20s, Priscilla chased her dream of becoming a professional surfer almost to fruition.
Living in Manly, she scored a sponsorship from Roxy and was in the Quicksilver training with the likes of Tom Carroll, Kelly Slater and Layne Beachley.
A top 16 finish in Hawaii proved she was on her way and her work ethic was faultless.
“I was surfing, training, doing yoga and deep meditation daily, as well as working because women’s surfing wasn’t highly paid,” she said.
“In hindsight I realise I was doing a lot. Something had to give.”
That something was her first manic episode at age 28.
Years later Priscilla would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but at the time all she knew was the fear of her racing thoughts.
She broke out of a Sydney Hospital and remembers running through the streets with her long blonde hair streaming behind her.
“I’ve gone through the pain now and I can see the funny side,” she said.
“My manic episodes have always been bizarre, but the more I became able to recognise what was happening the less fear I felt.
“I don’t look at them as breakdowns anymore; I look at them as breakthroughs because I always learn something.
“Over the years I’ve learned to reach out for help and now I’m ready to share my story in the hopes it might help someone else.”
The first misconception she wants to address is the perception that mental health, especially psychosis, is linked to drug use.
A social drinker who had experimented with marijuana a couple of times in her teens, Priscilla said her addictions at the time were adrenalin, surfing and yoga.
Anyone looking at her lifestyle from the outside would have thought she was at the peak of health.
But after her first episode she had to give up on her surfing career and turn her attention toward healing her mind.
She moved home and started a surf school with her partner at the time but kept getting unwell.
She remembered when she was a teen her yoga teacher at the time, Pat, said she would make a lovely teacher.
“I said no way, all I wanted to do was surf,” she said.
“But maybe it was meant to be. Yoga seemed to calm me down; it helped manage my life when I came out of hospital.”
Priscilla took a gamble – she sold the surf school to her partner, packed herself up in a van and moved to Cairns for three months to complete her yoga teacher training at the Ashtanga Yoga Academy in Cairns with Nicky Knoff.
“Her husband is an Ashtanga teacher and came through the lineage of K Pattabhi Jois (Indian yoga guru who developed Ashtanga), so I went through a very authentic lineage,” Priscilla said.
“She was a hard-nosed teacher, which I needed at the time. It was pretty intense but what she taught me, I never forgot.”
READ ALSO: The highs and lows of life ‘up the river’
Priscilla moved back home to the coast and began to teach yoga as and when her mental health allowed.
She called her business Aloha Yoga in memory of her time surfing in Hawaii.
“It means ‘to love is to be happy’,” she explained.
“I was working out of a van, little gigs between hospital visits, but they were never half-hearted.
“It suited me and my health at the time. Then I transitioned to Denhams Beach, on the beach, by donation only. I picked a different charity for the donations to go to each month. It was really fun.
“I was getting better at managing the bipolar and slowly getting more consistency with my practice and teaching and realised I could have a bit more confidence.
“As I learned more about bipolar I became less fearful of it and that in itself was an improvement.
“Meditation helped me notice when my thoughts began to run at 100 miles an hour, and it helped me to not identify myself with the illness.”
Her hunger to learn more about yoga took her all over the country to teacher training with Baron Baptiste and pregnancy yoga in Milton, when Priscilla fell pregnant with her twins, Kale and La’akea.
This year she marks 21 years of teaching yoga and 30 years of practice. She now teaches out of the Tomakin Community Hall and in Moruya.
Teaching yoga might not be the career her teen self planned, but Priscilla knows it’s where she was meant to be.
“My team manager at Quicksilver, Murph, had bipolar and would talk to me about being in and out of hospital,” she said.
“Years later around the time I received my diagnosis, he killed himself. He was one of the most talented surfers, an artist; he had the world at his feet.
“Mental illness doesn’t discriminate; it can affect anybody.
“I wanted to make sure suicide wasn’t my future because it was guys like Murph who shared his story with me that made me want to keep going.
“So I’m healing myself as well as being a part of other people’s healing journeys – giving back, not giving up.”
If you or someone you know struggles with their mental health, you can call Lifeline’s 24-hour support line on 13 11 14.