From healing to healer: The mental health journey of Ashley Hughes
Building Hope Summit County
Almost everyone has experienced mental health issues in their lives, and Ashley Hughes is no exception.
Depression and suicidal ideation, both symptoms of her post-traumatic stress diagnosis, once cast a shadow over her life, but after years of struggling to cope, she discovered a unique solution to help her find the light: yoga.
In her journey to heal herself, she found that yoga could serve as a tool to help others, and she’s since dedicated herself to spreading the practice’s positive effects.
“It took me a long time to admit that there was a problem,” Ashley said. “My doctors along the way told me that I was lucky to have yoga in my background, because what happens with trauma is that the mind and body disconnect.”
Today, Ashley is helping community members mend their own disconnections through her yoga class in studios across Summit County. The hourlong class features Ashley’s personal wisdom and understanding of science, along with exercises centered on movement, breathing, stillness and focus.
Confronting her mental health
Ashley grew up in Cleveland and attended the University of Minnesota, where she majored in political science, Italian and German. Combined with her love of sports, she was a shoe-in for an elite international graduate program in sports management, marketing and law. Her studies took her to England, Italy and Switzerland.
She described herself during that period as “an overly ambitious energizer bunny version of a human.”
“If I could figure out a way to do something I was interested in, I’d make it happen,” Ashley said. “I had the energy and ability to mobilize an entire room. When I’m really passionate about something, my energy level skyrockets. That’s probably why I find it easy to motivate people — especially in fitness and yoga.”
Ashley’s ambition was to serve as a sports marketer for the FIFA World Cup, but her trajectory took a sharp turn just before her 28th birthday. Three months before graduation, Ashley was the victim of a severe traumatic event, which she has decided not to share publicly.
“I began having suicidal thoughts …” she said. “I saw a therapist for three weeks. I just wanted to leave. There was just darkness. Pieces of my past or future no longer fit together. I felt lost.”
In September 2017, Ashley moved home to Cleveland in a state of confusion, depression and anger, having basically shut the door on the sports world. She sought medical help and was given a low dose of an antidepressant and told she was going to feel better in about six months. That didn’t happen.
Perhaps the only silver lining of her return to Cleveland was meeting a man — Wilbur Pyn — who himself was returning home after testing out life as a snowboard instructor in Summit County. After two months together in Cleveland, Ashley and Wilbur decided to move to Summit County. Ashley admits it was an impulsive act, but she trusted Wilbur and felt safe with him, so they headed west together.
After weeks of feeling “happy and normal,” she spiraled back into suicidal thoughts.
“He was afraid to leave me alone,” Ashley said about Wilbur. “I understand now why he felt so helpless; he couldn’t fix me, couldn’t make me feel better.”
In fall 2018, Ashley returned to Cleveland and, at her father’s urging, sought help at a crisis center that offered free therapy for up to five months. With a solid connection with her therapist, she availed herself of various treatments, including eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, watched TED Talks and read voraciously about neurology.
After three months, she put a deadline on her recovery. She had been hired by Dew Tour and needed to be in Breckenridge by December. And she wanted to be ready.
“I’d wanted to work for Dew Tour since I was 18,” she said. “I couldn’t let this dream opportunity be taken away from me.”
She returned to Summit County, where she said Wilbur encouraged her to open up about her feelings.
“I had genuinely felt ashamed about feeling depressed,” Ashley said. “As a woman with amazing parents, friends, experiences and opportunities, it didn’t make sense. He reminded me that everyone, no matter their circumstances, has something going on. He made me feel comfortable and normalized my challenges.”
Helping others heal
In her efforts to heal, Ashley found peace in yoga.
She said yoga helped her learn to sit with challenging emotions for longer periods of time, to determine where she feels those sensations in her body and options for what to do with those feelings: shift them to another location, make them decrease in duration or simply sit through them. Yoga also has a mindfulness and meditation component, which she said can help heal the brain.
Ashley has found ways to use her experiences with mental health issues and yoga to help guide others. She’s now teaching virtual and in-person yoga for various studios across Summit County to help individuals who have experienced trauma or psychological challenges navigate difficult feelings or overwhelming emotions.
In her class, Ashley uses crisp and efficient words scripted over the years to teach others about the healing powers of the mind-body connection. Participants learn to “body scan,” tuning into the parts of their bodies that are feeling emotion, and to go through each of the seven chakras, or energy centers located in the spine that are connected to various organs and glands in the body.
Ashley said she’s still a work in progress and that she often feels frustrated when recovery feels slow or too cyclical, but the practice has helped her thrive.
“I have to remember a year ago, I couldn’t do the work I needed to do on myself and have a job,” she said. “Now I have six jobs, and I can see progress.”
Today, Ashley is the head of marketing and development for Breck Film and was a featured speaker at the TEDxBreckenridge event last year. Additionally, she’s started teaching introduction classes to mindfulness and meditation, and offering one-on-one coaching. She also started her own company, Supple(Mental) Sports, and works with professional athletes and sports federations to provide tools and knowledge around mental health and wellness.
For Ashley, anxiety and depression are slowly being squeezed aside for hope, and she believes others can make progress through yoga, as well.
“Trauma forced me to learn a tremendous amount about mental health, and it has allowed me to educate others,” Ashley said. “I have a greater understanding of how my brain and body work together. That’s going to help me dramatically throughout life.”
Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of a story written by Suzanne Acker, a special projects writer for Building Hope Summit County. Read Ashley Hughes’ full story and watch a video interview with her at BuildingHopeSummit.org/about/hope.
• Building Hope Summit County Peer Support Line: 970-485-6271, Option 2.
• Therapy resources: BuildingHopeSummit.org/resources/therapy-resources
• Community connectedness events: BuildingHopeSummit.org/events
• Supple(Mental) Support: SuppleMentalSports.com
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