Finding and creating sanctuary in meditation: Anita Cheung’s story

Anita Cheung found herself in a mental health crisis after university.

“It got to the point where I didn’t care about my own life,” she said.

At the time, she never opened up to her friends or family about her depression. The only person she confided in was her boyfriend.

“When you’re Asian, no one ever talks about depression,” she said. “It’s all about saving face and you don’t show any pain.”

Concerned for her well-being, her then-boyfriend urged Cheung to seek help through therapy. There she found sanctuary through the practice of meditation and mindfulness. Since then, Cheung has “clung onto it as a lifeboat” to manage her mental health. 

Photo Credit: Anita Cheung.

Having experienced this life-changing practice, she set out to open doors to meditation for others.

Already a certified yoga instructor, Cheung began incorporating the practice into her classes. In the fall of 2016, she opened Canada’s first modern meditation studio and then in 2018, she launched In Bed with Betty, an online subscription-based meditation community.

Her goal is to “help other people to achieve a sense of groundedness and foster a sense of curiosity”.

“You can be spiraling in an anxiety cycle – all the ‘what if’s’ which are very future-oriented,” Cheung said, “but when you tap into your own breath, you are instantly transported into what’s here, what’s now, and what’s real.”

“Once you can get through this moment and when you start to feel safe, then you can pick away at the other issues.”

Navigating mental illness in an Asian family

“Growing up, there was no word for mental illness in my family,” the mental health advocate said. “My understanding of mental illness was zero.”

Without the knowledge and language, her parents were clueless that she was suffering from a health condition. They thought that she was just “crazy and rebellious”.

But she wasn’t crazy; she had PMDD.

Photo Credit: Anita Cheung

After years of grappling with waves of depression, Cheung was diagnosed with Premenstrual Disphoric Disorder (PMDD), a condition that affects 10% of women.

“It’s basically premenstrual syndrome (PMS) times 100,” she said. “No one talks about it because people don’t know about it.”

In addition to symptoms similar to those exhibited by PMS, PMDD causes severe mood swings and heightens emotions such as rage, anxiety, and depression. It impacts and can disrupt close interpersonal relationships. 

“It was validating once I can Google it, find communities online, and can direct my partner and family to learn more about it,” she said.

Cheung has since opened up to her parents about the loneliness and pressures she felt . Her parents have come a long way too, by embracing and engaging the difficult conversations, but not without a fair share of tears and Google translation.

 “I am also starting to ask them questions about them,” she said. “They grew up in Vietnam and fled as refugees after the war so there’s a lot of trauma there.” 

Making space for diversity in wellness

Meditation has soared in popularity in North America in the last decade. But are these spaces for everyone? Cheung thinks not.

She believes that there is room for improvement for inclusion and diversity in the meditation space.

“Certain types of meditation and voices have been very loud in recent history because it’s more palatable and easier to understand – maybe it’s in English or it’s a science-backed meditation,” the Vancouver-based entrepreneur said. 

Despite being a person of colour, Cheung recognized that the type of meditation that she was trained in was Westernized and “perpetuates the white perspective,” not leaving space for different cultural practices and styles.

In 2018, she made a conscious decision to step back from teaching publicly to provide more opportunities for other voices to permeate the space. 

Photo Credit: In Bed with Betty.

“I’ve been the person to introduce people to meditation that I know, but a big part of the conversation about diversifying voices is for people to make space for others,” Cheung said.

She has done so by introducing a workshop component into In Bed with Betty that features industry experts and topics beyond wellness, such as sustainability and decolonization.

“In Bed with Betty is a little bit of meditation, and a lot more other ‘stuff’,” she said. “The meditation is the gateway to get you in and there’s an opportunity to learn various facts and stay educated about other issues.”

Staying grounded through life transitions

Despite working in the wellness space, the years of working in a public-facing and people-serving role began negatively impact her mental health.

“I had built my life around building space for other people,” the founder of In Bed with Betty said. “It was challenging to show up and hold space for others.”

After devoting two years to the studio business, it was time for Cheung to move on so she could prioritize her well-being and restore balance in her own life.

“The biggest thing was changing my lifestyle and schedule – how accountable I am to other people and how much time I have for myself – [in order] to increase time for myself and decreasing time I’m doing things for other people,” she said.

With one door closed, Cheung had space to try something new: artwork. She is now delving into art design and illustration as a new method of expression and a new way to cope with her mental health.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B2k0kPcBud8/

As Cheung shifts gears and slows down her pace, she encourages everyone to instill more space into their lives and not be rushed.

“People are going through life changes all the time,” she said. “There’s definitely a big ‘what am I, who am I’ moment, which happens all the time when people change jobs, change cities, change relationship.”

“Being grounded in your body and your present experience is very helpful, because if you don’t know where you are, [at least] you know who you are.”

You can keep in touch with Cheung on instagram @ineeeda and learn more about her at her website, http://www.anitacheung.ca.

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