I can’t remember a time in my life without anxiety. I can, however, differentiate between out-of-control times and in-control times. Like many other mental illnesses, for me anxiety hinged on control. And for years, my method of control was yoga.
I was 14 when I went to my first yoga class in a dingy, mirrored studio with my best friend by my side. We bent, we twisted, we unbent, we lay in corpse pose as the sweat dried on our bodies. As we walked out of the studio, I can’t describe my feeling as anything other than euphoria.
Yoga worked from the very start — and I didn’t even know I had something that needed to be worked on. It was like I had no idea I was living in the midst of deafening sound waves until yoga turned the volume down to zero. My friend, on the other hand, giggled and suggested we try ballroom dancing next. I realized that for her, there hadn’t been any noise, to begin with.
The years following that first class, I dabbled in yoga between high school, after-school jobs, and activities.
Though a feeling of anxiousness was an undercurrent in my life, it wasn’t until my second semester of college that I experienced my first, most wildly, out-of-control episode of generalized anxiety. What had long been a background buzz became an erratic foghorn. The butterflies in my stomach cracked from their chrysalises.
Then, I remembered yoga.
I started attending a 45-minute lunchtime yoga class in my college’s gym. Class by class, I wrangled my anxiety. I tamed it with each sweat-inducing flow and subsequent savasana.
That’s what my anxiety was — something to be tamed. I did not see my anxiety as something within my brain — a chemical imbalance or a tangle of thoughts. No. It was a fully-grown beast living inside my body. I felt it squeeze my heart and shake my legs. I felt it when my palms sweat, when my jaw ground, and most of all when my stomach roiled. And so, it made sense that the logical way to tame this beast was through an equally physical mechanism.
That’s what my anxiety was — something to be tamed. I did not see my anxiety as something within my brain — a chemical imbalance or a tangle of thoughts.
Yoga became my means of control.
After a few years, I decided to enroll in a yoga teacher training program. I didn’t actually do this because I wanted to teach. I knew an upcoming move abroad to the United Kingdom, could potentially be another trigger – maybe, the biggest of my life — and if I equipped myself with a yoga teacher certification, maybe I could handle the move. So I sent in my check and applauded myself for my self-awareness and problem-solving.
The training was, of course, life-changing. But something else happened, too. I learned to sit in meditation for hours, ignoring the intense back spasms clenched and unclenched along my spine. I became so relaxed (I told myself), that my blood pressure plummeted. One day it plummeted so low, I passed out and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. As the nurse plucked echocardiogram stickers from my chest – they never did find a reason for my loss of consciousness – I found that I couldn’t inhale. Air just… wasn’t coming in.
“You’re having a panic attack,” the nurse said.
A what? I was doing more yoga than I ever had before. I put in 10 hour studio days each weekend. So how could I possibly be having a panic attack?
The fainting, the panic attack, the hospital stay, was all a one-off, I told myself. Yoga didn’t cause any of that. I should eat and sleep more, and not stand up so quickly, and all would be fine. And all was fine – for a while.
Once I had a yoga teacher certification, I figured I might as well teach. It turned out I loved teaching. I led my students through the same twisting flows that first made me fall in love with yoga – the kind that led to savasana you would be so grateful for your mind had no choice but to empty.
I did more than that, though, because I was (and remain) adamant that yoga is so much more than a physical practice. After all, it was my anxiety that had first drawn me to yoga. So, I lay myself out as a specimen for my students.
Yoga cured my anxiety, I would say as they shook in utkatasana. I martyred myself before rows of lycra-clad yogis trembling on their mats. This is the power of yoga, I wanted to yell. Instead, I pressed my palms together and intoned: Heyam Dukham Anagtam. Pain that has not yet come cannot be felt.
Because isn’t that what anxiety is? Feeling the pain of something that has not yet come to be? Through yoga, I could control my mind into feeling nothing at all.
But the thing about teaching yoga, though, is that it made me anxious. My generalized anxiety always had a social component. It’s not that I didn’t love teaching yoga, but each morning that I had a class, my stomach would have its familiar butterflies. And if I had an evening class, I’d spend all day ruminating. Would it go well? Would people like the sequence I came up with? Would I help someone or would they suffer through it? Would I blank out on the Sanskrit in the middle of class?
To control the beast, I dove into my own practice. I practiced Ashtanga yoga for sometimes two hours a day. Strict breath counts. Legs bent behind my head. Twisting my body into shapes it was not yet ready for. Anything to drive out the beast.
The practice still helped drive my mind into obedience, but I soon found that my body couldn’t keep up. Old injuries flared in my hamstrings and hip flexors. And a twinge in my wrist bloomed into a stabbing pain that would wake me in the night. I noticed my wrist joint was especially bad when it rained. Living in England, it always rained.
Various doctors suggested I had tendonitis.
“You need to immobilize your wrist to reduce inflammation,” I was told. So for a total of six months, I splinted my wrist and gave up the active yoga practice I’d come to not only love but wholly depend upon.
“You can still do yoga, just don’t move your wrist,” the doctors told me. But what was the point of yoga if I couldn’t do a sweat-building vinyasa if I couldn’t cycle through the Ashtanga series? I tried some gentle Yin practices that don’t involve wrist extension, but I found that without the repetitive movement of faster yoga styles, I couldn’t control my mind. When I was still, my thoughts had so much more space to attack me.
It was so much harder to admit that yoga couldn’t help me anymore — and that maybe, it had just been covering up a deeper issue the whole time.
Six months turned into four years of medical appointments and wrist pain — it turns out I didn’t have tendonitis, but a ganglion cyst compressing a nerve. An injury, my new hand surgeon informed me, that I’d likely gotten from yoga.
It was easy to say I was a yogi. It was even easy to say yoga cured my anxiety. It was so much harder to admit that yoga couldn’t help me anymore — and that maybe, it had just been covering up a deeper issue the whole time.
Losing my pain-free, fast-paced yoga practice was, for me, the equivalent of going cold turkey from anxiety medication. I experienced terrible flares of generalized anxiety, depression, and new chronic illnesses that came to the front. I cycled through new therapists instead of sun salutations. I resented my body, my mind, and the “new me” I was forced into being.
It took years of hindsight for me to realize that this “new me” was the same me as before, just without the unhealthy addiction to a yoga practice that was enabling ignorance of a deeper issue – the inability to sit with myself and accept my thoughts and emotions.
Years on from my wrist injury, I have only recently returned to yoga. I still have wrist pain, and I still have anxiety. But I’m learning to enjoy a slower practice — one where I sit with my thoughts and acknowledge them, before letting them do what they will. I still have the impulse to drive them out, to control them, with a fast-paced vinyasa. But my left wrist continually reminds me to slow down. I’m learning to treat that old twinge as a gift, rather than a punishment.
My new relationship with yoga isn’t perfect by any means, but after being addicted to constant movement in my practice, I realize that maybe learning to sit still is actually the point of it all. Maybe my mind doesn’t need to be controlled, it just wants to be listened to.