Be with the fire and give yourself a chance.
I have taken a few yoga classes in my day. Since 2009, I have been lucky enough to learn from different teachers in different settings and styles.
In that time I have heard many teachers advocate for using yoga to keep anxiety in check. I have heard yoga teachers near college campuses talk about the benefits of coming to class during finals season, when everyone’s shoulders seem to creep an inch closer to their ears than normal.
I have heard them speak specifically to more clinical applications of yoga, like how yoga aids in recovery from more serious emotional issues. I have read countless articles and have heard firsthand about how yoga has helped people with anxiety-related struggles.
My point is that for a long time I have been aware of the strong connection between yoga and anxiety.
There’s a big difference between knowing something theoretically, knowing it personally and knowing it experientially.
In my first week as an intern at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, two new friends invited to me take an afternoon yoga class with one of their favorite teachers. It was a vigorous level class, my favorite, so I accepted their invitation.
It was a sweaty and challenging class, full of long holds and endurance-testing flows. Being the good yogi that I am, I kept directing my focus back to my breath, and practiced non-judgment toward myself and those sweating on their mats beside me.
About halfway through class, the teacher said something that not only made me giggle in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), but was also the truth pill I needed to swallow. As the leg shaking and brow sweating was reaching new levels he said:
“Here you are, hopefully outside of your comfort zone. When we get to places like this in yoga, we can take a moment to stop and shake hands with ourselves.”
What he said really struck me.
While the physical practice of yoga—asana—lets me explore the limitations and abilities of my physical body, the mental practice of yoga invites me to get to know myself as a person. This is much different than the way you can learn about yourself through your relationships with others.
For me, turning inward to say hello was acknowledging the “me” that wasn’t necessarily who I was to other people. No protective walls, shields of armor, proud faces or witty words are needed when it’s just you and you in your asana practice.
How do you deal with yourself when the only thing that’s making you uncomfortable, or anxious, is you?
The exploration into my relationship with myself is what initiated my experiential understanding of the link between yoga and anxiety.
While I’m not immune to the roller-coaster effect of life—the rocky and sometimes nauseating cycle of highs and lows—I’m generally not an anxious person. However, as my self-practice is now an hour a day, I see the connection between my yoga and my anxiety becoming clearer and more defined.
I have actually begun to feel anxious more frequently.
Whaaaaat? Isn’t that the opposite of what’s supposed to happen? In theory, yes. But yoga is a special journey.
A steady and authentic yoga practice has played, and will continue to play, a big role in lightening my anxiety load, but it hasn’t been easy or quick. Yoga will never be some magic drug that eliminates all internal fires of fear, doubt and pain.
If anything, it has forced me directly into the fire, giving me the opportunity to extinguish it from point blank, as opposed to trying to huff and puff the fire out from five feet away.
So yes, in this metaphor, yoga has shoved me (lovingly) right into a blazing fire of fear.
First, I had to learn to be okay with cutting out all the defensive crap. That alone was like climbing Mt. Everest. Being with my discomfort is one of the nicest things I have allowed for myself.
Don’t run! Don’t make excuses! Don’t think all of this doesn’t apply to you! Take it all in and love every excruciating moment of it. Feel that fire burn.
It didn’t stop there. The initial shock and huge bummer of realizing how disconnected I was from myself was equivalent to realizing I was standing in a fire to begin with. Deciding whether to play firefighter or to hightail it out of harm’s way was the next step.
This, my friends, is when even the most typically non-anxious people (me) become susceptible to grueling anxiety.
Here’s some advice, to myself and to others: Be with the fire and give yourself a chance.
Nobody even has to know you’re fighting it. It could be a great excuse to start journaling, writing a personal blog, creating art or just tending to yourself like you never have before.
It’s not easy, but it sheds beautiful light on your relationship with yourself, and it will take you places. It will drive you toward your biggest dreams—the ones you habitually stifle due to crippling fear. It will drive you to let go of criticisms and to love freely and plentifully, and to want to be the best version of yourself.
And you will get there.
Soon enough, you’ll love that fire for everything it does for you. But don’t worry, you will still be thrilled when you make it out alive, dancing on the embers of pain from a past life.
I’m not quite dancing yet. I’m still hobbling along in the terrified-by-unprecedented-anticipation phase. My yoga practice has given me the incredible gift of getting to know myself. I desperately hope that others who may be going through this transformation now, or who will one day, won’t back down from it.
The least anxious person on the planet may fall to their knees, but it won’t be a fall of defeat. The toppling of walls and casting aside of armor may feel like disaster, but it’s actually liberation and inevitable salvation made possible by you.
Kat Olson is a 23-year-old yogini hailing from the great state of the mitten—Michigan. After graduating from Boston University and attempting to love a desk job for a year, she traveled to beautiful Thailand in the fall of 2012 to complete her 200-hour teacher training with Kosta Miachin at Vikasa Yoga. She has recently embarked on a one-year internship at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, MA to work on the Kripalu Yoga in the Schools program, an evidence-based yoga curriculum for adolescents in a school setting.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta
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