January 24, 2011

Assuming A Less Anxious Pose. ~ Alexandra Moffett-Bateau

Photo by  spaceodissey via Flickr

How Yoga Brought Me Back

I had my first anxiety attack when I was 17 years old. I was sitting in bed with my best friend, holding a rejection letter from the university that I had set my heart on.

The last ten years had been a stressful time. My grandfather, my best friend, had died of Leukemia when I was in the sixth grade. And since then I had endured years of emotional abuse that culminated in physical abuse when I was sixteen. At the same time, I was enrolled at one of the most competitive high schools in the country during my freshman and sophomore year, and as a junior, I transferred to a school for the gifted, that was just as rigorous, just not as pretentious. I was in multiple community service organizations and played competitive sports throughout high school. I was always on the go, always on the run…

Ithaca was supposed to be my way out. It was as far as I could possibly get from my hometown, and the “love of my life” (*rolling eyes* lol), was a student there. They had a competitive equestrian team, and a pedagogical philosophy that I found interesting. I was convinced it was the perfect fit and that I was destined to be there.

But then I got the rejection letter.

The pain I felt at that moment was like nothing I had ever experienced in my life, I literally felt like an anvil had landed on my chest (a feeling I would grow familiar with over the next couple of years). I was paralyzed, and in such searing pain that I swore I was having a heart attack.

So my mother rushed me to the emergency room, where I was given a battery of tests, and the doctors concluded that I was having an anxiety attack, handed me an inhaler, and sent me on my way.

Over the next couple of years the anxiety slowly got worse. At first, I would only have the attacks occasionally, if something exceptionally stressful happened. But after I was assaulted on my college campus, suddenly, I lost any control over it. My throat would suddenly start closing up every time I was out alone at night, and fear became as close to me as my own shadow.

By the time I got to Chicago four years ago at 22 yrs old, I was having full blown anxiety attacks a couple of times a week. If I got negative feedback on a paper I was paralyzed, if a guy didn’t call me back when he said he would, I was freaking out. At that point, I was absorbed in so much fear and negativity that I spiraled into a full blown depression, I stopped believing that I deserved any good or happiness in my life. And suddenly I found myself in an abusive relationship.

But one day, as my boyfriend at the time was screaming at me, I was struck by the feeling of how familiar it felt. And more than anything else that was going on at that time, that feeling of familiarity scared the crap out of me.

It was a turning point.

We broke up a couple weeks later. And much to the horror of most of my girlfriends, I sat my behind down in a therapists office and I’ve been going ever since.

But therapy was only the beginning, a year later, a new spiritual practice entered my life that radically changed my life. It turns out, healing without faith, is a virtual impossibility.

And then came yoga. I originally started my yoga practice to escape from my mind. A year and a half into therapy, my anxiety wasn’t anywhere near as paralyzing as it had been, but it was still interfering with my ability to deal with conflict, stress and criticism, in a huge way.

So I was originally attracted to the hot, sweaty, aerobic versions of yoga because it “turned my mind off.” By the time I was done with the 90 minutes, I was so exhausted, I couldn’t think about anything at all… and to me that was a God send. But then I started noticing how one by one, yogi’s around me started getting injured, even yogi’s who had been practicing for 5+ years. It turned out that the downside to “turning your mind off,” was a lack of attention to alignment in the postures that eventually caused injury.

So off I went to try every form of yoga I possibly could find. I tried Kripalu, Hatha, Forrest, you name it, I tried it.

Suddenly I started encountering teachers who wanted me to stay in poses and breathe, they actually wanted me to pay attention to what my mind was doing, while I was doing yoga! And while I resisted this for as long as I could, one day, as I was doing a hip-opener, tears started streaming down my face. You see, what they teach us in yoga is that, our bodies hold our unexpressed emotions and feelings. So here I am, in yoga class, crying, because suddenly, an emotion/experience is being released, that I had (up until that point), never dealt with.

It was another turning point.

I started meditating, and I re-committed myself to going to yoga on a regular basis. Suddenly, my yoga practice became about facing myself (my mind, my spirit), instead of being an attempt to escape myself.

It changed my life, because suddenly, my mind wasn’t this dark scary place, with all kinds of black holes that could paralyze me at a moments notice. In yoga class and in meditation, I started facing my fears and my traumas. I named them, faced them, and then released them. And in doing this, they relinquished their control over me. Through this I learned that nothing can conquer you, when you understand it, including your mind.

Healing is a daily process and I still have a long way to go. But by facing every piece of myself, I have taken the most significant step.

p.s. It is this type of healing experience that I believe is so critical to communities of color and low-income communities. Please help me accomplish my goal of bringing free yoga and meditation classes to these communities by donating here.

Alexandra Moffett-Bateau is a yogi and doctoral student who lives on the South Side of Chicago, but is originally from the City of Detroit. She is the author of the blog South Side Scholar and is currently writing a dissertation about how poor women conceptualize their political identities. She is passionate about healing of all kinds—physical, emotional, spiritual and political— and she hopes to bring her unique perspective on healing to communities through teaching yoga, meditation and political empowerment. She is currently raising money to go to yoga teacher training, so that she can bring free yoga and meditation classes to low-income communities and communities of color, to contribute in this effort, please check out her website.

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