February 6, 2014

Afraid of Change: How Yoga Calmed my Anxious Mind.

stress tears

According to the great Indian sage Patanjali, change is a major cause of suffering.

I can vouch for that. It was my struggle with unpredictable, uncontrollable changes that first brought me to yoga.

These days, I don’t live in fear of the unexpected, or crumble when life throws me a curve ball. But I wasn’t always this way.

My teenage years were turbulent. I was rebellious, needy and mercurial. My life was chaotic and my mood swings were legendary (ask my mother!). Things didn’t get any better when I left home for college. During my final year, I buckled under the pressure of exams and my health was suffering from too many stimulants and not enough vegetables.

That’s when the panic attacks began.

Great big, horrible black holes of fear that swallowed up my vitality and confidence.

I’d always been a control freak, but when the panic attacks started, I couldn’t handle even the teeniest unexpected changes. As soon as I reached the front door, my heart started pounding, my mouth went dry and my legs started shaking.

What if something triggered a panic attack while I was in the street? What if everybody found out and thought I was crazy?

I didn’t go out. I stayed home because even the smallest fluctuations in the environment freaked me out. I freaked out on overcast days because the cloud cover made me feel claustrophobic. I freaked out if the phone rang because I didn’t know who was calling.

My life became very, very small. I obsessively followed routines (vacuuming was a life-saver) and avoided anything that wasn’t completely predictable and controllable. I was desperately unhappy.

Then a friend suggested I try yoga. She drove me to a class at a local community hall, dropped me at the door and said she’d be back in an hour. I panicked and decided I didn’t want to do the class after all, but my agoraphobia had reached such proportions that I couldn’t get home on my own. I went in, sat rigidly on a mat and decided to grit my teeth until my friend came back to rescue me.

This was back in the days before yoga got trendy. I was the only person under the age of 55 and the only one not wearing a pastel colored unitard (I’m sure they’re due for a revival). But despite my fear and horror, the yoga seemed to help. It didn’t fix things. But while I was concentrating on the practice, making my body move gently in time with my breath, there was no panic.

I felt almost normal for an hour. That, my friends, was a miracle.

Change was what I most feared, yet what I most needed. Yoga is the work of change. From unconscious to conscious, from sickness to wellness, from lack to abundance.

Like my first yoga class, change can be an uncomfortable process. So how do we stick with it when the going gets tough?

Stanford University Psychologist and long-time yoga practitioner Kelly McGonigal gives us a clue:

“When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses—not your long term goals—will guide your choices.”

In other words, a busy brain gets distracted and gives up more easily. The solution? Get on our yoga mats and take it one breath at a time. A calm, focused mind is better at processing change.

Yoga is a transformative practice. It changes lives, changes consciousness and changes paradigms. It calmed my anxious mind and helped me navigate each obstacle that came my way. Bit by bit, the panic subsided, but I still keep up a daily practice, because I never know what’s around the corner. Everything changes. And that’s a good thing.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: elephant archives


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paper and film Feb 17, 2014 1:15pm

Thank you for opening up about panic attacks. I've suffered from crippling ones and the best thing I did was start meditating and a regular yoga practice!

Jules Brooker Feb 16, 2014 12:07pm

What a joy and an honour it will be to be mentored by Nicola Ellis at Adore Yoga, starting today!

Ryan Feb 7, 2014 9:54am

Excellent piece of writing! I love the perspective and insight you provided on the benefits of yoga practice 🙂 They're themes I often see manifesting in my own practice.

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Nikola Ellis

Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, one of Sydney’s leading yoga schools. Yoga therapist, teacher trainer, mentor and mother, she’s passionate about building caring communities that do good and feel good. In 2012, she initiated the Pink Yoga project, dedicated to making therapeutic yoga and meditation freely available to women with cancer. Catch up with Nikola at her website.