3.2

I Walked Away from Yoga.

Photo:  Molly T/flickr

It’s taken me nearly two years to write about why I haven’t been to yoga. 

As a writer, I know my words can’t be forced into being, they must be carefully coaxed and wooed.

After reading many stories of fellow former yogis and much self reflection, I finally was able to recognize the honest reasons I left, and the words flowed freely.

I left yoga about two and a half years ago. I had a five day a week practice that I rarely skipped—even when my mother was in the hospital for three weeks. I wrote extensively about my yogic journey for multiple, sometimes major, publications.

I was asked when I would consider teacher’s training and was even often approached in public or at the studios I attended by people I didn’t know, telling me how much I had inspired them in their practice.

Though all of this took place in the small bubble of my home town, it was still affirming to know that I had, in some small way, begun to plant and cultivate seeds of growth and compassion, not only in myself, but in others.

For what felt like the first time in my life, I was maintaining a positive forward movement.

The power of yoga and positive thoughts were all I needed to overcome any obstacles life could throw my way. My cynical, depressed, anxious, addictive, atheist self had been transformed into a blissful, accepting creature well on her way to enlightenment.

All of life’s problems could be solved between my mat and my kitchen.

Depression? Do yoga! Up dog, down dog, chaturanga. Health concerns? Watch what you eat. Juice cleanses, veganism, gluten-free! Social injustice? Practice compassion! Namaste. Anxious? Meditate! Om Shanti Om. Lack of inspiration? Search within. Om Namah Shivaya.

How had I not been doing this my entire life? It was so simple!

And then it wasn’t.

One day, in the dressing room at the studio, I was excitedly recounting my very busy schedule, which included a 21 day yoga challenge, swimming laps multiple times a week, writing every day and plans to start running, when a woman I’d never met before interjected, “What are you running from?”

I’m not sure of the intention behind her words, but they hit me in what felt like the single, mortal, vulnerable place in my strong yogic armor. I brushed it off, or swept it under the proverbial rug, as the case may be, and continued on with my “very busy schedule.”

Shortly thereafter, I began noticing that within about 30 minutes of waking up, I was feeling like I had to yawn, but couldn’t. I would take in as deep of a breath as I could, but still the pressure in my chest remained.

Yoga would alleviate it some, but even then I sometimes found myself, arms raised high above my head, trying to yawn to fill my lungs with as much air as possible. Sometimes my limbs would tingle and my fingertips would go numb, I’d feel dizzy and nearly faint.

I was convinced I was dying and no amount of reminding myself that I was young, ate well, exercised regularly and practiced moderation in all of my vices could convince me otherwise.

This went on for about a month before I realized that no amount of healthy eating, diet changes, yoga or meditation was going to miraculously cure me.

I finally made a doctor’s appointment. I sat there waiting on the stiff paper of the exam table, reminding myself to breathe with every crinkle and shift—my mind simultaneously recognizing other possibilities and dismissing them, flashing neon lights behind my eyes spelling out “D-E-A-T-H” every time I blinked.

It took every ounce of willpower I had to not run out of the exam room screaming.

The doctor, who reminds me of Dr. Taub from House, M.D.—only younger and with happier eyes—came in and in his polite, concerned, easy manner, asked how I was. Before I could even think about a response, I blurted out, “I’m going to die!”

He smiled slightly, “Well, that’s inevitable, but maybe we should find out why.”

He asked me how I was doing and what had been going on in my life since I’d seen him for my last check up only a few months before.

“Well, let’s see, work is normal, still stressful, but good. Husband is good. I’ve been published in a few new publications, I launched my own community website for women writers, my mom was in the hospital for three weeks for a triple bypass, but she’s home now and recovering well and I celebrated my 30th birthday two days before her surgery, but things have mellowed out over the last two or three months.”

“Oh, that’s it?” he said as he listened to my breathing and my heart and asked me about any aches or pains. I explained my symptoms of numbness, dizziness, chest pressure and shortness of breath.

He sat down on his doctor’s stool, “Do you want to know what’s wrong with you?”

“I’m dying aren’t I? I’m having massive coronary issues or lung cancer or something, isn’t it?”

“No. You have anxiety.”

How is that even possible? I do yoga and eat well and meditate and nurture myself and creative spirit! I do all the things I’m supposed to? It can’t be anxiety!

“I’m going to send you for some blood work and a chest X-ray just in case, but yes, you have anxiety. I’m prescribing you the lowest dose of Xanax. Take half of one before bed or whenever you feel like you can’t breathe. Let me know if you don’t feel some improvement within the next week or so.”

I went for the X-ray and the blood work, both of which showed nothing unusual. I begrudgingly filled my prescription and took my half of Xanax that night.

The next morning, and for the first time in a month, I had almost an entire day’s reprieve from the crushing weight of my own mortality.

I wasn’t happy about being medicated. In fact, I was anti-being-medicated because I know my inclination towards addiction, and decided I would only take it when I was on the very brink of panic (which has worked out well and something I continue to do).

I went back to yoga a few days later, but something had shifted. Doubt began to creep in. 

My yoga practice, my yoga lifestyle, should have made me impervious to the deceit of my own brain. I had cultivated my intuition, trusted my body, trusted the wisdom taught with such grace that had guided my mind and body and set me on the path to enlightenment and healthy living. I had shown that path to others, gently encouraging them to follow it and find their bliss, their fountain of youth, their innermost beautiful self!

I began to feel like a failure and a fraud.

In the seemingly safe spaces of a post class studio, I would quietly discuss my anxiety issues with those I knew well, but I felt the sideways glances and the struggles others had not judging me when I mentioned the pharmaceutical tool I reluctantly used, but was effective.

Maybe I was projecting my doubts and insecurities and seeing them reflected back at me. I’m not sure, but it was enough to raise even more questions about my previously trusted intuition.

I slowly stopped attending classes and began spending more and more time searching within, trying to figure out what went wrong. I educated myself in all things anxiety related, and the farther away I distanced myself from yoga, the more things seemed to come into focus.

Yes, my brain chemicals had gone off the deep end, but I had also bought into the unrealistic expectations of the blissfully enlightened world of yoga.

I know when I first set out to develop a consistent yoga practice, I was searching for a seed I could plant that would help me grow and sustain the happiness I clung to for dear life.

I felt that yoga—or, the concept of Americanized yoga, with much of its affluence and “find your center, be one with the universe, be infinite love, foster spiritual romance!”—had sold me the spiritual and intellectual equivalent of cotton candy and funnel cakes under the guise of balanced nourishment. Any negativity was to be acknowledged and then dismissed with the rosy cheer, “Let it go!”

And I gorged myself on every last tasty crumb, having faith that my asana practice and mere acknowledgement of negativity would render me invincible to any belly ache that could possibly arise.

It didn’t, of course. Because we can’t just acknowledge that the trash needs to be taken out and expect to find it magically taken out. We can’t just recognize our arm is broken and it will be magically healed.

We can’t just see that we’re eyeball deep in shit and it magically doesn’t stink.

I don’t want to seem like I’m blaming yoga, or generalizing the yoga community, or even criticizing where and with whom I practiced. I bought in gleefully.

But, unfortunately, the more we buy in, the more we are sold, and everything is so great, and the rose colored glasses fit so well we never want to take them off, but we can’t avoid seeing the reality around the edges of the frame.

My predisposition to addiction, mental illness and the ensuing earthquake of anxiety is ultimately what opened up the floor beneath me and made me realize that I was using yoga in the same way I had used various past addictions: to hide from a very uncomfortable reality.

And just like bartenders serving alcoholics and drug dealers selling a fix, yoga and the community I had immersed myself in, was happily feeding my dependence so I could hide from the trouble and discomfort reality would inevitably bring me.

I still think yoga is amazing. I would recommend it to anyone looking to bring some balance, peace, wholeness and physical and spiritual wellness to their lives. I don’t ever regret my yoga practice, I have been deeply honored to practice with amazing people and I’ve formed solid, lifelong friendships thanks to the wonderful community. It has changed me in ways I can’t even begin to express.

Maybe I’ll have the courage to walk into a studio again, the way ex-smokers can finally share space with smokers, or alcoholics can eventually attend parties that serve alcohol, but I know if return too soon I’ll likely wind up the angry drunk at the party with a nasty hangover the next day.

I know yoga is good for me, the same way a glass of wine or two is good for me, or the way experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs can forever expand our perspectives.

But for someone who struggles with moderation, it’s best I abstain from yoga for the time being.

~

~

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Apprentice Editor: Alicia Wozniak / Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Molly T/flickr

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John Oct 30, 2014 5:24pm

Wow! You made the next stepped: stopped the asana and started the soul searching. That's the 'real' yoga.

Hajnalka Oct 26, 2014 12:59pm

Thank you … I have anxiety. It's pretty bad at the moment. Sometimes I don't realise it's happening. The reason why it's pretty bad at the moment is because everything is out of balance. i feel like I have a million things to do and not enough time. I'm always thinking about what needs to be done, what hasn't been done, what if it doesn't work out …. in short, i'm not ever 100% present in the moment. Even when I'm making love with my husband I find my mind drifting off to what needs to be done. I started yoga because my body was stiff and unhealthy and I was depressed and anxious and stuck. It helped me loosen up and get unstuck. The anxiety has come and gone over the years, and so has the depression. I am a yoga teacher so I am lucky I can practice at home and have a good knowledge of what I need to do to make myself better. But I need to put the time aside to do that. When I'm all over the place and rushing around and having to find the time to squeeze things in I get in a very bad way. But I have to make the priority me. My health is most important, because without it I can't do all the wonderful things I want to do in this world. How can I heal the world if I don't make my own healing a priority? And it doesn't ever end or stop. At the beginning of this year I had a handful of anxiety attacks …. the first time in many many years. The doctor put me on anti-anxiety meds and then stronger anti depressants. They worked instantly but I stopped taking them because they were shutting down my body's natural healing mechanism. For example, they decreased my libido instantly! Crazy I thought, because making love and having mind blowing orgasms is one of the most healing things that I can do for myself. Not even to mention the healing and comfort I get from being that intimate with someone who loves me and supports me. Yoga is not an instant fix like those pills. I need to put in a conscious and consistent effort to practice, but not in a rajasic or overactive way. I need to take time to meditate and breathe. And the trick is to integrate yoga into my daily life. Because the healing doesn't begin and end on the mat. It't how you use it in your daily life. I stopped taking those pills and then I started doing some very simple and light asanas to help balance me out, also focussing on moving energy to different chakras. I started bringing more prana to my heavy areas … like my chest/heart area and my throat by doing specific pranayama exercises. And I practiced savasana …. properly and for sufficient amount of time. I know this is something that lots of western studios lack. Especially Bikram yoga. It's in and out, cram as many people in, overwork your body and the rest is your shit. It doesn't work and it's not yoga. I cannot expect to carry on with the same lifestyle that is making me anxious and have the anxiety just go away. Something has to give. Something has to change. And i'm going to say it like I see it: It's not yoga that needs to change. It's not yoga that you need to get rid of. I'm sure you have had loads of people offer help, but really, if you want to get in contact with me I can offer some simple things for you to try that really helped me. For free. From one overactive crazy yogini to another. If not, I really hope that you can find a yoga practice that works for you.

gapperjody Oct 26, 2014 7:26am

Beautifully written, Cam. My sense about you is that your immersion and then withdrawal from yoga is a journey you had to experience in order to learn more about yourself. Anxiety is simply a form of fear within you that you do not yet fully comprehend—it is most likely something very old within you. Xanax masks that fear, making things appear more tolerable. I suggest that you focus on not being "so hard" on yourself—give yourself a break. Do some nice things for yourself. Everyday give yourself a pat on the back and smile at yourself in a mirror. The more you let yourself know the loving person inside you, the easier it will be to overcome that fear, that tendency toward addiction or mental illness. I think you have a tendency to love. Let that love shine through, and then with every breath you take, you'll be doing yoga.

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Camicia Bennett

Camicia Bennett is the founder of The Well Written Woman, a Florida Native and cerebral creature, she loves her husband, yoga, red wine, potty humor, swearing superfluously and putting hats on her dog. If given her druthers she’d be surfing the web and writing randomness from someplace sunny and tropical whilst sipping her favorite vino.