Yoga and Anxiety: A First-Hand Account

There are a lot of misconceptions about yoga. The first is that you need to be flexible to do yoga. Untrue. The second is that people who practice yoga are zenned-out bliss bunnies, immune to the daily stressors of modern living. Also untrue. And third, at the risk of being controversial, I’d say there is a common misconception that yoga is relaxing. Don’t get me wrong, yoga can certainly be relaxing in many contexts – when you attend a yoga class at a studio, you’ll more often than not hear gentle music playing, there may be some mood lighting to encourage a diminished awareness of one’s surroundings, perhaps some incense burning, and so on. But for many practitioners, from beginner to advanced, the experience of practicing asana doesn’t always promote a blissful, relaxed state. How come, you ask? Well, there are a lot of reasons. For those newer to yoga, taking a group class can feel like an exercise in constant self-comparison. It can be hard to tune out negative thoughts when you see the person next to you effortlessly springing up into a handstand, or dropping into the splits like it’s the easiest thing in the world. In addition to the physical limitations and differences that we all experience in a yoga class, there’s also the question of body image – I have often thought that there is somebody else practicing beside me who just looks way more ‘yoga’ than I do. Finally, there’s a different kind of anxiety that can occur during a yoga class, and that’s the anxiety that can result from attempting to connect with yourself. This sounds a little counter-intuitive, but sometimes by actively trying to relax, we can work ourselves into a bit of a frenzy that it’s not happening right on schedule! In fact, many yogis come from a background of anxiety and depression. This week I wanted to write a little bit about my mental health journey and the role that yoga has played in combatting anxiety in my daily life.

Most of my close friends would probably tell you that I can be a pretty highly strung person. I’m not denying it – if there’s such a thing as a Type A personality, I’m definitely it! I first started learning yoga about seven years ago, and I wasn’t really nailing it at life. I had developed an anxiety disorder as a follow-on effect from a PTSD (post-traumatic stress) in a previous job, and I was still undergoing stress management therapy when I began taking casual yoga classes. Living with anxiety during those years was not fun. I was having regular panic attacks, waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and unable to breathe, and would freak out for seemingly no reason in public places like the supermarket. Once I was diagnosed with anxiety, I felt I had more freedom to tell people around me what was happening, and things started to get a little easier. Over the next year, my sporadic visits to the yoga studio snowballed into more regular attendance, and eventually into a home practice. I had never done anything that required me to pay attention to my breathing before – it was like I was noticing I had a respiratory system for the first time, and I loved the connection to my breath. Ironically, before I started yoga, when I tried to control a panic attack by breathing deeply, it would make things worse. It was only once I started to work on the connection between breath and movement that I really felt the benefits and learned to control my anxiety with my breath.

Did you know that 14% of Australians will experience symptoms of an anxiety disorder in any 12 month period? Many sufferers of anxiety will be prescribed medication to help moderate their mental health – and each individual will develop coping mechanisms that are unique. During the most intense period of my anxiety, I stuck with what I knew – breath and movement. Yoga, exercise, meditation and a healthy diet as a means of combatting the seemingly senseless tightness in my chest that I was experiencing on a daily basis. However, using yoga as ‘medicine’ can also create a dependence. I still find that if I don’t get my daily ‘fix’ of yoga, I can become anxious and stressed, more reactive, and basically a less happy version of myself. If I have a super busy week and don’t get much time on my mat, I sometimes start to guilt-trip myself and simultaneously crave the feeling of bliss that a regular yoga practice would create. So, I guess it comes once again back to finding that balance. Yoga is a fantastic addition to your mental health ‘tool kit’, but be mindful that it doesn’t become a means to create more anxiety for yourself. If you don’t get to class everyday, or miss a couple of days on your mat, don’t worry – it doesn’t make you a less dedicated yogi. Over time, through consistent and self-aware practice, we take the connection between our breath and our bodies off the mat, and into our daily lives. The poses help us to stay in the moment and bring our awareness to what is happening then and there, and that’s a really rare and beautiful thing. It truly is a means of embracing a balanced and healthy lifestyle, and that’s why I practice and teach yoga.

Namaste yogis, enjoy your practice!