“What yoga classes do you recommend for anxiety?”
It’s a question I’m asked often, and it’s a question I wish I could answer.
Some people might tell you to take a gentle or slow flow or restorative class. Maybe a Yin class, or a class with a teacher who can lead a lights-out Yoga Nidra or teach pranayama. Others (I’ve been one of these people) might say something like, “It’s really what works for you. Gentle yoga drives some people crazy and causes more anxiety, so maybe those people would be better off in a more active class”.
I consider myself to be a yoga teacher who is in the business of handing out tough pills rather than magic pills. My current advice, from my experience only: A lifetime of yoga classes, sound baths, and Nadi Shodhana will not cure your anxiety.
People know that I suffered from panic attacks and anxiety in college. People also think that because I teach yoga, I must live a pretty serene life now.
I hope that one of my contributions to the Western yoga circuit-board in my lifetime will be to debunk the myth that yoga teachers are peace and love and light. I was introduced to the world of yoga over five years ago, and I still experience anxiety daily. It shows up in my life in different ways. It adapts itself to whatever moment I’m living in and whatever is going on in my life.
Five years ago I was living with an anxiousness in a way I can barely remember. I had this paralyzing fear that I would die suddenly and horrifically. Most of the time these days, my anxiety shows up as doubt and urgency, especially when I think about my passion projects. It’s still the same anxiety that showed up five years ago, when I’d be sitting at the dining hall or in a bar and feel my own doom coming over me. It’s the same anxiety I get when meeting new people or when I’m speaking in front of a crowd. A soft tingling feeling in my fingertips. My shoulders are suffocating. My throat and belly are tight. My heart is standing on the edge of a cliff. I can't swallow enough breath.
So I want to be clear that this is not all to say that I’ve never walked into a yoga class feeling anxious and walked out feeling like nothing can ruffle these feathers. Yoga can be so therapeutic. There are both immediate and long-term effects of yoga and breathing techniques on the nervous system. And I felt these effects.
When I first started seeking out yoga classes to alleviate my anxiety, I’d often wait until it was like I had no other choice. I’d leave a class feeling good enough, and I wouldn’t return to my mat for weeks, until I felt desperate enough again.
Somewhere in there I realized my Hail Mary quick-fix practices weren’t sustainable, and they weren’t effective in cultivating the lasting change I wanted for myself. So my question became, "How can I make this content, anxiousness-free feeling last?"
So did more yoga, and I adopted practices that were more sustainable for me. There were longer periods of time when I felt like I was free from my anxiety totally and truly. And when it crept back into my life after some time, I’d feel like a huge failure.
Over the years, as I’ve grown out of old fears, yoga has done nothing but prove that my anxiety grows with me. It evolves with me and meets me where I am.
My yoga practice and even my yoga teacher training has not cured me from my anxiety. So eventually I had to reframe my original question and ask myself instead, “How can I use yoga to help me live with my anxiety?”
As I’ve practiced and continue to practice, I’m more and more able to accept that my anxiety will never leave, and that it never has left entirely. I’m no longer spending my energy trying to get rid of my anxiety, and I’m no longer interested in how long I can go without it showing up. In great retrospect, yoga has helped me to adapt and respond to the various ways my anxiety adapts to me, and so “living with anxiety” has become an empowered experiment. This is where I believe the true power of yoga lies.
I intentionally left out specific practices and styles of yoga that have helped me, because to me none of those things made any difference, until I started reframing my questions and making friends with my anxiety rather than treating it like it was some kind of mistake.
Unfortunately Thesaurus.com offers, like, no suitable substitution for the word “anxiety” as I’m talking about it here, and its actually making me anxious reading how many times I used it and its variations in this little piece. I think 20 times unless I miscounted.
Love and light and all of it.