Do you know have anxiety? You're not alone. Welcome back to the Yoga Living Project cambio. teacher Shelby Palmeri for this week's personal look at yoga as self-care in the face of anxiety, even when if feels like the quick fix you might be looking for is lost on you. Send us your thoughts and future blog ideas to
When the Yoga “Doesn’t Work”
A word people often use to describe me is “chill”. I get that a LOT. And sure, I pretty much represent the definition of Zen. I mean, come on, I teach yoga, and I climb mountains. I live in the most picturesque state. I have spirited friends and an adorable spotted dog. I’m confident and comfortable. I’ll admit- I spend a lot of time in very relaxing places.
I suffer from bouts of almost crippling anxiety. There are many mornings when I wake up full of dread. My eyes pop open hours before my alarm rings and I spend the hours before dawn worrying about the day ahead and all the tasks that await me. I build them up in my head and imagine all the worst possible scenarios. I waste energy thinking about how to bail and rid myself of some of my responsibilities. Some days I do cancel- I trade a yoga class or a work shift for sitting on my couch feeling guilty that I didn’t make it in.
I am fearful of the future, of all the what-ifs. I think about the unknown and all the things I can’t control. I imagine losing people I love and think about all the bad that could transpire at any moment. I doubt my worth and my abilities, my likability and my intelligence. My anxiety manifests as apathy, anger, sadness, and fatigue.
I know I’m not alone in these feelings. I know that an estimated 40 million people in the United States admit to suffering from an anxiety disorder, making it the most prevalent mental illness (adaa.org). I believe that in some ways I am fortunate. I am fortunate that my anxiety seems to come in waves. Some weeks/months are really, really hard. But then, for other extended periods of time the fog is lifted. And I almost mean that literally- it is like I can feel a difference during those times.
Those times refresh me. They recalibrate me with my highest self. I feel reinvigorated and reminded of my purpose. I wake up feeling grateful to have done so. I can enjoy peace and quiet and a little coffee before I start my day. I don’t worry about where my planner is or make mental lists in my head of everything I need to get done. During those times, I can just be. Just being is how I would choose to live if I had any sort of choice.
Then there are the other times, the times when the waves come crashing into me from nowhere, knocking me off my feet and filling my nose and mouth with salt. During these days, I lean so heavily on my yoga practice. But, it seems like during those days, I almost expect more from my morning meditation. I expect some sort of shift during my afternoon Vinyasa. I want the yoga to “fix” what I’m feeling. I want it to magically knock my brain back into the present moment so I can get just the shortest break from being in my head.
And it helps. It does. An hour sweating on my mat can put me in a bit of a better mood. It can put things into perspective and help me sleep a little better at night, but during the really hard stints of anxiety, making it to the studio is not a miracle cure. I may feel really good and present in the moment, but my worries always can find their way back. Maybe they don’t creep in again till the next morning, but they will return with a vengeance, angry that I tried to rid myself of them in the first place.
This can make me frustrated. If I’m doing the yoga and the mediation and the self-study and the community time- why am I still so damn anxious?? Why hasn’t my breath work in the mornings put the anxiety in its place? Why do I still fidget and bite my nails the entire way home from a good class? On these days it can start to seem like… well… it seems like the yoga doesn’t work. I’ve been practicing long enough, by this point I should embody that carefree, peaceful, soft smiling, cross-legged, contemplative yogi, right??
Yoga is not my cure, but my practice is my anchor. There is something that draws me back again and again. Yoga doesn’t teach me how to rid myself of anxious feelings. It has taught me how to notice and sit with them. It has taught me to recognize my anxiety as it is bubbling up, to notice how it feels in my throat and chest, and to send breath to the areas that need a little ease. Yoga teaches me not to get too attached to those emotions. It reminds me to take solace in the impermanence of all things. It teaches me to just trust that things will get better and that everything is playing out exactly as it should.
And all of this is a practice. It’s one that takes work. And it is all so subtle; you may not even realize you are doing it- at least I didn’t right away. Somewhere in between all the chaturangas and the down-dogs, I picked up all these valuable skills that help me deal with real life obstacles. Somewhere between all the Sanskrit and the self-help books, I picked up some tools that really work, that I’ll continue refining and implementing for the rest of my life.
I have this practice; I have this relationship that I’ve been working on for so long. I’m not going to throw it away. Even when I get frustrated and feel that it isn’t serving me the way it should, my practice has my back all along. The time I put in is never wasted. My practice is there for me, even when I don’t understand it.
The days when it feels like yoga isn’t “working” are they days that are even more important to do the work. When I’m feeling attacked by a barrage of emotions, a quick moment of meditation or journaling of gratitude may be all that it takes to not send me over the edge. Am I healed? No. But I did take a little time to care for myself, acknowledge how I’m feeling and do a little work on improving my situation. I label that as a victory.
I think that sometimes that’s all we can manage. I think that some days it feels like nothing is helping. But when I look at the big picture of my life, yoga has been incredibly integral into turning me into the person that I am today. And I’m proud of that person, anxiety and all.