Can Anxiety Help Our Yoga Practice?

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It has been said that the practice of yoga can highly contribute to alleviating anxiety disorders. Yet is the opposite true as well? Can anxiety help us somehow to go deeper into our yoga practice? In short, I think it can. Here are the reasons why I believe that, as well as a bit about my own journey in dealing with anxiety.

For a very long time I have wanted to write this blog, but my biggest challenge has been the following: how do I synthesize this journey which has felt so long? How can I explain my experience with anxiety and panic attacks in a few words ? How do I translate the message and share my experience? It’s not easy. It has taken a while to let go of self-imposed mental narratives about how a yoga teacher and a faithful yoga student should be and feel: cool, calm, and collected. It took me a while to accept that outside of all these unnecessary and illusory labels, I am just human. Maybe the best thing we can all do in order for us to feel connected is to take our masks off and share what’s inside — both the darkness and the light.

Yoga and anxiety

Learning about anxiety through real life experiences

Growing up, I barely recall hearing about anxiety and panic attacks. I wasn’t sure what they were, and I wrongly assumed it was nothing but dramatic reactions from weak-minded people. If someone were to have told me that one day I would suffer from them, I probably would have laughed out loud.

So, when I had my first panic attack while traveling in India — with the whole world spinning, my heart pounding hard in my chest, my whole body covered in light-cold sweat, and a sense of fear like I have never felt before — I really thought it was the end for me. However, it was actually only the beginning of several experiences I would have. It took me more than two years, a few visits to the emergency room, several complete medical check-ups, and a massive amount of acceptance to admit that what I experienced back then (and multiple times thereafter) were nothing but good, old-fashioned panic attacks.

Learning through painful life experiences

When I got back home from India, two events shook my world in very different ways on the same day. It was two months after coming home on a very casual, sunny Friday at the beginning of January. I realized that I was pregnant with my second child. I was thrilled, excited, happy, and counting the minutes to share the news with others. That feeling didn’t last too long. Later that the afternoon, we received the kind of news that you never want to hear. One of our dearest friends, someone who felt like a brother to my husband, and who I considered one of the most inspirational and admirable members of my community and in my life, had lost his life in a very tragic car accident.

Our dear friend Walter — a community leader, a husband, a caring father of two beautiful kids; a very generous and naturally compassionate soul with a big and friendly smile — was suddenly gone. Just like that, he was gone, and nothing could be done, nothing could be fixed. It felt like the whole world shattered in front of us. I literally felt the deepest pain in my heart. It felt like the emotional pain was so big that my whole body was experiencing it.

Anxiety, Stress, and Yoga

Fear, anxiety, and panic attacks

There was pain, sadness, and later on, fear too came knocking on the door, too. Yet at that time, it was so big, I decided to ignore it. I swept these massive emotions out the door and promptly closed it. But it was too big for my body to ignore, so at some point, it started to somatize and showed up in my life as anxiety. The fear and pain I was trying to hide and ignore opened up a Pandora’s box inside me. The problem was that I was not even aware of what was going on, and that was the root of the issues I was facing.

I can say now that I have more understanding of the situation, that the whole tragic event showed me one of the most essential facts of life. That this experience is fundamentally full of uncertainty and experiences that we have no control of, and that can make us very vulnerable and scared. At least, that’s what it did to me. I felt FEAR — lots of it — and I just couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t want to be seen as weak or too fragile.

Back then, I had a little four-year-old daughter, and was pregnant with my second. Never before had I felt that life was so precious and valuable. I just couldn’t deal with the fact that at any moment, any of us could be gone. Eventually, this unspoken fear took over my mind and my body and it unfolded as panic attacks.

A passing storm

If you or anyone close to you has ever experienced this, you might know that although the name can sound even ridiculous for some, the experience is very challenging. Sometimes, you literally feel as if you are dying. I realized those were panic attacks thanks to a friend of mine, who happens to also be a doctor and a well-rounded person. He too has suffered this unwanted condition himself. I first laughed about the idea of me — a yoga practitioner and generally calm person — having something with such a dramatic title. Yet after much research and all kinds of physical tests to make sure it was not something else, it turned out it was indeed that.

The worst part lasted for about a year. But little by little, with support from friends and family, a good therapist, my yoga practice, and a lot of digging, these annoying episodes became more mild and sporadic.

Currently this “stormy weather” visits about once per year, and nowadays, I just let it pass by. I don’t avoid it. I don’t fight it. Just like a heavy storm like the ones we have here in Costa Rica, I pause for a moment, breath deeply, and witness the process until the sun comes back.  At least, that’s what works for me. I don’t see it as an illness or weakness, just something that happens from time to time. Other people may have other issues to deal with — this is mine.

The benefit of anxiety for yoga

How this has actually helped my yoga practice

Going back to the title of this blog, lots of info can be found on the internet about how yoga and meditation can help dealing and coping with all different kinds of anxiety. But this time, I would like to flip it the other way around and talk about how panic, fear, and anxiety have actually been learning experiences in my yoga path. 

At first, when I started figuring out what to do with all of this information, I tried to avoid, get rid of, or hide it. Eventually, I started surrendering, allowing the experience to be there without acting upon it. Even further, using it to understand myself better, to go deeper, to dig deep into the roots of my fear and pain.

Personally, fear and anxiety have been a “wake up call” to slow down, to be more present. To be in the here and now. Otherwise, yoga or not, I will just continue to rush into life, jumping to the next moment without really fully immersing myself in the beauty of every present moment.

A tool to help me learn about myself

Through the process I have learned a lot about myself. I have paused and checked my life, my pace, and have even had to evaluate if my physically demanding Asana practice was too much at that moment. There have been other changes…

  • Learning about my patterns of thoughts and the fluctuations of my mind,
  • Working on my mind and observing my thoughts,
  • Acknowledging my fears and applying discernment,
  • Noticing which fears keep me alive and which ones stop me from living,
  • And as hard as it is, I keep facing and exposing myself to those ones that I didn’t want to feed; the ones that were not allowing me to be fully present in life, and that were actually holding me back from a full experience.

Darkness and light

Addressing the roots, not the symptoms

So these are the reasons why I feel this “wake up call” has contributed to my yoga path. Yoga is not all about a constant unbroken state of “I am feeling good, happy, relaxed, and cheerful.” That is a misconception of what the practice is about. One essential component in yoga (conceived as a path of life) is self-observance. To be able to cultivate the ability to go within and explore what’s inside — both the darkness and the light — as well as the constant flow of emotions and thoughts that pass through.

These episodes of fear invited (and even forced) me to slow down and go deeper. Just like physical injuries, they have become my big helpers to really understand what this practice is about. I wish I could have come to this understanding without them. Maybe others have done it. But this is my path, if it wasn’t for these and other painful experiences, I would take the practice more lightly. Perhaps I would focus on advancing every physical posture there is, instead of using the holistic approach of yoga to go deep within.

A different perspective

I would like to close by saying that I have come to realize that anxiety, pain, and fear can feel like devastating experiences, but maybe we can look at it from a different perspective. Yes, it is completely normal to feel aversion to fear. We fear the “not knowing what’s coming next.” There’s so much uncertainty, and life is so fragile and vulnerable, that it can make us very scared.

Our minds and thoughts are constantly jumping into a future that doesn’t exist beyond our imaginations, and can make us very scared. On the other hand, looking at it from a more positive angle, all this uncertainty can help us to appreciate each and every moment for what it is: A MIRACLE. Knowing that anything can happen at any given moment can be one of the greatest tools. That instead of holding us back, it can allow us to live fully, open to all possibilities, and thankful for every additional breath and experience we have been given in this life.

Benefits of Anxiety on Yoga

Stay tuned for the next installment…

So this is the end of this blog, but stay tuned for the next installment where I discuss how surfing (even more than yoga!) have helped me heal deeply on this journey.

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About the author

Pilar

Pilar is Bodhi Surf +Yoga's head yogini and travel planner. When Pilar is not doing her own Ashtanga practice, she can be found assisting guests improve their own practice, reading food and yoga blogs, or spending quality time with her beautiful daughters Maya and Clea!