Yoga: The Medicine for Anxiety (and no, you don’t have to be bendy)

Anxiety used to dictate many aspects of my life. Chronic stress was the undercurrent of my day-to-day experience. I had a period of insomnia in college where sleep just was not a thing. I had stomach aches, headaches, and unrelenting respiratory illnesses. It amazes me now how out of touch I was with my body and what it was trying to tell me about what was going on inside. It was easy to ignore my anxiety because I did not even know how to identify it as a thing separate from myself; it felt like an inextricable part of who I was.

The college years passed, and I found my life slowing down a bit. It was in this slowdown that I finally had the opportunity to tune into what I was feeling and experiencing. I vividly remember the turning point where I decided I needed to change something. My chest hurt so badly that it was hard to take a deep breath. Realizing that this was a physical manifestation of my stress level, I emailed a therapist and also signed up for my first ever yoga class on the same day.

Therapy helped, and I truly believe in its healing potential– but yoga was a game changer. I was late for the first class I signed up for, and the only spot left was up in the front near the teacher. I had NO idea what I was doing. I spent the whole class trying to mimic what other bendy people were doing around me, knowing that I looked like a newborn baby giraffe trying to figure this yoga thing out. I could barely even reach past my knees on the way down to my toes. My inflexibility was glaring. Despite looking ridiculous- it didn’t matter. No one cared that I didn’t know what I was doing, and neither did I. I had this life affirming feeling that I belonged here just like everyone else, and that this could be a place that I could find some relief.

Weeks turned to months which turned to years of regularly showing up to the mat. As intuitive as one would think this should be, it was through practicing yoga that I learned how to breathe- really breathe, like all the way down through your stomach and out through your ribs in a way that makes you feel like you are unlocking some secret. As my body became more flexible (and strong!), my aches and tension started to melt away. I stopped getting sick as much, and I slept better. Picture an ice sculpture- I felt like yoga was the process of chipping away at the ice to reveal something green and living inside. As my body stretched its limits, my mind did too. My constant worrying wasn’t so constant anymore. I was more patient, more present, and able to go with the flow more.

Again, therapy helped, and I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job, but yoga changed me in ways that I never thought possible. A regular yoga practice actually changes your brain and calms your nervous system over time. This is supported by resesarch from one of the most well-renowned trauma experts in the world, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk. There is research noted in Van Der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score” that indicates yoga as being a more effective treatment for trauma and anxiety than talk therapy alone.

Yoga does not always have to be an Instagram-worthy-twisted-pretzel-upside-down pose.
Sukhasana (“easy pose”) which is featured above, involves sitting mindfully with a relaxed yet alert state of mind. This pose calms the brain, strengthens your back, and stretches the knees and ankles. The act of simply paying a bit of attention to how you sit, taking a few deep breaths, and being mindful of your thoughts is yoga. It doesn’t have to be fancy or hard!

Yoga is not everyone’s thing- and nor does it need to be. With that said, finding a physical outlet in your process of healing can be crucial. It’s really, really hard for your mind to be healthy if your body isn’t, because all things are connected. Whether you start with a daily walk or go right into a yoga membership, know that any form of movement that you give your body is an amazing gift to yourself that can be instrumental in the process of freeing yourself from the grip of an anxious life.

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