3 Things I Learned in Therapy (that I Could Have Learned Doing Yoga)

Facing my fear of giant gorillas square on.

Facing my fear of giant gorillas square on.

So… apropos of this post, I actually had something else written up already. And then I lost it. I could whine about what a pain in the butt that is, but instead I’m going to choose to think that my old post would not have been as good as this one is going to be. 🙂

I’ve hinted a few times that many of the lessons I’ve picked up from my two years of yoga practice are very similar to the things I learned in therapy during my “dark days” in Barcelona. In fact, the more I think about it, the more similarities I find.

I’m originally from Nicaragua, though I’ve spent a big part of my life living in the United States. In 2005, I packed up my life – and my husband – and moved us to Barcelona to pursue advanced business degrees. I had collected one years’ worth of money for the both of us, and figured I could find a way to fund our second year once we got there.

It was in the middle of our first year that something just snapped. I’m not sure what it was, really. Maybe it was the financial stress of not having guaranteed funds for our second year.  Maybe it was the newness of moving to a new country. Who knows. One day I felt fine (although I’d had a couple of episodes of panic in the past), and the next day I was convinced something was seriously wrong with me and was dragging my husband around from doctor to doctor to diagnose the terrible disease I was sure was going to kill me. It’s hard for me to describe how I felt physically, but it was something akin to constantly having a rope tied tightly around my neck, a sense of impending doom and veil of hopelessness that I just couldn’t shake.

My therapy – I think I had a total of eight sessions – focused less on understanding what had sent me over the abyss, and more on performing a variety of exercises and tasks that would allow me to accept three undeniable facts of life that, coincidentally, are also true of any good yoga practice:

  1. There’s no point stressing over what you can’t control. And guess what? There’s not very much you can control – except for your actions. You can’t choose how you feel about airplanes or enclosed spaces in the same way you can’t choose whether you have tight hamstrings or a bendy back. Many of us spend a lot of time trying to create the illusion of control – trying to get our loved ones to look / act / think like we want, trying to plan our lives out to the last detail – and we don’t acknowledge the only thing we can control is what we do. This is a big source of frustration for many anxiety sufferers, who feel the sting of failure when things don’t go their way.
  2. You have to make yourself vulnerable to make any progress. This is a big one, and I didn’t quite learn this until very recently. In fact, I wish I’d packaged this insight and shared it before. Maybe it would be me rather than Brené Brown giving this Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability. The gist of it is that courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s plowing forward despite of it. We spend so much of our time trying to protect ourselves that we miss out on SO MUCH for fear of things not working out or feeling the way we hope. My therapy taught me to do the opposite. In fact, one of my exercises consisted of my locking myself in a safe place (a bedroom or other room in my house), and thinking the most horrible thoughts I could muster to try to bring ON a panic attack. I never managed to do it, but the fact that I was facing anxiety dead on helped diminish its grasp on me.
  3. It is what it. The only thing that makes a situation “good” or “bad” is how it stacks up to your expectations. This applies to anxiety, too (as well as yoga). Most of my therapy focused on getting me to accept – even EMBRACE – my anxiety, as opposed to getting it to go away as if it was an undesirable thing. My biggest fear during the time I suffered from panic disorder was that it would never go away – that I would be miserable forever and never enjoy another thing in my life. And then one day it clicked. If I had to live with anxiety forever – so what?? If there were people who lived with WORSE things and enjoyed their lives, why the hell couldn’t I??

I don’t mean to sound blasé about all this. It’s easier for me to talk about these things than it is to live them. My yoga practice, though, is a nice safe place for me to focus on the now, embrace my feelings of inadequacy and accept the fact that I have freakishly tight hamstrings and terrible balance. Slowly but surely I will consistently integrate into my life as well, but for now, yoga is good practice.

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