This post was written for the #yogamatters blogging contest, sponsored by the MPH@GW blog. To participate in the contest, write a post about why yoga matters to you and follow the instructions here.
When you have a mind like mine – constantly filled with worst case scenarios that won’t abate despite significant effort and numerous rounds of logic – it’s very easy for the embers of worry to turn into a full-blown fire if you inadvertently fan them.
In another life, I found myself having to claw my way back from a panic disorder with the help of a very successful but counterintuitive – and intensive – course of therapy.
The premise of the therapy was simple: don’t fight anxiety and panic with logical tools like rational thought, situational avoidance and in-depth analysis. Instead, use simple tricks to short-circuit your mind into releasing its vice-like grip on your worries and accepting the unpleasant feeling of panic.
By the time I discovered yoga a couple of years ago, I’d already been living panic-free for a while. I’ve found that anxiety, though, is a little bit like addiction. Once and addict, always an addict, even when you’ve managed to find a way to keep your addiction under control.
And six years after having lived the experience and come out of it unscathed, I was due for a tune-up. Of the therapeutic kind.
I hadn’t made the time yet to find a therapist I liked in my new home of Washington, DC, but when I realized that practicing yoga tricked my brain into thinking about nothing but practicing yoga for at least an hour and fifteen minutes at a time, it dawned on me this might be exactly the kind of tune-up I needed.
If you observed a yoga class and told me that the physical movements that make up the practice are aimed at building strength, improving balance or increasing flexibility – or a combination of these – you’d be right, of course.
When you practice yoga, though, you begin to realize that it’s not just physical strength, balance and flexibility you’re acquiring.
Focusing on one pose at a time helps you achieve mental balance. It clears out the clutter and the preconceived notions and helps you see the here and now as they really are.
Building up the courage to attempt challenging poses you don’t think yourself capable of creates more than just physical strength. It allows you to take risks outside the studio regardless of whether you think you’ll like the results.
And accepting the fact that your tight muscles won’t let you get into a pose right now no matter how hard you try to force it helps you practice a different kind of flexibility. Over time you come to embrace the fact that you can’t always get the outcome you want, and that you can indeed make progress despite your imperfections.
All three skills are fundamental for keeping anxiety sufferers like me from getting sucked into a life of fear, avoidance, co-dependence and emotional stagnation. All three are fundamental to living a happy and balanced life in general, regardless of which variety of mental imbalance happens to ail you.
Since I started practicing on a regular basis – and seeing the results for myself – I’ve become a big proponent of using yoga as small-scale practice for working through the mental barriers that hold people back. I don’t know what it is about accepting the way you’re built and achieving flow during class that helps you create the mental synapses to do it outside of class, as well.
It has helped me so much with own sanity that I feel compelled to reach out and offer it up as a gift for people who are also struggling to keep theirs.
The problem, though, is that even a somewhat innocuous new activity like yoga can be intimidating for some, and it can be especially intimidating for people with the kind of mental health problems I suffer from. And while the benefits of yoga are almost too numerous to count, there is an aura around yoga culture that can make practicing feel closed off and inaccessible to folks who have never been exposed to it.
There is a very positive set of principles and rituals that accompany the practice of yoga. And there are people who genuinely try to live their lives by those principles. Every “om” and every “namaste” comes from the heart, and you can tell.
But it’s easy for people who have never really practiced to be put off by a stereotype. And it’s really difficult to convince my friends and family that they’d benefit from a regular practice when they feel the stereotype doesn’t fit.
That’s part of the reason I started this blog. I’d like to do my part by giving people a voyeuristic view into someone with a corporate career, an inflexible body and a firm belief that yoga is for everyone – regardless of their lifestyle.
Yoga changed my outlook and had a positive impact on my mental health, but it didn’t change my personality. I don’t have to fit a mold. I don’t chant, I don’t meditate and I rarely ever say “namaste.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing ANY of these things. And I genuinely believe in the “namaste” message – ‘the light in me honors the light in you.’
But in the spirit of that message – and given my mission to offer yoga up as a tool to people who could use it to achieve peace of mind – I try not to throw around what could potentially be a divisive code word for “I’m a yogi and you’re not.”
In other words, since yoga really matters, let’s band together to try to make it less intimidating, so instead of reading about the benefits everyone can experience them first hand.
Namaste! (Just kidding!)