(I’m just going to jump right in as if my posts haven’t been few and far between for the last couple of months.)
I’ve talked a lot about yoga. About how it helps relieve anxiety, about my practice, about how it’s nice to set aside that space for myself almost every day. And all of those things are true. But you know what I keep forgetting, and what might be the most amazing thing? The mental stamina you gain.
I’ve always been pretty good at staying focused on something for a long time, or at least, that’s what I thought until I started practicing yoga regularly. Turns out I was really good at staying focused for a long time as long as I wasn’t physically uncomfortable. It also helped if I was good at the thing. It wasn’t until I started an almost-daily practice that I realized that what I thought was mental stamina was actually just mental comfort.
When I started using yoga to manage anxiety, I was all I’ve been to a bunch of classes and I know the sequence. I’ll just make my own playlists and do it that way. And that was ok for a while. I liked listening to my own music – mostly alternative techno like Youth Lagoon and Lorde with some Bieber thrown in – and I liked knowing what was coming up next. My whole practice, start to finish, was ~28 minutes, including some easy warm up and cool down poses. I was doing the more strenuous ones for maybe ten minutes. And even then, I wasn’t holding them for long. Sure, a bound extended side angle pose is tough, but I was only holding it for a breath, maybe two. A practice like that was a good way to ease anxiety and to help build the habit of doing yoga when I got home from work, but, to be honest, I was slacking. And I knew it. I kept doing that because it kept being easy, and while it was helpful, going easy on myself wasn’t the best course in the long run.
The whole thing about having an anxiety disorder is that, while you can learn to identify triggers and how to manage anxiety when it arises, half the time it still comes out of fucking nowhere. And you can’t prepare for it, because this thing that’s making you anxious never made you anxious before, or you had no way to anticipate that this would happen. You can only prepare so much. While that’s true of basically all of life, it’s different when anxiety is involved because there is so much stigma. We are so programmed – even those of us who live with disorders and fight against stigma every damn day – to equate a mental health issue with some kind of fundamental flaw in our character. When anxiety happens, you feel like you should have prepared for it, even when there’s no way you could possibly have known if would arise. You start thinking, if I had just… I should have… It’s my own fault. No. It’s not. But we forget, and it takes conscious, sometimes strenuous effort to remind ourselves that this doesn’t make us weak or incapable.
I wanted some way to deal with this feeling. I wanted to work on my resistance to those thoughts, those blaming myself for anxiety ruminations. Granted, I could have stayed in therapy or gone back, but this felt more about practice to me and less about learning the skills, which is why I went to therapy. The practice I could do on my own.
I started to look at yoga the way I looked at therapy: I was showing up. I was physically in the space. What the hell was the point of being there if I wasn’t willing to do the hard work? I was getting the minimum benefits out of the way I was practicing yoga, and while it was enough to manage anxiety, I wanted more than that. I didn’t want to just manage it. I wanted to build up my resilience. My stamina. My ability to engage with and stay in a challenge. To lean into discomfort. To show up for myself.
So I tried about a bajillion apps – because I know through years of experimentation that home practice is what works best for me – and I kept coming up disappointed. I thought about just adding to my playlists and holding the poses in my own sequence for longer, but that wasn’t right: I never added new poses, and so I never challenged my muscles and my thoughts in a way that wasn’t familiar. I always knew what was coming, and so I never had that oh SHIT this sucks! moment.
Eventually I found Down Dog, and, honestly, I think it has impacted my life in ways I can’t even measure. The most obvious is that I know when I’m being challenged: yes, I’m working hard when my legs/arms are burning or I fall over or my breathing speeds up, but you know I’m really having to push myself when I start swearing at the teacher on the app. In the moment, I want to strangle her for making me hold one-legged bridge pose for forever or do a zillion easy twists in a row, but after, I’m like “give me more!” (Ok, maybe not that but I’m definitely proud of myself for doing it.) Down Dog has such a great balance of freshness and familiarity, and that’s ideal, because that’s kind of what anxiety is like. When it starts bubbling up, I often think oh, you. I know you. But there’s also sometimes a new element, or something slightly different, and yoga helps me cultivate the mental space to handle that. It helps me work on the skills that I need to deal with anxiety. (The endorphins are a pretty good deal, too.)
I’ve been sick for the last week and a half, and I am DYING to do some yoga. I’ve learned the hard way that yoga is miserable when you’re congested; not in that my-practice-was-really-tough-today kind of way, but in that I-think-I-may-actually-die kind of way. No bueno. And because I’m not doing yoga, I’m not sleeping as well. I’ve had a headache every day for the last week. And I can feel little tendrils of anxiety snaking through my chest and I know that, soon, the familiar tightness and shortness of breath will show up.
BUT. I’m not dreading it. I know I can deal with it. That’s what I love about yoga: there are some obvious, immediate benefits like endorphins and clarity of mind, but it’s the long-term ones, the ones that build almost impercepitibly. It’s the realization that one day you can fold your hands flat on the mat during a forward fold, where before you could maybe just touch. It’s getting up into that crow’s pose when you’ve been trying (and falling) for months. And it’s that mental stamina, that self talk, that whole shift in perspective that you don’t even notice until you call on it in an entirely different situation. Yoga helps me cultivate the confidence to say “I got this”, no matter what “this” is. And it helps me to admit when I don’t got it. This week, my practice hasn’t been about doing asanas(poses), but rather how to exist with the sudden absence of something I depend on. It’s been about letting go, and trusting that I’ll be ok. About knowing that, when I do get back on the mat, it will feel SO good.