Whenever I talk about yoga with a new friend or acquaintance, I frequently get a response that’s something along the lines of, “So you must be really zen, huh?”
No. Absolutely not. Actually, I’m frequently one giant hot mess ball of anxiety rolling quickly through the day. From meetings to classes to housework and homework, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day…ever.
When I was in high school, I experienced my first panic attack, and since then, my mom has had to talk me through numerous other situations in which I’ve found myself shaking, heart-racing, and terrified. When asked if I’ve ever sought medication for an anxiety/panic disorder -- while I’ve considered it, it’s not a route that I’m choosing to take at this time (though I know people whose quality of life improved by electing to do so).
Over the past few years, my ability to handle feelings of fear, stress and anxiety have dramatically improved -- thanks in large part to yoga, my form of self-medication. I’ve found that a variety of yogi principles can help me move through life calmer and more at peace, both on and off the mat.
1. Be In The Moment
One of my biggest sources of fear has always been the future; not just my future career or financial situation, but also events or due dates that are looming. Will I make it to my flight on time? Will I choke during my upcoming presentation?
While planning ahead is important, I’ve learned that it should not consume who you are and what you are doing today. There is only so much you have control of, and frequently, the things that are causing you stress about tomorrow, can only be addressed tomorrow.
Whenever I find myself checked out of my responsibilities for today, instead of plotting and planning how I will meet the demands of tomorrow or the next day, I remind myself to be in the present moment; focus on what I’m doing and who I am with, rather than stressing about the next event pending on my planner. Sometimes you just have to take it one day at a time. And that’s okay.
2. Listen To Your Body
Our bodies are amazing machines and they know when they are being mistreated. Is your stress or anxiety causing you to lose sleep, or to fill your body with whatever junk food is available when you’re too busy to step out for lunch?
Your body knows, and it’s keeping tabs; it’s probably moving slower, your skin is probably looking dull, and your eyes are probably looking a little less bright than usual. Your stress may even be causing you painful symptoms such as gastrointestinal issues or of course, panic attacks. Trust me, I’m well versed in attempting to conceal dark under-eye circles from nights spent without sleep.
But I’ve learned that when my body talks to me, I had better listen. If you need to step outside and get some fresh air, give yourself that moment. If you need that extra hour of sleep, please take it. It’s not always easy to step away from responsibilities, but what good is your quality of work or life if you’re body isn’t well? Your body is your personal responsibility too, and sometimes it must take priority.
3. Stop Worrying About Everyone Else
One of the biggest stressors in my life is, and has always been, something that I have no control over: other people. While care and compassion for those around you is important, sometimes you have to let go and remember that we each make our own decisions and we each handle the repercussions of those decisions.
As my dad used to tell me, “Sometimes you have to let people make their own mistakes.” Additionally, we have to learn to let go of any need to please every single person in our lives. Not every decision you make is going to be the popular decision. But if it’s what feels right to you, make it and move on.
My mom has gotten quite good at calming me down when my nerves start to get the best of me. The simplest, but most effective thing she says is, “Amy, breathe.” Just that reminder always helps me to slow down, calm my heart down, and put things into perspective.
In yoga we learn to breathe; to oxygenate our muscles so we can stretch and condition them effectively (and of course, not pass out). But sometimes our hearts and our minds need that same oxygenation in order to help us think clearly. On those days when your mind is racing, calm your breath. Count. Meditate. Do what you need to do to slow your body down.
Where does your mind go when you’re attempting to enter into a balance pose? When I’m winding myself into Eagle pose, my mind certainly isn’t on my to-do list, or the meeting I have scheduled the next morning. In an effort not to fall straight forward, I’m usually focusing as intently as possible on one tiny spot on my wall.
When it feels impossible to turn off your anxious thoughts, taking a moment to center yourself in your favorite balancing pose -- be it Eagle, Tree, Dancer’s pose (my personal favorite), or whatever else.
It may just help you shut off those thoughts, if only for a moment. Because sometimes a moment is really all you need.