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Yoga and My Anxious Brain: Guys, What Am I Doing?

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Having anxiety can feel a little like being trapped inside a very loud high school cafeteria where the chatter ranges from shrill gossip, to bullying, to random diatribes over seemingly useless topics. The noise varies in its harmfulness. There’s a mean girl in there judging everything: your looks, your attire, your personality and life choices. She reminds you of all the dumb shit you did, as any true frenemy would, and leaves you feeling suddenly mortified about a past event you thought you’d locked away forever. The bullies are there interrupting any peace you might have with random insults hurled from every direction. “Stupid bitch!” Whoa, buddy. Where did that come from? What did you do to illicit this? Nothing really. It’s just what bullies do. In the milder moments, you’re swept up in trains of thought that seem interesting and insightful, but ultimately are stealing time away. It’s incredibly exhausting to live inside a space that rarely gets quiet.

So what to do?

There are medications to take and cognitive behavioral therapy sessions to attend. When these are not options or access is not available (and sometimes to supplement our therapy), we anxious minds turn to more holistic methods. We meditate. We try yoga. We go for a run.

Well, we try to anyway.

“It’s incredibly exhausting to live inside a space that rarely gets quiet.”

Spoiler alert: This is not a piece that offers solutions in the way of curing anxiety or stopping the chatter in your brain. I have no idea how to do this. If you find out, please tell me. I suspect anyone who tells you that you can cure it is probably selling you snake oil and you should tread cautiously. It is more likely that with years of hard work and mindful, intentional practice, you are (at best) able to come to peace with it and turn down the volume inside your wild and wondrous dome. Because I don’t know what it’s like to have a chemically balanced brain, I have no idea what other people’s minds are like, but according to psychologists, 60-70% of mental chatter is negative so I’d like to think we’re all a little nutty.

Yoga practice to the rescue.

Y’all let me start by saying I love the IDEA of yoga. These beautiful, peaceful creatures with their bendy limbs and serene Bali villa photo shoots doing handstands and breastfeeding upside down in their backyards buck ass naked. Or maybe they’ve got some sweet mandala tattoo and practice in a tricked out Brooklyn studio with strategically hung tea lights and fancy Ganesh statues and they know a hundred different calming platitudes for every situation in life and seem to not have a care IN THE WORLD. I want a slice of that pie, honey. I want to live every day in the coolest Instagram photo shoot ever designed.

Now I’ve certainly fallen victim to the cool girl yoga scene and am drawn to the practice for purely superficial reasons that would grant me a firm whack on the knuckles from the purist yogis of the world. I totally accept my ridiculousness. I own it 1,000%.  It may explain why I’m the absolute worst at yoga and can’t stick with it, but it’s more likely that yoga is really, really, really hard when you have anxiety.

If you’re like me and have tried, quit, and restarted a yoga practice a dozen times in your life, fear not. You are not alone and (I am told) our dysfunction is somewhat normal. Allow me to share with you the nightmare of even a fifteen-minute prenatal yoga routine, which I’ve become determined to make a morning ritual.

I wake up and think of a half dozen things I would like to do for the day, including writing this piece. But no, I said I would do yoga first so I will. The ENTIRE time I’m rolling out the mat and getting my YouTube vids open and ready to go, I am thinking about the things I would love to do and just how long fifteen minutes will take to finish.

The soft-spoken lady comes on my screen and instructs me to grab my belly and breathe into my baby (what???) and greet him/her. Cool. What up baby. I can somewhat do this, but I am mostly still thinking about stuff I want to do today and then having a full-on conversation with myself that goes something like this:

Brain: Okay, we are going to write about how awful we are at yoga today. Let’s start workshopping some ideas now.

Me: But it is yoga time NOW. We’re being ridiculous. Just hush for fifteen minutes and then we will do all the things.

Brain: But what if we forget these ideas! Also how long is fifteen minutes? It seems like a really long time. Should we have picked the eleven minute video? Why don’t we do different videos. We should stop this video and mix it up. Do we have to pee? Maybe we should go pee.

Meanwhile, I am attempting to follow my YouTube guru while piping down the insolence in my head. The movements feel good. I need these stretches. I need this release, but I cannot stop thinking about things. At all.

If I’m not remembering the routine and mapping out in my head just how much longer I have to do this, my body begins to signal that the brain is misbehaving again. My chest will tighten. I may get hit with a burst of anger (WHYYYY am I pissed off right now?) or another seemingly random emotion. In these moments I HATE yoga and want to quit and thinking about wanting to quit makes fifteen minutes feel like three hours and I end the session wondering what I am doing to myself.

It’s worse in real life classes when a seemingly non-anxiety suffering teacher tells me I can just imagine a serene place and sweep away the bad thoughts gently as if with a broom. No, ma’am. I cannot. I try. I really do. But those broom strokes get really frequent, a little rough, and next thing I know all I’m doing is battling thoughts with a broom like I’m chasing a rat out my house.

Now, sympathetic yoga practitioners will tell you this is normal. They will say that the only way out is through and our bodies are just trying to work through and expel the stress and trauma. Sometimes it comes out in yoga sessions, and it’s okay to want to quit or scream in the middle of our practice. They will toss around Sanskrit terms to explain what is stuck in my body, what energies are blocked, and assure me that with a more consistent practice, I will start to “move” these things and feel better.

“In these moments I HATE yoga and want to quit and thinking about wanting to quit makes fifteen minutes feel like three hours and I end the session wondering what I am doing to myself.”

Now I don’t know that I subscribe to some of the yoga explanations for why my head is a disaster. I don’t know about chakras or energies or thinking about trauma as some physical entity occupying my body. I am more apt to use the scientific approach which is that yoga is a form of meditation which helps to reshape our brain (neuroplasticity, baby) and the physical practice is great at helping relax and strengthen the body, and both work together to bring us more peace and comfort. Regardless of which explanation helps shape our understanding of why we should bother to yoga when it feels like torture, the key idea is that it’s worth a shot.

My goal right now is to start my day with a short yoga routine until my body is too big to do it. Then, after the baby is born and things have healed enough, to maintain a regular practice (as much as one can with a newborn. I hear they are very time consuming in the early months). If you’ve read any of my earlier pieces, you may recall that I am shit when it comes to keeping goals, but this one I’m giving my college all.

I’ve always given up on yoga for all the reasons stated above. It just brings out my inner crises in ways that make it impossible to enjoy, but I’m starting easy with short routines designed for aching pregnant ladies and I’m open to giving it a chance to work, even if it means some rough sessions in the early days. If in a couple months I’m still wanting to climb up a wall, I may reconsider, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

In my post-baby mind/body fantasy I’m one of those bendy, peaceful, monk-like women gracing social media in all my “zenned” out glory. People will become swept up in the vortex of my chillness. I’ll be a brand new woman. I know it’s focusing on the wrong thing, but it makes me happy to think about so why the hell not? In all seriousness though, I do hope that a practice coupled with the sitting meditation I already do helps me with my anxiety which, quite frankly, has been on ten the last couple of months. And at the very least, I can take some satisfaction in sticking with a goal and not giving up, even if the end results don’t perfectly fit the fantasy.

9 thoughts on “Yoga and My Anxious Brain: Guys, What Am I Doing?

  1. LOVE this post, cool yoga girl lol Also known as stick up arse girl 😊 I totally get all the above. I have gad and have tried all of the above. Am currently reading the happiness trap, practising mindfulness badly , going to therapy and trying to get back into running!! X

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  2. Keep working through that resistance. I have had similar struggles. Still having them yet I am looking into teacher training simultaneously. I have had to give myself permission to be kind to myself. Yoga has been a salve for my anxiety, but it wasn’t at first.

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  3. Thank you so much for writing about anxiety. I suffer from this, always have and I love how you describe it as a loud high school cafeteria! It truly is awful and you’re right all you can do is find something like yoga which will help you manage. Ironically I’m a yoga teacher lol! I wish you all the best,

    Marta Justyna

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    • Thanks for your comment! It is definitely a challenge. For now I just stick to gentle yoga that helps me work out muscle tension without feeling stressed bc I can’t do the move and it’s been helpful 🙂

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