Rachel Koontz is a yogi who believes in learning to be still and trust her own body. The opinions expressed herein are hers and hers alone. Rachel blogs regularly at Alive in the Fire and can be reached at aliveinthefire [at] gmail [dot] com. A while back, I was a hardcore Bikram yogi. I set up my mat in the front row on the "hot side" of the room four or five times per week. I was excited to do a double (which translates to two 90-minute back-to-back classes in a 105 degree room). My laundry was half-filled with shorts, sports bras, and sweaty towels because of how much time I spent in the “Torture Chamber.” (If you’re curious about why studios call the hot room a “torture chamber,” I recommend reading this and this.) Yet while my body was at peak performance, my mind was suffering. I was pushing myself beyond my limits and making my practice all about ego. Instead of relaxing in class, I worried what the teachers and other students thought of me, or whether they noticed if I fell out of a posture or sat one out. Before class, my thoughts raced: Have I had enough water to drink today? Did I remember to bring shampoo for after class? Am I here early enough to get a good spot for my mat? I’d find myself rushing to the studio, nervous to talk to people, hoping they wouldn’t ask how I was doing. I'd feel embarrassed to say hi to students I knew never skipped a day of Bikram, especially if I’d missed a few days of class. Eventually, one day it hit me: Why am I so edgy on my way to yoga class? If I’m feeling this tense about my practice, what does that say about my life as a whole? Outside of yoga, I wasn’t spending enough time tending to my emotions or stresses, either. I wasn’t writing or putting time toward any creative outlet. I tossed and turned at night, dreaming about pressures at work. Plus, I was too scared to talk to family and friends about how I was really feeling because, deep down, I felt I should be able to handle everything without struggling. I was scared to answer the simple question, “How are you?” because honestly, I wasn’t doing so well. Making matters worse, worrying about these issues was adding even more guilt to my pile of problems. So I backed off. I tried some restorative, yin, and Hatha classes. I let myself take a break on the nights I needed rest instead of an intense workout. I let myself take some time to journal or be alone instead of pressuring myself to be social. I began quietly meditating. If I felt sad, upset, or worried, I allowed myself to recognize those feelings, accept them, and then move past them. I made an effort to let go of the opinions of others and accept myself as I am. For the first time, I was using yoga as a means of connecting with my true inner self. Instead of ignoring my needs, I began tending to them and feeling the pure joy that comes from having an honest relationship with my own identity. Instead of denying difficulties in my life or trying to convince myself that I needed to feel joyful and carefree all of the time, I made room for a little unhappiness. I accepted my anxiety-prone nature and let myself cry when I needed to. Slowly, I began to see how yoga is a tool that helps me choose to relax. And I was happy to realize that yoga doesn’t have to be everything — I know it’s only one part of my personal therapy regimen. Yoga is about balance. The goal is to find the right mix of exertion and rest to make a pose feel effortless. The bigger goal is to take that balance and apply it to life as a whole so that relationships, work, and other activities feel like the right combination of energy and passion. The result is not that we are entirely worry-free, but that we find a healthy compromise between turmoil and peace. Don’t get me wrong — I still love a good, insanely hot Bikram class where I have the chance to push myself hard. But now I know just how to cool off afterward and soak in the relaxation I deserve, or take the next night off altogether. Although yoga is typically used or thought of as therapy, it can have the reverse effect if we aren’t careful. If you think yoga may be fueling your anxiety “fire” instead of helping you calm down, consider the following:
- What style of yoga are you practicing? Restorative postures taught in a studio with a restful, nurturing teaching style may be what you need. Try searching for a yin, Anusara, or restorative class, or sign up for a few one-on-one sessions with a favorite instructor.
- Do your best to drop the ego. Ask yourself, "What’s my motivation for practicing yoga?" See how it feels to focus on self-awareness and acceptance instead of making comparisons to others or holding yourself to an impossible standard. Take a gentle approach. Remember you are deserving of good things — and they don't depend on whether or not you can get your foot behind your head!
- Meditate. You don’t have to sit for hours on end to benefit from the practice of quiet reflection. You can start small with a walk to the park, a bath, an afternoon nap, or a solitary shopping trip. Work your way up to seated meditation or even a day of silence.
- Remember that healing comes in many forms. Consider rounding out your yoga routine with one-on-one counseling, healthy eating, aromatherapy, massage, a qi gong class, or some good old-fashioned hugs from friends and family.
Be well as you learn to let go.