What do you do when yoga doesn’t work? When you are so riddled with anxiety that you go to a yoga class and leave after five minutes because you can’t calm down? This summer - the first time in my adult life, it just didn’t work. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t flow- I just couldn’t. I’ve been doing yoga for 14 years and it’s never “not worked,” before. I could always breathe. I could always flow. I tried to meditation and I think I had the most luck with gratitude practice. Have you ever turned to your mat and it’s like it was broken? You were broken? What other aspects or limb of yoga besides asana can I turn to, to help when anxiety is at its absolutely worst? Has this ever happened to you?
A little over a year ago, my brother died by suicide. For an entire year after his death I could not take a full breath. The air would stop entering my lungs when I tried and my sternum felt as though it would crack open. My shoulders and my neck and my entire spine felt like they had pieces of lead lodged in between the bones and tendons. The first time I laid in child’s pose I had a panic attack. Teaching yoga is how I make a living, and I had an infant to take care of on top of everything else. I was so broken and bruised and devastated, but I didn’t have a choice. I had to show up on my mat in front of my students and just be the fucked up mess that I was in order to make ends meet. That meant that I had to actually do yoga.
For a full year I forced myself to practice. Sometimes I would break down in sobbing fits on my mat. Sometimes I would be in the middle of cueing a sequence and my breath would get stuck in my throat and I would have the urge to run out of the room and drive away until I ran out of gas. I couldn’t put a finger on what was wrong because everything was wrong. My whole life felt wrong because my dear, sweet brother was dead and yoga--while wonderful--wasn’t enough to fill that space. Sometimes it was actually too much. I couldn’t connect to anything or anyone in the same way, and it felt as though the Universe had damned me to a revolving loop of my own, personal Hell.
My therapist suggested that I start a gratitude practice. I told her I thought that that practice in particular was a load of crap. It felt like spiritual bypassing and I wasn’t buying it. One day, when I couldn’t breathe, I wrote down in a random journal “I am grateful for my breath.” I immediately started crying. I realized that it was hard for me to breathe because my brother wasn’t anymore. Because the last moments of his life were spent struggling for air. Every time I walked into a yoga class full of my students, or stepped onto my own yoga mat I was reminded of this very fact. He wasn’t breathing and I was and I felt guilty for it.
Suddenly, I saw my life and my practice for what it was; something that I was forcing myself through. The Universe hadn’t punished me. My guilt and my grief had. My guilt and my grief made it impossible for me to breathe. I immediately emailed my therapist, who thanked me for finally showing up and putting the pieces of my life back together, one breath, one step, one thought of gratitude at a time.
Sometimes life breaks us into a thousand and two pieces. Those pieces never fit back together the same way. It doesn’t matter how connected to your yoga practice you may be, when your world gets flipped upside down by something--whether it be crippling anxiety, severe trauma, grief, injury, poor physical health, or depression--yoga gets flipped for you too. Thankfully, yoga teaches us how to turn inward.
You wanted to know if I have felt the way you have felt, if I have experienced what you have experienced. I wish that I could say I have, but our individual experiences are unique to us, alone. You have to do the hard work and confront the thing that triggered you into a full-on spiral of brokeness. Stare at the shattered pieces of your practice--of your life--and ask the hard questions. Only you can answer them and only you can put yourself back together; yoga is merely a tool.
The eighth limb of yoga is Samadhi--eternal yoking with the divine, enlightenment. When the sanskrit is broken down by bija sounds, however, it literally means “putting together.” When everything feels broken, fallen apart, we must take the time to put ourselves back together. We must do the thing we think is bs, the thing that we think won’t work, and we must confront ourselves in an honest and compassionate way. Sometimes that requires that we step off of our mat and fully into our own lives. Sometimes that means we must take all of the broken bits and hold them to light. Either way, we have to be brave and go at our own pace, in our own time, in our own way.