For my 40th birthday, I ventured to a spa in the Catskills of NY with a dear friend of mine for a long weekend to relax and celebrate this milestone in my life. Little did I know at the time how much this trip would change my life!
I decided to keep an open mind and try every class they offered along with the ‘vegetarian’ food being served while restricting my intake of salt, sugar, and caffeine. There were no TVs or radios in the rooms and it was before ‘smart phones’ so we were pretty cut off from the rest of the world, yet surrounded by so much of Mother Nature calling us to connect with her beauty.
Now as I reflect back, I find myself smiling because it felt so disorienting yet so comforting at the same time. I was at a point in my life where I spent a great deal of time at work, with very little time for me. I was most familiar with putting everyone else’s needs in front of mine, and believed that I could only ‘be done’ when everyone else was taken care of, which reinforced an unconscious belief that my value or worth came from taking care of others. I was exhausted emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually and didn’t even realize it! Little did my brain know how much my body craved to slow down and nurture it, instead of feeding it a constant diet of stress caused by a deep need to please others.
My mind-body connection was turned off until that weekend in NY. After trying the step-aerobics class (and creating a moat around my step from my own sweat), I found my way to my first ever yoga class. Immediately upon settling onto my mat, something shifted inside of me. I don’t necessarily remember the teacher or the poses, but I do remember FEELING and thinking that what I was experiencing seemed vaguely familiar yet foreign at the same time. When I left that class, I felt a sense of peace and somehow a bit lighter than when I walked into it, although it was NOT a power yoga class and I didn’t even break a sweat.
On the drive home from that weekend away, I was determined to find a local yoga class where I could test out if I could replicate the results of that one yoga class. I found a small one-room yoga studio one town over and when I walked in, I was amazed that it felt like ‘home’ and not any house I had ever lived in. The sense of peace and calm was palpable and irresistible. I found myself called back day after day for over two years. My felt experience in that yoga class in NY was not a one-time event!
Although initially I continued to work long hours, my addiction slowly shifted towards spending more time on my mat in those group yoga classes, where no one knew my name and no one expected anything from me. I could simply be in my own inner world while surrounded by others doing the same thing. The first specific learning I remember is that I was breathing incorrectly. I would hold my stomach in on my inhale and let my belly out on my exhale. No wonder my mind and body were in a constant battle! As I learned to synchronize my breath with the movement of my body, I was able to start to notice sensations in my body, be guided by them to avoid any physical pain, and begin to trust the emotional intelligence of my body.
And that was where I came face-to-face with my anxiety. It was in that safe, sacred space in those group yoga classes where I realized how my mind worked very hard to distract me from the wisdom – and pain – that my body held, encouraging me to keep moving in order to avoid the stillness, because it was in the stillness that the underlying fears would rear their ugly heads. And yet, what I discovered was that by inviting those fears to join me on my mat, sitting with them while I breathed deeply, and asking them how they came to be, I was able to gain a new appreciation for how my fears had been serving me. As my awareness and gratitude grew, my fears began to fade. Don’t get me wrong, my fears still exist, along side of a full palette of other powerful emotions, yet they no longer control me or constrict my world. When my fear greets me now, I remember that they are trying to communicate something to me, so I create time and space for them, honoring their protective nature.
That trip to NY was many years ago, before much of the clinical research to demonstrate the benefits of yoga was conducted, but my personal experience hooked me from that very first class. Now it seems new research is being published every month from around the world supporting the claims that yoga is not only a viable treatment for physical and mental health challenges but also a way to prevent illness by integrating it into a self-care program to promote overall well-being. So, if you don’t want to take my word for it – click on the link below to check out some recent research from Japan published in the International Journal of Yoga that suggests that yoga reduces anxiety, improving mental health, at any age!