Yoga and Anxiety

I step to the top of my mat. My guru, Alison, says “it’s time to go in.” I take a breath: in, out. I am calm, focused and quiet in my head. The room is warm, inviting. I am surrounded by community and friends at The Light Within Yoga Studio, in West Grove, Pennsylvania. No where to go, no lists to attack. In, out. In, out. These are the moments that I am free from anxiety. This safe space is wonderful. I am a strong woman. I can do this. I show up, fully. But… what about the other 23 hours of the day? What about the crippling anxiety that can suddenly attack me: in my car, on a plane, in the grocery store, at a dinner party?

Back on my mat, we are in upavistha konasana. I work myself slowly into the pose. “What is the purpose of this asana?” Alison asks, then answers her own question: “the purpose of the asana is to breathe.” Yes, breathe, I remind myself. My eyes fill with tears. How many times in my most difficult moments have I been saved by breath? In, out. Thousands of times. My mantra. My saving grace. My practice has never been the same since Alison spoke these words: the purpose of the asana is to breathe. Yes: this, I realize, is what I need during the other 23 hours of the day when I am not always in that warm, safe environment.

My husband, an E-RYT 200 yoga teacher (who taught me ashtanga yoga and continues to be my teacher) is also a photographer, so we travel extensively for his work. With scheduling, planning, packing, traveling, being in new environments, etc. my anxiety has a hay-day: if left unchecked. So many opportunities, my anxiety jumps for joy! Over the years, I have learned to take the breathing pill more frequently. Stress? Breathe. On a plane? Breathe. Missing home? Breathe. Since my anxiety stems from misguided and out of control thoughts, another mantra I use frequently is: I will let the thoughts flow through me, like the breeze. In, out.

The events that happen around you only have power over you, if you let them. These days, the anxiety struggle is real. Yogic philosophy offers many tools to help along the way, like a mantra. In The Mantram Handbook, Eknath Easwaran tells the story of a parade that is going through a town, and a rouge elephant who’s trunk is out of control, grabbing bundles of bananas and wrecking carts and vendor stands along the way. Once the elephant is given a stick to hold in its trunk (a mantra) the animal is able to walk with the parade without the devastating destruction of its wandering trunk. The stick (a mantra) can quickly quiet down an out of control mind. One of the best and easiest mantras to remember is: in (on the inhale), out (on the exhale). In, out. In, out. Another tool I have used is an adult coloring book. During a few incredibly difficult months last year, the coloring book literally saved me… from myself. Small things can help as well, like limiting sensory input, minimizing screen time and spending time outdoors.

One paradox that I have discovered during our travels is that I find there are large spans of time where I really do not have anything to do: since we are away, I don’t have to clean, run errands, work on the computer, etc. and to my dismay, these open moments can be an invitation to chaos in my head. Cue the breath: in, out. In, out. Thankfully, using the tools I have mentioned, I gradually bring myself back to earth, to what ever is in front of me, to each present moment.

“Do not let your throat close tight with fear. Take sips of air all day and all night.” Rumi

Christine Yurick is an editor, poet and yogini.