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How Yoga Can Help With An Anxiety Disorder

Photo: Lena Bell.

Since the age of four, I’ve made to-do lists filled with mundane tasks: “Get up. Wash hair. Moisturise. Brush teeth. Brush hair. Eat breakfast.” The older I got, the longer they got. I would only feel comfortable when I had created incredibly rigid schedules for every minute of the day. Any unexpected deviation from my planned timetable could trigger a dizzying sense of panic, the feeling that I had somehow lost control.

When I went to university, I found that, with it, obsessive thoughts I’d had as a child – mostly about death – returned two-fold, making me jump at unexpected movements of strangers in the street. I was constantly on edge. I made an appointment with my university doctor who asked me bluntly what lay beneath my anxiety. I didn’t know. I’d never thought about it like that – as “anxiety”. His parting advice was that I needed to go to the gym. So I went.

I soon developed an obsessive, masochistic approach to working out, often twice a day. From spinning to High-intensity Interval Training classes, I was always looking for a new fitness activity to exhaust my body and quieten my overactive thoughts. Exercise worked in the same way as lists, it was highly controlled and, most importantly, by exercising I knew I was achieving something quantifiable. One lunchtime I went to a yoga class. What I didn’t expect was that it would quietly change my life.

in that first class, I saw something calming in the practice which made me return, week after week

Some yoga practitioners talk about the Sturm und Drang experience of their first yoga class. Mine was the opposite, a cautious toe-dip into a world I was still deeply suspicious of (because if it didn’t leave me in a puddle of sweat of the ground, how could yoga really be counted as exercise?) But in that first class, I saw something calming in the practice which made me return, week after week. So I gave up running altogether, the sport which made my knees ache, and replaced it with yoga poses or “asana" which, little by little, strengthened my body and began to focus my mind.

In September 2014, just six months after I had begun practicing yoga seriously, I began a 200-hour long teacher training. I didn’t know whether I would become a teacher, but I knew that the rigorous course would provide me with a stronger understanding of what had become a vital part of my life. While still working full-time at an advertising agency, I spent six weeks practicing yoga up to five hours a day and learning philosophy, Sanskrit, history and anatomy. It was physically and mentally exhausting, but my mind had never felt more clear.

I learned that, in 400CE, a series of composite texts were written, known collectively as the Yoga Sutras, which have since become thought of as the foundations of yoga as we in the Western world now understand it. In this text, Patanjali, the author, not only lays out the eight-limbed path of yoga, but most importantly, defines the word itself; “yogash chitta vritti nirodhah” – that is, "yoga is the stilling of the movements of the mind". Yoga, then, aims towards a state where the mind has a single internal focus (on the breath and the body itself) rather than on an external focus (such as the person on the mat in front of you).

My anxiety didn’t stop when I qualified as a yoga teacher that autumn. Slowly though, my yoga practice shifted from the pursuit of certain “advanced” poses — headstands, arm balances, handstands — to focus on my mind. Yoga for me became no longer about exhausting the body to silence anxious or obsessive thoughts, but instead about noticing that chatter, accepting its presence, and choosing to distance myself from it.

Of course, it’s not possible to enter that thought-free space in the mind every time you sit down on a yoga mat. It doesn’t take much to set thoughts wandering beyond not only the asana but past the studio, city and off into the world outside, even if it is just to consider what to eat for breakfast. But ashtanga yoga teaches Tristana, the three-fold approach by which yogis learn to control the senses and the mind fluctuations, the combination of Ujjayi Pranayama (breathing techniques), Dristi (gaze points) and Bandhas (engaging energy locks within the body).

Concentrate on those three things, and yoga becomes a moving meditation.

Now, when I come to my yoga mat every day, it's to watch. To watch what my body is capable of on any given day, and to watch the movements of my mind. Often it is only when I am practicing yoga that I begin to understand how I am really feeling that day. I still write lists, I still jump at the movements of people in the street and I still panic when life moves beyond my control. But practicing yoga daily makes the ground beneath my feet more solid. And, when things get a bit much, just like millions of other yoga practitioners for thousands of years before me, I roll out my yoga mat and let my breath, dristi and bandhas carry me to stillness.