One of the initial steps in my recovery from panic disorder is to expose myself to the places and things that have induced extreme anxiety and panic in the past. This meant it was time recently to reintroduce myself to Bikram Yoga. Bikram is an interesting experience turned love of mine that I discovered during the honeymoon phase of being put on the anti anxiety medication Escitalopram. This phase, whether due to placebo effect (I am on an extremely low and likely ineffectual dose), or actual efficacy of the drug lasted about a year, and enabled me to try out some things I had been itching to for a long time.
I dragged my sister along to our first class a little over a year ago. We entered the hot room feeling self conscious and unsure. I spent the first half of the class coercing my body into postures it surely did not welcome and the second half lying on my mat studying the water spots on the ceiling tiles and worrying that the headache I was experiencing was indicative of heatstroke. But the lovely teacher encouraged me to drink a ton of water and come back the next day, so I did! I attended twelve days of the fourteen day promotional period. During that time I learned a great deal about my mind and body. I gained flexibility and confidence, and I quickly realized it was the only form of exercise I had actually enjoyed…ever. This, I thought, might be “my thing”.
Some days were better than others. It was disheartening at first to look around the room at the veritable sea of svelte, toned, and super flexible bodies, the bodies of yogis who have been practicing for many years. I began to understand pretty quickly, however, that becoming more fit and healthy was only a byproduct of the yoga, and far from the actual point. I started to look only at myself in the mirror. I tried to be compassionate toward my body, abused as it was by my sustained weakness for banana nut muffins and unassailable respect for the ritual of afternoon tea. I learned to celebrate mini victories, rejoicing in my newfound ability to touch my toes or balance on one leg. I noticed that the usual, persistent thoughts and worries about the kids would dissipate as I studied myself in those mirrors. The Bikram dialogue became my meditation and I pushed myself hard as I dared to “reach for the back wall” in backward bending pose, or to “lock the knee” in standing head to knee. My sister loved it too and together we encouraged the rest of my family to get involved. Before long five of us had signed up for the Thirty Day Challenge.
We sweat… gallons, we twisted, we wobbled, we learned to breathe through the discomfort. “In by the nose, out by the nose, it calms the nervous system” they said. Some days we cheated ourselves, others we pushed too hard, but every day, for thirty days, we showed up. And we were victorious! Every one of us finished the challenge and experienced massive improvements in our flexibility and strength. I felt calmer in my interactions with the kids and with Andy, and my sleep was incredibly restful. It was the tip of the iceberg in terms of what yoga can do for a person, but it was a strong start.
I did not continue a daily practice, but I did show up regularly for a while. That is, until the day I had a massive panic in class. I was late, class had already started and I could feel it rising. Maybe my blood sugar was low, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep. It doesn’t matter. I tried to resist rather than accept and soon I found myself trembling on the mat, dizzy and nauseous, heart pounding, thoughts racing. I remember it took about forty minutes before I could really engage. Forty minutes of intense waves of panic in a room heated to 105 degrees at forty percent humidity. At the time I felt it was the kind of experience a person shouldn’t have to endure without help.
I wish now that I had just continued to show up, to let the panic roll through while I simply did the yoga. It is a simple approach that is anything but easy. But instead I allowed the panic to choose. I attended class sporadically for a while, but the panic kept coming and I eventually sent an email canceling my membership. It was a difficult time.
Fast forward to today, forging deeper into this journey of acceptance and mindfulness I signed myself up for another Thirty Day challenge. The purpose this time had very little to do with training my body. I knew going into it that I would have many panic attacks because I had conditioned myself to believe they would occur. One day, one of the co owners asked if it might be helpful for me to set my mat up by the door. “No”, I explained “I just need to accept”. That day I set my mat up in the front row.
There were days where I felt it wouldn’t be possible to will my body out of the car, but I did. One day I found myself at the studio door having slept very little. I had been enduring waves of panic since 4am. I had dropped my children at school dressed, fed, hugged, lunches packed, and now I wanted to crawl into a hole. I struggled through the drive, every turn toward the studio a deliberate decision, the motions of throwing my bag over my shoulder, locking my car, pulling open the door and signing my name on the sheet, each an act of bravery. But I noticed halfway though class that I was meditating, breathing, accepting. Victory. Once again I completed the challenge, but this time it meant so much more.
Somewhere in the middle of the challenge the studio owners treated us to a demonstration and kinda sorta posture clinic with yoga champion Joseph Encinia. It’s not really an experience I can do justice on this page. It was beyond inspiring. His story alone; the story of a little boy suffering from a painful autoimmune disease, of a teenager who endured a heart attack due to his medication, the story of a man who triumphed over his illnesses and lives a full, rich life due in part to yoga was motivating enough. But the man himself, with his energy and drive and light, not to mention his awe inspiring demonstration…well, it’s the kind of thing you look back on to pull yourself out of the dark places.
At the end of class, when it was time for savasana, a time I usually reserve for desperately struggling to pull my busy mind back into stillness, Joseph said “let’s meditate”. It was a short yet powerful meditation that required us to hold in our minds the person we love most in the world, to wish them safety, peace and happiness, we wished these things for ourselves too, then for someone we struggle with, and finally for all beings. It was a profoundly moving meditation and the tears came out of nowhere. After Joseph left the room I covered my face with my arms and lay helplessly on the mat allowing the tears to come. At first I thought it was just me, but soon I could hear a few other stifled sobs.
Its called loving kindness meditation or metta meditation. Years ago, Andy sent me an email as part of our thread “What the F*** is wrong with Elaine”, detailing how this particular type of meditation is helpful for those experiencing anxiety and panic. Turns out it’s also coming up soon in the meditation series provided by my therapist. There are plenty of beautiful and inspiring examples of loving kindness meditation on you tube, but I’ll leave you with this. It’s a version of the Loving Kindness Prayer similar to what was said to us in class:
Loving Kindness Prayer
May you be happy
May you be well
May you be peaceful
May you be safe