I read an article on Elephant Journal today of a woman’s story and why she left yoga, and while it was published two years ago, and I probably even read it then, today it really hit home with me.
I left yoga about two and a half years ago. I had a five day a week practice that I rarely skipped — even when my mother was in the hospital for three weeks for a triple bypass open heart surgery. I wrote extensively about my yogic journey for multiple, sometimes major, publications. I was asked when I would consider teacher’s training and was even often approached in public or at the studios I attended by people I didn’t know, telling me how much I had inspired them in their practice. Though all of this took place in the small bubble of my home town, it was still affirming to know that I had, in some small way, begun to plant and cultivate seeds of growth and compassion, not only in myself, but in others. Even now, if you Google my name the related searches are yoga and wellness.
For what felt like the first time in my life, I was maintaining a positive forward movement. The power of yoga and positive thoughts were all I needed to overcome any obstacles life could throw my way. My cynical, depressed, anxious, addictive, anti-spiritual self had been transformed into a blissful, accepting, creature well on her way to enlightenment. All of life’s problems could be solved between my mat and my dinner plate. Depression? Do yoga! Up dog, down dog, chaturanga. Health concerns? Watch what you eat. Juice cleanses, veganism, gluten-free! Social injustice? Practice compassion! Namaste. Anxious? Meditate! Om Shanti Om. Lack of inspiration? Search within. Om Namah Shivaya.
How had I not been doing this my entire life? It was so simple!
And then it wasn’t.
One day in the dressing room at the studio, I was excitedly recounting my very busy schedule which included a 21 day yoga challenge, swimming laps multiple times a week, writing every day, and plans to start running, when a woman I’d never met before interjected with “What are you running from?’
I’m not sure of the intention behind her words, but they hit me in what felt like the single, mortal, vulnerable place in my strong yogic armor. I brushed it off, or swept it under the proverbial rug, as the case may be, and continued on with my “very busy schedule.”
Shortly thereafter, I began noticing that within about 30 minutes of waking up, I was feeling like I had to yawn but couldn’t. I would take in as deep of a breath as I could, but still the pressure in my chest remained. Yoga would alleviate it some, but even then I sometimes found myself, arms raised high above my head, trying to yawn to fill my lungs with as much air as possible. Sometimes my limbs would tingle and my fingertips would go numb, I’d feel woozy and dizzy and nearly faint. I was convinced I was dying and no amount of reminding myself I was young, ate well, exercised regularly, and practiced moderation in all of my vices, could convince me otherwise. This went on for about a month before I realized that no amount of healthy eating, diet changes, yoga, or meditation was going to miraculously cure me.
I finally made a doctor’s appointment. I sat there waiting on the stiff paper of the exam table, reminding myself to breathe with every crinkle and shift. My mind simultaneously recognizing other possibilities and dismissing them, flashing neon lights behind my eyes spelling out “D-E-A-T-H” every time I blinked. It took every ounce of willpower I had to not run out of the exam room screaming.
The doctor came in and in his polite, concerned, easy manner, asked how I was. Before I could even think about a response, I blurted out “I’m going to die!” I should probably mention my doctor reminds me a bit of Dr. Taub on House, M.D., only younger and with happier eyes. He smiled slightly and said something along the lines of “Well, that’s inevitable, but maybe we should find out why.”
He asked me how I was doing and what had been going on in my life since I’d seen him for my last check up only a few months before.
“Well, let’s see, work is normal, still stressful, but good. Husband is good.” I said, “I’ve been published in a few new publications, I launched my own community website for women writers, my mom was in the hospital for three weeks for a triple bypass, but she’s home now and recovering well, and I celebrated my 30th birthday two days before her surgery, but things have mellowed out over the last two or three months.”
“Oh, that’s it?” he said as he listened to my breathing and my heart and asked me about any aches or pains I had. I explained my symptoms of numbness, dizziness, chest pressure, shortness of breath.
He sat down on his doctor’s stool and said, “Do you want to know what’s wrong with you?”
“I’m dying aren’t I? I’m having massive coronary issues or lung cancer or something, isn’t it?”
“No. You have anxiety.”
“How is that even possible? I do yoga and eat well and meditate and nurture myself and creative spirit! I do all the things I’m supposed to? It can’t be anxiety!”
“I’m going to send you for some blood work and a chest X-ray just in case, but yes, you have anxiety. I’m prescribing you the lowest dose of Xanax. Take half of one before bed or whenever you feel like you can’t breathe. Let me know if you don’t feel some improvement within the next week or so.”
I went for the X-ray and the blood work, both of which showed nothing unusual. I begrudgingly filled my prescription and took my half of Xanax that night. The next morning I woke up, and for the first time in a month, I had almost an entire day with no breathing issues and no crushing weight of my own mortality. I wasn’t happy about being medicated, in fact, I was anti-being-medicated, because I know my inclination towards addiction, and decided I would only take it when I was on the very brink of panic (which has worked out well and something I continue to do).
I went back to yoga a few days later, but something had shifted. Doubt began to creep in. I began to feel like a failure and a fraud. My yoga practice, my yoga lifestyle, should have made me impervious to the deceit of my own brain. I had cultivated my intuition, trusted my body, trusted the wisdom taught with such grace that had guided my mind and body and set me on the path to enlightenment and healthy living. I had shown that path to others, gently encouraging them to follow it and find their bliss, the fountain of youth, their innermost beautiful self!
In the seemingly safe spaces of a post class studio, I would quietly discuss my anxiety issues with those I knew well, but I felt the sideways glances and the struggles others had not judging me when I mentioned the pharmaceutical tool I reluctantly used, but was effective. Maybe I was projecting my doubts and insecurities and seeing them reflected back at me. I’m not sure, but it was enough to raise even more questions about my previously trusted intuition.
I slowly stopped attending classes and began spending more and more time searching within trying to figure out what went wrong. I educated myself in all things anxiety related, and the farther away I distanced myself from yoga, the more things seemed to come in to focus. Yes, my brain chemicals had gone off the deep end, but I had also bought into the unrealistic expectations of the blissfully enlightened world of yoga.
I know when I first set out to develop a consistent yoga practice, I was searching for a seed I could plant that would help me grow and sustain the happiness I clung to for dear life. Yoga, more the concept of Americanized yoga, with much of its affluence and “find your center, be one with the universe, be infinite love, foster spiritual romance!” I felt had sold me the spiritual and intellectual equivalent of cotton candy and funnel cakes under the guise of balanced nourishment. Any negativity was to be acknowledged and then dismissed with the rosy cheer of “Let it go!”
And I gorged myself on every last tasty crumb, having faith that my asana practice and mere acknowledgement of negativity would render me invincible to any belly ache that could possibly arise.
It didn’t, of course. Because you can’t just acknowledge that the trash needs to be taken out and it’s magically taken out. You can’t just recognize your arm is broken and it will be magically healed. You can’t just see that you’re eyeball deep in shit and it magically doesn’t stink.
I don’t want to seem like I’m blaming yoga, or generalizing the yoga community, or even criticizing where and with whom I practiced. I bought in gleefully, but unfortunately, the more you buy in, the more you are sold, and everything is so great, and the rose colored glasses fit so well you never want to take them off, but you can’t avoid seeing the reality around the edges of the frame.
My predisposition to mental illness and the ensuing earthquake of anxiety is ultimately what opened up the floor beneath me and made me realize that I was using yoga in the same way I had used various past addictions: to hide from a very uncomfortable reality. And just like bartenders serving alcoholics and drug dealers selling a fix, yoga and the community I had immersed myself in, was happily feeding my dependence so I could hide from the trouble and discomfort reality would inevitably bring me.
I still think yoga is amazing. I would recommend it to anyone looking to bring some balance, peace, wholeness, and physical and spiritual wellness to their lives. I don’t ever regret my yoga practice, I have been deeply honored to practice with amazing people and I’ve formed solid, life long friendships thanks to the wonderful community. It has changed me in ways I can’t even begin to express. I know it’s good for me, the same way a glass of wine or two is good for me, or the way experimenting with drugs can forever expand your perspectives, but for someone who struggles with moderation, it’s best I abstain from yoga for the time being.
Maybe I’ll have the courage to walk into a studio again, the way ex-smokers can finally share space with smokers, or alcoholics can eventually attend parties that serve alcohol, but I know if return too soon I’ll likely wind up the angry drunk at the party with a nasty hangover the next day.
Camicia Bennett: Founder of The Well Written Woman, Florida Native and cerebral creature, she loves her husband, yoga, red wine, potty humor, swearing superfluously and putting hats on her dog. If given her druthers she’d be surfing the web and writing randomness from someplace sunny and tropical whilst sipping her favorite vino. Oh wait, that’s exactly what she does.You can find her randomly sharing her own brand of slightly pretentious propaganda at her personal blog.