I’m learning to recognize and acknowledge my symptoms of anxiety more quickly these days. What my doctor said to me a couple months ago has really stuck with me: “Let’s not wait until these symptoms turn into full blown panic attacks.”
I tend to be an extreme person: black / white, all / nothing. I loved yoga so much it was all I would do and I turned it into my career. I loved animals so much that at 10 years old, I refused to eat them anymore. I love oversized, cozy sweaters so much that I accidentally have doubles (or triples) of the same ones.
In a similar vein of thinking, I figured as long as I wasn’t having full blown panic attacks it meant that everything was fine. There wasn’t anything for me to look deeply into. Being a parent of young children makes it really easy to live without analyzing yourself because life is busy and always at least a little chaotic.
Yesterday, I became aware of pressure on my chest. I started to go into my habitual catastrophic thinking: “Is something wrong with my heart? Am I going into heart failure?” But I recently had an echocardiogram which my doctor had ordered when I went to see him about my heart palpitations. The echocardiogram had confirmed that there was nothing mechanically wrong with my heart. Also, the pressure I was feeling yesterday had been to the right of my heart. I was thankfully able to catch my catastrophic thinking and avoid going into a doom spiral.
I discounted the pressure being a physical health issue and opened to the possibility that this could be my dear friend Anxiety popping up to alert me of something that wasn’t in my conscious awareness. I ran through a few potential thoughts of what might be making me feel anxious, but nothing felt quite right. So I thought, “Okay, maybe there is something that wants to come up to the surface. I am open to understanding what this is.”
I felt called to do a full yoga practice with my mentor Ally. Although I have started exercising more regularly over the last few months, my focus has been on efficiency. Namely: how much of this postpartum fat can I burn? I had been feeling that only doing yoga was not effective use of my time. I had even been skipping Savasana, something I never would have done before and would teach the importance of in my classes. There were always some students who would quietly roll up their mats and dart out of class as Savasana was starting and I would think to myself, “Tsk, tsk, they’re missing the best part, the glue that pulls together your work on the mat with the rest of your life.”
The thought of doing a one-hour class with Ally came through very clearly. As soon as I put the baby down, I opened up Ally’s online platform, chose a class which seemed to be pulling me in, and unrolled my mat.
Within seconds of sitting with Ally, I felt a homecoming. I felt ease. I felt like I was being carried. I started feeling chills roll through my body, like energy was sparking to life.
Ally is a brilliant teacher which is why people all over the world practice with her. She has a way of teaching that feels like you’re just chatting with her over a cup of tea, while she imparts deep wisdom using normal language and makes you work physically hard in the process without even realizing that you are. I remember my early days of taking her class in Santa Monica when I would often email her the next morning, simply with the word: OWWW!, usually referencing the sore abs I had woken up to.
What I find profoundly powerful in her teaching is the cadence with which she speaks. It just feels exactly right. Not too fast, not too slow. The flow of her words match the flow of the poses. I feel like I am poetry in motion when I follow her guidance.
I learned from Ally a technique I used in my own teaching, where you use a little Sanskrit but not too much. It feels like a connection to the origins of the yoga poses without being a distraction to people who have no idea what the words mean. A dipping into the source and a display of respect, without being showy or alienating.
This isn’t something I have thought of in a long while because I have not taught in a couple years. I haven’t heard my own voice speaking the Sanskrit names of poses because when I move through my self-practice, it is simply my body moving; my mind isn't naming the poses with language.
Listening to Ally, it was as if my body heard the words first. The soothing lyricism of Sanskrit that had once been such a regular part of my life.
“Lower down to Chaturanga. Inhale Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. Exhale Adho Mukha Svanasana.”
It felt like my whole body was exhaling. I was lulled into the trance of the practice.
“At the bottom of the exhale, step or float forward. Inhaling Ardha Uttanasana. Exhaling Uttanasana.”
I felt a deep familiarity to being in my body. My body knew what her next words would be before she said them and there was an anticipation of being called back to this knowing, to this ritual that defined my life for so many years.
“Lengthen and rise to Urdhva Hastasana. Release your arms back to Tadasana.”
I started crying.
There were many reasons I decided to take a break from teaching in the Fall of 2019. I had been teaching for 15 years, which is not a lifetime but is a fairly extensive period. My son was starting Kindergarten which meant I would have six whole hours to myself - the longest, consistent chunk of time I ever had since he was born. It would have made logistical sense to have picked up more classes during this time but I felt called to do the opposite.
At that time, there were a few reasons I had been feeling like I needed a break from teaching.
Firstly, the role of social media. I hated feeling like I had to market myself through social media. Social media didn’t really exist when I initially started teaching in the early 2000s. I think maybe Myspace had been around? I could never get on board with things like taking photos of your class while they were in Savasana, posing selfie-style, winking while expressing “shhh!” and throwing a peace sign or the Jnana mudra. I could appreciate that that image was interesting and Like-able, but I could not bring myself to do it. Even as I traveled the world with Nike, I struggled to post about it. I had such an inner resistance. The most I would do was post an image that was given to me from an event or shoot I had been in. I watched my colleagues both in the Nike world and in the yoga world increase their number of followers and craft beautiful profiles. I felt like a weird alien in not being able to do the same.
Secondly, as I worked to understand my postpartum depression and mental health in general, I felt limited by my teaching vocabulary. Yoga, of course, is all about the yoking of body and mind. It should be the perfect place to talk about both. But I couldn’t find a way to do it without feeling like I was just borrowing from the growing trend of mental health chatter. I noticed more people were dropping terms like anxiety, depression, and mental hygiene, but it often felt like lip service. I think perhaps I just wasn’t ready to incorporate what I was learning into my yoga teaching.
Thirdly and most poignantly, I was terrified of my anxiety and panic, which often attacked me while I was on my mat.
My son was about a year and a half when I first started experiencing panic attacks. The first big one I remember was when we went out into our first New York City snowstorm. We had only made it about a block from our building when I felt a gust of snowy wind and instantly had a vision of cars losing control on the slippery road and driving into us. Panic took over as I shrieked to my husband, “No! I’m going back! I’m taking Ryker back! This is not safe!”
There were other people strolling by who could hear and see me freaking out but I didn’t, couldn’t care. I turned the stroller around and hurried home, pushing through the packed snow with difficulty.
I don’t remember what my husband said but he didn’t follow. We had been on our way to the coffeeshop just a few blocks away, so I figured he was going to keep calm and carry on (he is British, after all). As soon as I got Ryker back inside, I held him tight and stood at the window trying to catch a glimpse of my husband. I was filled with dread and fear but I also saw plenty of other people milling about. I wondered why nobody else was fleeing for their lives.
About twenty minutes later, my husband casually returned home holding coffees.
“The coffeeshop was open?” I asked.
“Of course it was. It was packed inside.”
“Really? Not with families, though, right?” I was trying to rationalize that other families surely would have kept their children indoors and out of snowy danger.
“It was pretty much all families. Babies in strollers. The snow’s beautiful.”
I was in disbelief. Was I the only person scared of this pretty snowstorm?
I was plagued by panic attacks. At the dentist. At the acupuncturist. In the middle of the night. But it was when they started while I was on my yoga mat that I got really scared. My yoga mat. My happy place, my safe place.
I would be in Eagle Pose and suddenly feel like I was trapped and needed to escape.
I would put my head down in Child’s Pose and brace for the ceiling and walls to crush me.
I would lay down in Savasana and feel like I was going to drown.
The panic always felt like it came with zero warning. I went from feeling fine to feeling absolutely overwhelmed with fear. It felt like my entire body was filling up with fear. At first, I was able to push through. I squashed and sat firmly on what I was feeling until the class was over, my shame winning over my fear and panic.
Eventually, I could no longer ignore it. I would recognize the feeling of panic and immediately feel like I was going to jump out of my skin. I felt like there definitely was a tiger about to chase me down and I had to run for my life. I felt like I could not breathe.
Every time this happened on the mat, I felt particularly demoralized, sad, and drained. Who was I if I was running scared from my yoga practice? How would I ever feel safe again if panic could overtake me while I was on my mat?
As is typical with panic attacks, I developed agoraphobia: fear of places and situations that might cause panic. I stopped going to the dentist and to acupuncture for a good year or so and I never returned to those particular offices.
It was much trickier with yoga. I couldn’t suddenly avoid studios as I was still teaching. Thankfully, I somehow never experienced panic attacks while I was teaching. I think this might be because my focus when I’m teaching is on the students and not on myself. I also couldn’t just stop taking classes altogether as it’s always been important to me to be a part of the greater yoga community and to always keep learning from other teachers.
I made accommodations to minimize the risk of an attack: I selected quieter classes that would not be as crowded. I stuck with teachers that I felt safe with, whether they were friends or just had that warm and nurturing energy. If I felt particularly shaky on a given morning, I would speak to the teacher ahead of class. I would not go into detail, but I would say something along the lines of, “I’m feeling a little dizzy today but I wanted to try to take class. I’m going to set up by the door and if I don’t feel well, I’ll quietly leave. I just wanted to let you know what’s going on.” Sometimes, depending on how frequently I had taken the teacher’s class, I would be more specific, “I get claustrophobic sometimes so I may just need to pop out to get some air.”
On one of these mornings, I had set up near the door and I had spoken with the teacher. Within minutes, I felt the panic start to bubble up and I quickly and quietly gathered my things and left. The front desk receptionist was sitting right there, just outside the studio door. I considered the excuses I could give to her, excuses I had used in the past to cover up my shame. “My kid’s school called, I have to go pick him up!” was an easy and believable one.
But for some reason, I felt compelled to try something different that morning: I told her the truth.
I wrote about this on Medium, ending with the notion that my yoga practice that day had been to walk out of my yoga practice. “I made a powerful decision today. To not pretend like everything was fine. To act in alignment with my truth. I am curious to see what happens if I continue to practice living like this. Striving for actual harmony and balance between mind and body. This is my yoga.”
This was an incredibly painful chapter to move through. Yoga had been my everything - my joy, my passion, where I felt creative, alive, and confident. I had already had my first break with my practice after having my first baby. It took a long while for my body to heal after the traumatic emergency c-section that brought him into the world. I don’t think I will ever forget the shocking feeling of pain searing through my body when I first stepped back onto my mat at 7 weeks postpartum. How did basic poses like Down Dog and Supine Spinal Twist hurt so much? I curled myself into a fetal position and cried, from both the physical and emotional pain of it all.
But I somehow found my way back to my practice and to my teaching. By the time Ryker was 4 months old, I was traveling with Nike again. For the most part, I looked like my pre-pregnancy self. I now know it took a lot of force to get there: restrictive eating, overexercising, and taking zero account of my mental health.
When my panic attacks got to me on my mat, it was another break with my practice. The first break had been more of a physical, bodily one. I had to figure out my new, postpartum body. This second break asked me to go deeper, into my emotions and my psychology. I had to understand where my panic attacks were coming from, why they were triggered, and how to make peace with them.
I have not had a panic attack in years, even though we have been living through a pandemic and I had my second baby during a pandemic. There’s a funny thing with people who have panic and anxiety disorders, though… we may freak out over nonexistent, imagined dangers but we can be extremely calm and efficient during a crisis. It’s like our adrenaline has been super prepared for the moment and there’s almost a relief in being needed.
I did not experience postpartum depression this time around. I don’t know exactly why and I haven’t wanted to question it. I think part of it has to do with having eaten enough so I could produce milk to feed the baby, not putting pressure on myself to do much beyond looking after my family, and generally feeling more sure of myself since I am no longer a first time mom.
I have, however, definitely had moments of anxiety and found myself caught in traumatized thinking patterns, like I wrote about here. I think it’s something I will always have to be aware of. And what I didn’t realize until I was taking Ally’s class yesterday was that I have been avoiding my practice for fear of being pulled back into my panic.
My memories of panic on the mat are crystal clear and viscerally painful - feeling like I couldn’t breathe in Child’s Pose or be remotely still in Savasana, feeling the need to run for my life and out of my skin, the skin that held a body that had been through so much trauma and physical pain - and also - a body that is always moving through deep healing.
As I was writing down my realizations last night, I instinctively sat up a little straighter and stretched my upper body. “Crack!” went my sternum. I took a deep breath and smiled to myself. I remembered that my sternum used to crack all the time in my early yoga years. When I had asked Ally about it, she had told me, “I think that’s your heart opening. Your heart chakra sits behind the sternum.”
Over the years, I’ve had many students who have had to take breaks from their practice due to various reasons such as injury, pregnancy, work, or travel. These breaks feel frustrating and there is a fear that you will lose the progress you’ve worked so hard on and a worry that your body will weaken and tighten. I would say to these students, “Your practice will always be waiting for you when you are ready to return.”
Ally’s class last night ended with a full Savasana. Oftentimes in these virtual classes, the class ends at the start of Savasana, with the encouragement to rest for as long as you can. But in this particular class, Ally talked us through and out of Savasana. It was the first real Savasana I had done in awhile. I felt safe, cocooned. I felt the familiar, sweet reverberations of having done the yoga work. It occurred to me that my body has held the imprints of yoga poses long before I’d had panic attacks. I was filled with gratitude and relief that it was all still there, waiting for me to come home.