Marisa had been regularly attending my yoga classes for a few weeks before I realized how committed she was to the practice. A timid woman in her late thirties with scattered energy and youthful dimples; she camped out in the back corner of the studio. Her initial efforts were naturally awkward. She was just beginning to cultivate the ability to interpret instruction into her body, and during Savasana her eyes were often wide open. But she was giving it her all and finally feeling hope for relief from the constant anxiety that had swallowed up her daily life. Months later I learned her sad story.
After the unexpected death of her boyfriend two years earlier, Marisa’s life as she knew it was shattered. “For the first year after his death, I didn’t feel much of anything—I was just numb and grieving. But as I began to face the major changes in my life, including moving out of the house we shared, I became really anxious about everything. I couldn’t plan anything without obsessing over each step, imagining every issue that might arise. If I went away for the weekend, I obsessed over what would happen if the house got broken into—if the cat somehow got out, the water heater burst, if a package was delivered and left at my front door indicating that no one was home—it went on and on.”
Marisa displayed symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). From the American Psychiatric Association: “People with generalized anxiety disorder have severe tension that interferes with daily functioning. They worry constantly and feel helpless to control these worries. Often they fixate on job responsibilities, family health, or minor matters such as chores, car repairs, or appointments. They may have problems sleeping, muscle aches, tension, and feel shaky, weak and headachey. People with GAD can be irritable and have problems concentrating and working effectively. Efforts to relax can exacerbate anxiety. Relaxation Induced Anxiety happens when techniques such as meditation or Savasana paradoxically trigger the fight-or-flight Sympathetic response, and cause even more stress to flood the body.
Common treatments for GAD are cognitive behavioral therapy and anti-anxiety medications. As Marisa’s tension grew, her therapist felt she needed a new level of medical attention. “After the second anniversary of my boyfriend’s death passed, my therapist wanted to refer me to a medical doctor for an evaluation, but the thought of that sent me into an anxious tailspin. She suggested that I try yoga before moving forward with a referral. I think the anxiety of having to take medication beat out the anxiety of trying something new, and that’s how I ended up in yoga.”
For students with GAD, simply lying down and being told to “relax and breathe” can trigger Relaxation-Induced Anxiety. Deepening the breath is one of the best ways to calm the nervous system. Marisa notes: “What’s helped me a lot are the things that actually have nothing to do with asanas. I’m a pretty shallow breather. Now that I have a regular yoga practice, I find myself automatically breathing more deeply in stressful situations.”
You can help students like Marisa by adding physical movement to pranayama. This will keep the brain busy and facilitate deeper breathing. Try YogaTuneUp® BridgeLifts with especially anxious students. They get the benefits of fuller breath, without the stress of having to lie still.
Marisa’s practice became strong, graceful and refined. Her confidence clearly grew. She’d swapped doughnuts for yoga, which was evident by her changed shape. She had become friendly with many of the regulars in class. Although she never left that back corner, her mischievous streak flared and from time-to-time she’d delight the room by cracking a joke at my expense. Although Savasana had been an especially anxiety-provoking asana (“it’s a vulnerable position, thoughts rush in and swirl around, and it’s called ‘corpse’ pose, for Christ’s sake!”), she made great progress one Sunday afternoon by allowing herself to be transported into a completely blissful state during one of my Yoga Tune Up® classes that culminated in a 25-minute Yoga Nidra (yogi sleep).
It's humbling as a teacher when I find out about the serious issues students process in my classes. I am grateful for my Yoga Tune Up® training, which has given me more techniques to work with students like Marisa, and I’m grateful to Marisa, for trusting me to play the role of the teacher during her brave transition:
“I’ve been practicing three to five times a week for the past year and a half and I can’t even fathom worrying about some of the things that used to send my thoughts into a downward spiral. I’m still aware of what I’ve been through every day, but I’m so much calmer and more at peace now. Yoga has given me permission to be who I am rather than who I think I should be.”
About the Author
Ariel Kiley is an avid yoga practitioner and former marathon runner living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a licensed Integrated Yoga Tune Up® teacher. Ariel completed her 200-hour teacher training through YogaWorks. She is also a certified Yoga for Runners specialist with Toronto Yoga for Runners master Christine Feldstead and graduate of the Laughing Lotus 300 hour advanced teacher training. Ariel is a prolific writer. Her first book, co-written with best friend Simone Kornfeld entitled "Smitten: The Way of the Brilliant Flirt" will be released by Chronicle in 2013 (www.smittenbook.com). Ariel’s classes emphasize precise physical alignment, an openhearted attitude and absolute self-acceptance. Plus laughter. Always laughter. Her primary intention as an instructor is to help each student merge with the truest teacher possible – the unfailing guide within. www.arielkileyyoga