If you’re anything like me, both panic and yoga can lead you to (uncomfortably) focus on the nuances of breathing.
Yes, breathing — that thing we do, day in and day out, often without realizing it.
But after my first panic attack in college, I began to realize that I was breathing — constantly. The awareness was neverending and disturbing. I struggled with the following thoughts: What if I accidentally held my breath without realizing it? Would my body’s physiology wake up and kick-start my breathing again? Is it possible to just stop breathing, randomly, and not start again?
WHENEVER I BREATHE OUT, YOU’RE BREATHING IN
Thoughts like this became…well, uncomfortable, to say the least.
I wanted to go back to the way I’d breathed pre-panic: without awareness. I just wanted my autonomic nervous system to do its thing, to keep me alive via breathing, without making me think about it day in and day out. I just didn’t want the burden of having to notice my breath any longer.
And then I walk into my yoga class.
It was held in the basement of the college gymnasium, and the air in our mirror-walled room smelled like a cross between mildew and a staph infection.
Not exactly the most “zen” place to practice yoga, I thought.
Our instructor taught us some basic poses (like cat, cow, and downward dog) that my not-awesomely-flexible body could actually hold with ease. Mirroring my instructor’s body, limb by limb and movement by movement, wasn’t the difficult part.
It was the way she asked us to breathe. It was the way she asked us to — gasp — focus on our breath.
She asked us to breathe out when my body was craving a gulp of air. She asked us to inhale for the duration of a pose, which made me lightheaded.
It just didn’t feel right. None of it felt good. I felt like I was hurting my body, somehow, by breathing in a manner inconsistent with its own bidding.
And what’s worse is that the class caused me to focus on my breath to an even greater extent than I had been before.
More than once, it made me panic — to the point of leaving class. (I ended up getting a C because of those missed classes, too.)
USING YOGA ON YOUR OWN TERMS
In the years that have passed since I took that yoga class in college, I’ve learned a lot more about breathing. It took me a full two years to learn how to breath diaphragmatically without getting all anxious and air-hungry about it, and I’ve since taught myself enough about the autonomic nervous system to feel fairly confident that I will not stop breathing even when my mind isn’t paying attention to my breathing.
I can now pay attention to my breath when I want to — I don’t feel compelled to do it all the time in order to “make sure” I’m breathing properly. This has come with a great deal of practice.
I’m still very ambivalent about the practice of yoga. On one hand, I really love the way the stretching makes my body feel open and limber and light. I enjoy doing sun salutations. I enjoy stretching the muscles between my ribs. And I really like lying down into child’s pose to stretch out my upper back and ground me into the moment. It’s relaxing.
But I’m fairly certain I won’t be taking any more yoga classes in the future. I’ve learned many of the yoga poses from my college class and from Youtube, and using those poses on my own terms — and to the extent that they cause me comfort, not anxiety — works just fine for me.
Don’t feel as though you have to stick with a particular yoga routine (especially one involving specific breathwork) if it doesn’t feel right for you. Everyone’s body is different, and we are all at different stages in our anxiety treatment.
Avoid the pressure to conform to what works for someone else — and just sink into the stretches that work for you.
Photo: Hey Paul Studios (Flickr)