Many academics start practicing yoga for the stress relief - myself included. The dance lessons and gymnastics I took growing up meant I cultivated flexibility that made it (relatively) easy for me to contort myself into all those uncomfortable-looking poses you see in yoga classes. It felt good that my body could move into poses with ease, and the competitive yoga environment in New York City helped feed this part of my practice. I lived for affirmations from teachers, for taking the inversion, for being able to hold that arm balance just a breath longer than the person next to me in class. And the person I was in most competition with? Myself.
At that time in my life, anxiety was my main motivator. I used to have a cartoon from The New Yorker on my fridge that read: “I don’t need an alarm clock; anxiety is my alarm.” And that was me: anxiety got me out of bed most mornings. And then it pushed me to do well (read: be perfect!) in my career, in grad school, in the yoga classroom, and well, everywhere. For years.
It wasn’t until I was several years into a regular practice that I began to realize that I had been practicing yoga with the idea that I liked the “relief” it was supposed to provide, but the constant pressure that I was putting on myself to perform well in the other areas of my life wasn’t leaving when I stepped onto my mat. The theory of yogic calm was remaining just that: a theory.
Slowly, I stopped looking around in class, stopped pushing myself to the more difficult version of the asana, and started being present. When my anxiety to perform well got the best of me in class - Take the bind! Take the bind! - I would challenge myself to come back to the present moment and breathe.
That was HARD! My anxiety wanted to take the bind! It wanted to go for the forearm stand! And what about eka pada koundinyasana?
With practice, I started to realize that I didn’t have to completely stop challenging myself in class (besides, I love a good eka pada koundinyasana!), I just needed to be mindful. For me, this means listening to my body as well as my mind, and staying with my breath as it grounds me. Some days I need the thrill of pushing myself, of knowing that I can hold the pose for one more breath, knowing I can do that inversion. And other days the challenge is for me to rest in downward facing dog or a child’s pose.
Doing these things allowed the calm of yoga to move into my practice, balancing the anxiety used to push me. And slowly, the mindfulness in my yoga practice started to follow me off the mat, helping me manage my anxiety in other areas of my life.
I don’t want to paint too simplistic a picture here - other things helped me manage anxiety, including: therapy, a regular meditation practice, cutting back on coffee, and commiserating with friends who also struggle with anxiety. But what really made a difference was practice: that I kept doing all of those things, again and again.
I wrote an earlier version of this piece before I started my current full-time job as a program director at a large public research university in the Northeast. Looking back on the past academic year - especially from the relative quiet of July - I am realizing that the lessons I had been cultivating on the mat did not follow me into the workplace on a daily basis. But I also know that, even when mindfulness slips away, I can always come back to it.
Those with a regular yoga practice have no doubt been in a class where the teacher talks about creating “muscle memory” to help you get into particular asanas. These repetitive actions can help us to create other kinds of patterns as well. As I used to tell my yoga students, however, this will not happen overnight. We cannot decide to be less anxious (or more motivated, or less angry, or more conscious) and then - boom! - we are. It takes practice. But with that practice, slowly but surely, new patterns will emerge. As we head into the new academic year, I will be keeping this in mind.
After all, you know what wakes me up most mornings nowadays? My alarm clock.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article appeared on the blog for Free School Yoga, a community-based yoga center in Brooklyn, New York, co-founded by the author.
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