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“Much of our emotional imbalance is our own creation. A person who is influenced by outside events and sensations can never achieve the inner peace and tranquility. This is because he or she will waste much mental and physical energy in trying to suppress unwanted sensations and to heighten other sensations. This will eventually result in a physical or mental imbalance, and will, in most instances, results in illness.” (Doran, William, 2016, The Eight Limbs of Yoga).
Perhaps being told at a young age that I could not have any treats at Halloween - as I was on a special diet at the age of 10 - is where the seed was planted. Or perhaps it was during my parents’ divorce (age 11) when I had numerous battles within my family and then was separated from my mom and sister at an early age. Maybe that’s where anxiety started. Or, it could be genetic; both of my grandmothers suffered from anxiety.
I grew up being told by friends, friends’ parents, and even family members that I didn’t fit in. I believe this is how my rules and mantras started to grow inside of me. I truly started to believe what everyone seemed to be saying. My maximum weight was 380 lbs by the age of 14. I dropped the weight down to 155 lbs at 15, at which point I was already 6 feet tall. One can only imagine the process to lose that much weight in such a short period of time. Maybe that is where the anxiety began.
Here take some pills
The panic attacks started years later while I was at University. There were times I felt afraid to leave own home for no reason. I experienced a full anxiety attack and ended up in the hospital, where I had the joy of seeing a psychiatrist that didn’t know anything about me but was more than happy to give me drugs. She sent me home with a trial of Paxil and no real understanding of what was wrong except that I could take this pill and be fixed from these “attacks”, healed from my anxiety …
Fitness and health saved me
I love running. I was termed the cardio queen at the gym as I would run and run and run and run. Endorphins just go. I ran so hard after a break up I tripped on the sidewalk, skidded both knees and shoulders, and walked home covered in blood. I was up to about 15K/day at that time. I was pushing too hard. I kept saying to myself, keep running and don’t look back, don’t look back at anything, go forward and run. There was still no self-acceptance. I ran and ran until I got injured.
The first yoga class
How would I live my life without an hour of cardio a day, 10 km minimum? Not being able to run felt like the end of the world. The panic and anxiety set in. What have I done to myself? I couldn’t run after my running injury, so I limped into a yoga studio.
It’s amazing what happened over my first 6 months of yoga. I started to break the cycle of destructive thoughts. I met positive, supportive people. I started to have moments where I was actually happy; small glimpses where I was content with myself. Now this did not happen overnight, but each day and each practice I slowly started to feel better. I was not even sure why I was feeling better – I just was. There were moments in class where I would start bawling and have no idea why. What on earth was going on? I kept going to classes and notice a correlation to me starting to feel happy – and I was not running 10 km 7 days a week. I couldn’t believe it. And now? I’m working towards my own teacher-training certificate. Practicing yoga has been life-changing for me and is a part of my life regularly. When I don’t practice I notice it – suddenly life gets crazy, overwhelming and I feel like I am suffocating.
Introducing the Niyamas
Niyama means "rules" or "laws." These are the rules prescribed for personal observance. Compared with the yamas, the niyamas are more intimate and personal. It is in this area that I am learning about why and how yoga is helping to break apart the seed that was planted in me years ago, and start to feel a sense of freedom and enjoyment in life.
The first niyama is sauca, meaning purity and cleanliness. Sauca has both an inner and an outer aspect. Outer cleanliness means keeping ourselves clean. Inner cleanliness has as much to do with the healthy, free functioning of our bodily organs as with the clarity of our mind. Practicing asanas or pranayama is essential to this inner sauca. Asanas tone the entire body and remove toxins, while pranayama cleanses our lungs, oxygenates our blood and purifies our nerves. (William, 2016, The Eight Limbs of Yoga).
Through yoga it became clear that despite eating well, my mind was toxic. I needed to cleanse my mind of self-hatred, insecurities, and lack of confidence. Yoga broke down this barrier. I am not saying that it is gone, but that yoga helped me realize what I created in my mind and what I was doing to myself mentally. I still work at changing these habits, and each step makes me feel much more content with myself, which has been a lifelong journey.
Another niyama is santosa, modesty and the feeling of being content with what we have. To be at peace within and content with one's lifestyle, finding contentment even while experiencing life’s difficulties for life becomes a process of growth through all kinds of circumstances. We should accept that there is a purpose for everything - yoga calls it karma – and we cultivate contentment 'to accept what happens'. (William, 2016, The Eight Limbs of Yoga).
I started to develop sense of santosa after about 6 months of yoga. It’s really incredible what happens when you actually slow down, breathe, and tell yourself that everything is actually OK in the present moment. Not worrying about what’s next, where to go, when I need to run next. For years I would run away from the pain instead of slowing down to breathe and face some of my own challenges, and bit by bit move on and accept. I’m sure this will be a lifelong process for me; however, I already can feel weight coming off of me.
The next niyama is svadhyaya. Sva means "self', adhyaya means "inquiry" or "examination". Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered svadhyaya. It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, even to the point of welcoming and accepting our limitations. It teaches us to be centered and non-reactive to the dualities, to burn out unwanted and self-destructive tendencies. (William, 2016, The Eight Limbs of Yoga).
This has been one of the hardest, yet most rewarding aspects of yoga. Having suffered from an eating disorder, yoga allowed me to self-reflect and not be so hard on myself. I started to realize that I had created a horrible mantra in my daily living: “You are fat, you have to run 10 km a day.” It was the constant theme in my head. Yoga helped me break this cycle. It will still be an ongoing process but with breath, movement, and meditation I am now able to see what my brain has normalized over the years. My entire body had become like an elastic ball of built-up tension and deep, hidden, packed-away emotion. I carried layers and years of pain in a tight knot that only got tighter physically from over-training and mentally with the over abundance of my own daily rules and self-doubts. My own mantras were killing me. Yoga has helped me lift apart the layers, start to loosen the elastic ball and open up to something that I didn’t even know existed: to accept myself for just being me.
This will be a continual process for me and as my yoga practice begins to change and grow, I can only imagine how much better my quality of life will be going forward. Each day, each breath, each practice teaches me something more about myself. I can say with confidence that yoga planted the seed of self-acceptance inside of me. It helped me take out the old ideas I had as a child and refreshed my mind and body. I am becoming happy with myself and where I am in life; on both good and bad days I know Yoga’s got my back. This will continue to change and evolve for me personally over time, and as a soon-to-be Certified Yoga Instructor, I am honored to be able to help others realize the power that Yoga can have.