My mom and I started going to the Okemos Yoga State studio in February. I’ll be honest–I was incredibly skeptical. I’d never found an exercise routine that I could stick to for more than a few weeks, and I was absolutely terrified of attending a class…meaning I would have to work out…in public…with other people. Especially because I’m not nearly as flexible as I was when I was younger, I was worried that I would stick out like a sore, unflexible thumb.
I’ve struggled with generalized anxiety for most of my young adult life, and it’s been difficult to find a way to maintain balance. Especially going into my final semester of undergrad, yoga came at a good time–when my focus was divided between classes, two jobs, multiple clubs, and graduating, making time for a yoga class forced me back into my own schedule. It was often difficult to justify taking 75 minutes out of my Wednesday night to exercise and practice self-care, but as we continued to attend class I noticed a significant change in how I felt as I went through the day.
I know it sounds obvious, but adding exercise to my routine made me feel healthier. And I’m not just talking about the sweating-off-those-extra-cookies kind of way–I also mean in a fewer-panic-attacks, release-from-the-crushing-pressure-of-stress, self-acceptance-and-love kind of way. As in, the breath we spent so much time deepening on the mat started to bring balance to my life off the mat. As in, my relationship with anxiety was reshaping from one of fear and frustration to one where I could listen to my mind’s anxious stories, then let them go and recenter to a place that served me. For the first time since probably before high school (or even middle school), I was finding balance.
I sound like a walking (typing) yoga commercial–which I guess I kind of am–but many of you may have no idea how good it feels to wake up in the morning without a film of panic distorting your mind…or to experience stress without tensing into a panic attack…or to feel frustration or emotional duress without sinking into it like a dinosaur in a tar pit. Sure, it’s been really exciting to feel my arm muscles strengthen or see my butt firm up (I know Boyfriend really enjoys that particular side effect), but the gift of peace that Yoga State has given me is so much more important.
Which brings me to my next point. Remember how I said I’d always struggled to find an exercise regimen that worked for me? Well, as many of you already know, I’ve struggled to maintain a positive relationship with my body and health for most of my young womanhood. Because many people I know who exercise consistently do so to look a certain way or fulfill a certain health goal, in the past when I wasn’t looking the certain way or fulfilling the certain goals I set, I gave up. The motivating factor that got me into the Yoga State studio wasn’t body image or “fit-spiration”; I was motivated to begin yoga because I reached a point in my life where I knew I desperately needed to care for myself, or risk the complete shutdown of mind, body, and soul at the hands of uncontrolled anxiety.
I have stuck with yoga because it’s a practice that pays attention to the multifaceted nature by which we experience life. This attention to the holistic nature of the human lived experience is something I’ve found as relatively unique to Yoga State (when compared to other Western yoga practices)–while most studios get the sweaty physical workout part right, fewer pay attention to the spiritual tradition from which yoga comes. The millennia-old practice of uniting body, mind, spirit, soul, breath, and everything else in between is a lot more than (as one of our favorite instructors says) “learning to touch your toes.”
Because the focus is on feeling more connected with yourself and the energy around you, I don’t feel the need to compete with others in the room for the best Half Moon pose or Warrior Two stance. When I walk into the studio (I’m now up to four days of yoga a week, and one of spinning because some hardcore cardio is something I actually really enjoy), I’m able to let go of the frustrations of my day and focus on reconnecting. Like I said, it’s really awesome to feel the physical strength that comes with nailing your first full side plank (and getting a hug from your instructor because he’s so proud), but it’s even better to feel more connected with yourself and the world around you–especially when one of the hallmark symptoms of your anxiety has been depersonalization and a loss of grip on reality.
I still experience anxiety, but the number of instances that are debilitating or driven to panic are much fewer and further between. Through yoga, I’ve gained the strength not only to touch my toes, but to remain in touch with myself, my spirit, and the spirit of others. I thank Yoga State for giving me an environment in which to do this while working against the pitfalls of cultural appropriation–I am able to participate in this rich tradition of meditation and personal journey while respecting its roots and cultural context. It is so sad to think about the day that I will move away from East Lansing and begin the hunt for a studio that gives me this same community and benefit, but I know that no matter how long I am away, Yoga State will always be here to welcome me home.
To my instructors and classmates at Yoga State: I thank you for the gift of yoga, and the benefits it has extended into my life. The light in me honors and respects the light in you.