A few years ago, I developed a kind of lump in my throat that was preventing me from swallowing and digesting food. Everything I ate was literally coming right back up. I googled it (of course) and determined that I had some form of acid reflux. Eventually, after many weeks of being unable to keep down much food at all, I got an appointment with a gastroenterologist. I didn’t spend long in his office. He examined me briefly and told me he would schedule a gastroscopy just to be safe but that 90% of the time, when he sees this in patients, it’s actually due to stress and that it was not likely that there was anything physically wrong with me.
My immediate response was: “WHAAAATTT??? I’M NOT STRESSED!!!”
Can you see the contradiction here?
I walked out of his office screaming and crying to my husband, “I’m not stressed, I’m fine! How can he say that it’s all just in my head?” I did not see that the very fact that I was screaming and crying was a signal that perhaps I wasn’t feeling as “fine” as I thought. I couldn’t accept that stress would actually cause physical symptoms like this.
I had interpreted the doctor’s response as an accusation that I was just making it up, like some crazy person, but what he was really saying was that my feelings of stress and anxiety were manifesting in a physical way and that there was likely nothing for him to “fix” or “cure” because these very real physical symptoms were caused by my psychological and emotional state.
It took me a long time to understand all this. As it turns out, I was completely out of touch with how I was feeling on a daily basis, so much so that my body was then physically trying to signal to me that something was wrong.
As explained in the book The Mindful Way Through Depression, “our bodies function as highly sensitive emotion detectors. They are giving us moment-to-moment readouts of our emotional state.” But how often do we pay attention? And even if we do pay attention, how often do we follow or trust what our body is trying to tell us?
So many of us live with this mentality that we should just “push through the pain” or ignore our feelings in the interest of achieving our goals. In my case, I had two very significant goals in my daily life: to be successful and well respected in my career and to have a strong, lean looking body. I spent the vast majority of my daily hours working on one of these two things and I was pretty strict about it. I was counting literally every calorie of every morsel of food that I would put into my mouth; while at the office I was determined to be the most efficient, hardworking, and dedicated employee possible, then as soon as I was done my work for the day, I would push myself through whatever long, grueling workout was necessary to burn off the extra calories I had consumed. This was my daily routine. Relaxing activities like watching a movie were allowed only if I had met all my daily objectives. Indulging in desserts or “junk foods” of any kind were only acceptable if I had completed my workout and left enough room in my calorie count that day. In general, I was moving through life at a very fast pace all day, every day and I paid little attention to how I was feeling physically or emotionally. My rationale was that if I hit all these goals then I would feel happy. So while the end game was to achieve happiness, I wasn’t giving much consideration to how I felt during the process of getting there.
After my breakdown outside of the doctor’s office, I knew I needed to slow down and FEEL more but I found it hard to actually put this into practice. To be honest, I wasn’t really ready to let go of a lot of my daily habits because, to a certain extent, they were working for me. My eating and exercise habits allowed me to maintain the body that I desired and my work habits resulted in a career that I was very proud of. I was afraid to face the fact that some of these rules and routines were no longer serving me. Where would I be without them? What would happen to my body or my career if I stopped working so hard at them?
I wasn’t yet ready to make changes at the office or to stop my obsessive calorie counting (even after my gastroscopy turned out to be negative, as predicted), but I did decide to experiment with this practice of slowing down and feeling more in the context of my exercise routine. So I traded some of my more high intensity workouts for more yoga classes with the hope that it would help diminish my stress levels but I had trouble recognizing and dropping my old habits of pushing and going “full force”. I was always choosing the “power yoga” class and my focus was mainly on achieving certain “advanced” poses like handstands or arm balances.
As Tara Stiles explains in her book Make Your Own Rules Diet, “people often start practicing yoga because they want to feel better and be less stressed, more connected with themselves, healthier or stronger. But soon they fall into the trap of desperately wanting to nail a pose…There is nothing terribly wrong with attempting fun yoga poses and even being interested in working up to doing a crazy pose like a handstand, but it’s important not to fall into the trap of chasing poses. They are just poses. The yoga is in feeling your way into you, and the poses are simply something to do…[by] practicing feeling into yourself, you’ll have achieved something much greater than yoga poses…”
Tara’s book made a huge impact on me. I started going less and less frequently to my regular yoga studio. There seemed to be something about that very hot room, lined with mirrors, that was bringing out the competitive side of me. I downloaded a bunch of Tara’s strala yoga videos and I started to focus more on how I was feeling before, during and after my strala practice.
In a strala yoga class we are encouraged to stay really easygoing in our bodies, to explore in and around poses and to let go of any moments where we feel tension or discomfort. Tara says things in her videos that felt revolutionary to me like “if this doesn’t feel good, don’t do it, who cares” and “you don’t have to touch your toes, it really doesn’t matter”. I also really appreciated the constant and fluid movement of the strala sequences. We never held any poses for longer than a few seconds and I think this continuous movement is what forces us to let go of these goals of achieving “advanced postures” – there is simply no time or need to worry about what we look like or if we are in the “full expression” of a pose because the poses are really not the focus of a strala class, they are simply used as checkpoints to move the body from one place to the next. It actually reminded me a lot of dancing. I forgot how enjoyable it could be to just move my body for the fun of it. I used to love to dance! When I was a kid I was always involved in dance classes, but somehow I lost that ability to be creative and free with my body and I forgot about the joy I felt from just simply moving. As we get older we often turn our efforts to “losing weight” and “looking good”. We focus on numeric results (ie: calories burned, inches lost, pounds down, etc…) and we care little about how we feel during the process of achieving these results. In my strala practice I was rediscovering how to move my body in a way that felt good and natural and easy. I was getting in touch with how I felt in the present moment and I gave myself permission to do only what felt good.
This resulted in me feeling more in touch with my emotional state on a daily basis – my yoga practice was starting to permeate into every aspect of my life and I became better at recognizing when I was feeling stressed and tense. It became clear to me that my work environment was a big trigger of these negative feelings. But changing my yoga practice was a lot simpler than changing careers. All this feeling good on my yoga mat was great but what was I supposed to do with all these bad feelings that had now become so obvious?
I felt stuck, trapped, and forced to continue working a job that increased my stress levels. I honestly didn’t see how I could get out of it. Besides all the financial challenges I would face if I were to leave my job, I also felt defined by my career – it gave me a sense of purpose and value. Yoga was an amazing tool to get in touch with my feelings but how could it help me beyond that? I felt like I had reached a kind of block in my emotional progress, which eventually spiraled into a depression. Yoga is a fantastic tool to improve both physical and mental health but when I was lying in bed, numb, unable to move and uninterested in anything or anyone around me, my yoga practice seemed completely useless. Slowing down and feeling more is an important first step on the road to improved mental health but what was I supposed to do with all the negative feelings that came up? The solution here took a lot more practice so we’ll get into more details on it next time. For now I leave you with one of the most honest and genuine quotes that I’ve ever heard from a yoga teacher, one that I really appreciated when I was deep into my depression and feeling a little let down by this magical yoga practice that was supposed to improve my life: “It’s not the yoga that heals you, it’s you that heals you.” – Tara Stiles
Part 2: Practice acceptance is coming at you soon!
References from this post:
The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn
I must admit I was very skeptical when I read the title of this book. As someone who suffers from clinical depression, I felt a bit affronted by the term “chronic unhappiness” and I don’t necessarily believe that everyone can fully “free” or “cure” themselves of a mental illness. But I must say that this book did have some wonderful insights which I will cover more in my next blog post and a lot of the mindfulness based exercises that they refer to are techniques that I have practiced on my yoga mat and in therapy.
Make Your Own Rules Diet by Tara Stiles
This book is really not a diet book at all! It made a huge impact on almost every aspect of my life and it’s how my love for strala yoga came to be. I highly recommend to anyone who may feel stuck or disconnected by some of their daily routines and practices.