Your yoga teacher is mentally ill

“You will ultimately have to let go of all your self-images to be free.” – Christopher Wallis

Yesterday, I went for a run, and when I arrived back to my apartment my hands, arms, and legs began to shake. Exercise-induced anxiety is what they call it. Supposedly, it’s fairly common. We over (or under) breathe, the body produces adrenaline and begins to shake. No big deal, right? Even when you rationally know, “Oh, this is just a body chemistry thing, and I’ll be okay in a few minutes.” Your body starts telling you, “You are trapped. There is no escape.” Not only do you think these things, you FEEL them on a visceral level.

It’s hard to talk about anxiety. It’s super hard to talk about as a yoga teacher because there is this idea that we are supposed to have this shit figured out. We get up every morning and chant, sweat, or sit and that is supposed to fix everything.

I’m also debating the intelligence of this post when in exactly two weeks I’m teaching a “Yoga for Mental Well-Being” workshop. It’s had me thinking a lot about whether I am the person who can sit in front of a group of people and accurately portray or exemplify mental wellness. Is that even my job?

I thought when I went to yoga teacher training, I was going to get some elite, magical superpowers in mental health. I was going to be serene and float around on a cloud of lotuses.  Don’t get me wrong, it was life-changing in the best way possible, but it didn’t change me in the way I thought it was supposed to.  Instead of becoming something different, I started questioning what I thought I should be.

I thought I was supposed to be a person who is never knocked off balance. Someone who doesn’t let an unexpected occurrence break their stride. Someone who never allows criticism to change them. My definition of mental health was to be an unstoppable, always productive, robot of a person that (mostly) never felt sad, scared, or angry.  It was almost sociopathic.  When I visualize my former mental-health ideal, I think: Would I want to be friends with that? Do I really want to be that?

As a yoga teacher, it’s easy to give into that pressure to be this ecstatic, able-bodied, inspiration machine. Tons of people have built careers around selling an image of perfection, and then there’s me…having a panic attack for an unknown reason, staying indoors all day, and eating takeout because it’s all I can muster to do for myself. The first image seems a bit more hopeful right? What kale smoothie do I have to drink to get that bikini-body, beach lounging, abundance attracting life?

Yoga isn’t the eraser of “all things messed up” about you. Yoga is the surrender of the grasp we have on our narratives. I had a story about a mental health ideal, that by in large was very mentally unhealthy.  It’s a narrative that still grips me a times, but I have these other experiences that begin to help me loosen that grip.   In the TIMBo program, I’ve sat across from so many women as they shared their deepest pains and listened to mine, and we felt better people and more connected for it.  Every time that happened, my grip loosened on my mental health ideal.

I used to believe that having any anxiety meant that yoga wasn’t working or that I wasn’t good at yoga, but I know from practicing over the past several years, that in spite of the occasional panic attack I have become calmer, more kinder, and more resilient.  Yoga did and still does work, but not in the ways I expected.  For me, mental health has become more about my relationship with myself and my symptoms rather than my outside projection of my mental state.  It means saying no to a lot of things I would normally say yes to.  It means being more okay with sitting at home alone if I need; it also means believing in my resilience enough to show up when I’m feeling like a hot mess.  It also means sharing more honestly about myself, not holding myself up to a ridiculous standard, and doing a hell of a lot more listening and feeling.  What I love about that is that those are accessible skills that anyone can learn regardless of their personal history.  It also leaves you room to define your own image of mental well-being that’s as diverse and flexible as it needs to be.

If you are looking to change your own definitions of Mental Health, join me on Nov. 19th at Bee Well Yoga in Rogers, AR for Yoga for Mental Well-Being.