How Yoga Helped Me Understand and Battle My Anxiety & Eating Disorder
I’ve used the word ‘battle’ here in relation to Anxiety and Eating Disorders as it kind of suggests a war or struggle of some sort against a relentless evil foe. Think of it as an enemy that freezes its victims (or in this case, rational thoughts) on impact. It’s clever. It uses a great deal of sly trickery and downright nasty deceit to make them think they’re friends. It uses whatever means necessary to come out on top.
Imagine now that these rational, logical thoughts (the ones that KNOW you’re actually early for the train and that despite your premature panic and resistance, you will in fact be hungry for dinner tonight) get slowly beaten down by this army of inaccurate thoughts. Bit by bit, repeated thought by reinforced belief that the train isn’t worth running for anyway – nobody will miss you, they begin to win.
The more battles or thoughts this stream of violent hate, self-harm (because that’s what it is) is allowed to win, the more land it conquers.
That land being your mind. Your body. Your LIFE.
I don’t need statistics at this stage to make people aware that anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other rampant mental illnesses are THINGS. They are as real as the hearty belly-laughs you have with your best friend; they are as ruthless as cancer cells, and they are as damaging and genetically shared through generations as heart disease. Call it disease of the mind, if you will – mental illness is an epidemic of modern society.
Why so, have we been drawn to ancient teachings and practices in order to deal with it? Are there no modern-day cures for a restless, reckless mind, or have we created and developed our world even faster than the mind can function (and the mind works pretty fast), forgetting to place the same importance on making sure we can keep up with it?
Yoga is not just a fancy fitness trend that makes you bendy and toned, and if that’s the sole reason you do it then please, do not call yourself a yogi. I hate overly-outspoken statements such as that, but I feel too strongly about this to continue otherwise.
To clarify; yes, yoga has physical benefits.
It’s also true that a lot of people find yoga through a desire to improve their physical appearance/fitness – not through a need to understand, to be calm or be still.
But yoga for me started at a time when I was not allowed to partake in physical exercise.
I was exposed to it properly for the first time during a course of treatment in a clinic for eating disorders. An eating disorder that I have since come to understand came about as a massive and excessive manifestation of anxiety that fixated itself on food, exercise, weight, the roundness of my cheeks, and various other body parts that needn’t be hated upon. All of my anxiety went there, all of the time. All of my energy, all of my thoughts. All of my life.
It consumed me to the point where my body began consuming itself to make up for lost nutrients (a dark enough metaphor to use but how else do you explain fat and muscle cells disappearing to provide for a weakening body and soul that’s just trying to keep on existing?). All other aspects of my life suffered – relationships, work, everything. Anxiety was winning. Every mealtime, it won again.
As such, I was forbidden to even use the stairs apart from necessary (and often accompanied) trips to the bathroom, where no doors locked, no razor blades were permitted, and no knives in the kitchen were sharp enough to cut through more than a full-fat chunk of butter.
Understandably enough, all exercise and movement was monitored, and I won’t lie when I say I jumped (several times) at the chance to do sneaky sit-ups whenever I could, the anxious food-demons in my head cackling at the notion of being able to avoid gaining even an extra pound.
Imagine my disgust, therefore, when the slow, meditative, restorative and introspective Yin Yoga practice we got to share every Tuesday afternoon didn’t require much more than a raised eyebrow and a pillow to rest my anxious head on.
I had to rest and do nothing while my mind ran marathons around me. I had to breathe in and feel my stomach actually getting bigger. I had to ‘relax’ while internally I was going over every stupid, ridiculous and embarrassing thing I’d ever said or done, and every bite of every meal I’d tried to convince myself was the last one I’d ever let past my lips.
I had to lie there and BE IN MY BODY.
It was terrifying.
While I was lying there, while I was listening to my heart pound in my chest as it tried to help my body digest the mountainous breakfast I’d convinced myself I wouldn’t make it through……something happened.
Something very small, but all the same, something worth noting.
Again, to clarify;
There was no ‘Eureka!’ moment. There was no revelation of being ‘cured’, or sudden rainbow of happiness and pretty flowers and unicorns and stars.
I didn’t feel that I’d been ‘fixed’.
What WAS there after the final Savasana and restful bow of the head however… was a very soft, and very subtle sense of something that maybe, just maybe, the world and the things and my thoughts and my resistance and battling with this crippling anxiety that had overtaken first my mind and then my body….it all didn’t have to be so difficult.
It didn’t have to be this way.
There was an alternative.
When we’re in a state of intense and acute anxiety, no other perception or state of mind seems possible. It simply doesn’t exist. It’s like a parallel anxious universe where every movement is magnified and analysed and given meanings and subcontexts and justifications that go so deep that you truly start to believe them. They become ingrained in your being. I believed I was fat. I believed I was worthless. I believed that eating a slice of toast would mean I was ugly.
Yoga simply helped me start to notice this.
By presenting me with an alternative – a state of being and consciousness where I DIDN’T want to run a mile from every mirror and avoid eye contact with people I genuinely liked, where I didn’t over think and assume and avoid – yoga opened up a whole new way for me to interact with the world. It helped me begin to see my body as a vehicle for which to do so, and as such something which I should take care of and use to the best of my abilities and talents to manifest my multitudes of ideas and notions into the world.
It made all the anxious thoughts quiver in an ironic fear that some of the energy they were currently being fed was now slowly but surely shifting towards productive, helpful and creative paths. I became aware of this alternative state to exist in. My brain began creating new neurological pathways that didn’t lead towards destructive behaviours and thoughts, but rather to hopes and ideas, and positive change.
The more I returned to that state of awareness…ie, the more yoga I did, the easier it got to stay there. I left the clinic. I joined a yoga studio. I took matters into my own hands and made my food and ate it and meditated to calm the anxiety. I meditated before the anxiety arose. I did yoga more and more and got stronger and stronger and noticed even more acutely when and where and how anxiety still arose when it did. Mealtimes, mostly, but as I developed a relationship with it (me and my anxiety, how romantic!) I began to notice it manifesting in other areas of my life where it might not have been quite as destructive, but where it arose nonetheless.
I may be strong, I told myself, but anxiety is still a force to be reckoned with.
It still is. Probably always will be. Even after the whole ‘recovery process’, after travelling alone, after going through teacher training and now teaching classes on a regular basis, anxiety STILL rears it’s ugly head far more often than I’d like to admit. But I feel I now have the tools to match it in it’s intensity and relentlessly crafty ways of manifesting into my life.
It was a slow process, and definitely didn’t happen overnight or even over a couple of months…but I like to think I’ve come a long way. Yoga helped me cultivate the awareness necessary to bring about the change I needed, to face anxiety in battle when it decides to attack….and for that I’m forever grateful.