Marisa had been regularly attending my yoga classes for a few weeks before I realized how committed she was becoming to the practice. As time passed I was increasingly aware of this timid woman in her late 30’s with scattered energy and youthful dimples camped out in the far back corner of the studio. Her initial efforts were naturally awkward, as she was just beginning to cultivate the ability to interpret instruction into her body, and during Savasana her eyes were often wide open. But she was giving it her all, for good reason: She was finally feeling hope for relief from the constant anxiety that had swallowed up her daily life. Several months later I learned her sad story.
After the sudden, unexpected death of her boyfriend two years earlier, Marisa’s life as she knew it was shattered. “For the first year after his death, I didn’t feel much of anything—I was just numb and grieving. But as I began to face the major changes in my life, including moving out of the house we shared, I became really anxious…about everything. I couldn’t plan anything without obsessing over each step, and then imagining every issue that might arise. For instance, if I went away for the weekend, I obsessed over what would happen if the house got broken into—if the cat somehow got out, the water heater burst, if a package was delivered and left at my front door indicating that no one was home… it went on and on.”
Marisa was displaying symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). From the American Psychiatric Association: “People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) have ongoing, severe tension that interferes with daily functioning. They worry constantly and feel helpless to control these worries. Often their worries focus on job responsibilities, family health, or minor matters such as chores, car repairs, or appointments. They may have problems sleeping, muscle aches/tension, and feel shaky, weak and headachy. People with GAD can be irritable and often have problems concentrating and working effectively.” Furthermore, efforts to relax can actually exacerbate anxiety. Relaxation Induced Anxiety is caused when relaxation techniques (such as meditation or Savasana) paradoxically trigger the fight-or-flight Sympathetic response, and cause even more stress to flood the body.
Common treatments for GAD are cognitive behavioral therapy and anti-anxiety medications. As Marisa’s tension grew, her therapist felt she needed a new level of medical attention, “After the second anniversary of my boyfriend’s death passed, my therapist wanted to refer me to a medical doctor for an evaluation, but the thought of that sent me into an anxious tailspin. She suggested that I try yoga for generalized anxiety disorder before moving forward with a referral. I think the anxiety of having to take medication beat out the anxiety of trying something new, and that’s how I ended up in yoga.”
As the months passed, Marisa’s practice became strong, graceful, and refined, and her confidence clearly grew. She told me she’d swapped doughnuts for yoga, which was evident by her changed shape. She had also become friendly with many of the other regulars in class, and although she never left that back corner, her mischievous streak flared and from time-to-time she’d delight the room by cracking a joke at my expense. Although Savasana had been an especially anxiety-provoking asana (“it’s a vulnerable position, thoughts rush in and swirl around, and it’s called ‘corpse’ pose, for Christ’s sake!”), she made great progress one Sunday afternoon by allowing herself to be transported into a completely blissful state during one of my Yoga Tune Up® classes that culminated in a 25-minute Yoga Nidra (yogi sleep).
It is always so humbling when, as a teacher, I find out about the serious issues students are processing in my classes. I am grateful for my Yoga Tune Up® training, which has given me more refined techniques to work with students like Marisa, and I’m grateful to Marisa, for trusting me to play the role of the teacher during her brave transition.
“I’ve been practicing stress relief yoga 3-5 times a week for the past year and a half and I can’t even fathom worrying about some of the things that used to send my thoughts into a downward spiral. I’m still aware of what I’ve been through every day, but I’m so much calmer and more at peace now—yoga has given me permission to be who I am rather than who I think I should be.”
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This is such a beautiful story, and it reminds me of why it is so important to come into the space with an open mind and to be respectful of studio rules (no cellphones and or other rules) that create a peaceful atmosphere where this sort of thing can happen.
I had never thought of Relaxation Induced Anxiety before. There are so many sides to discover about anxiety. Thank you for leading me to a new side to learn about !
This story give hope…
And the beauty of it is that she shoed up for herself! Like Jill would say: “she did it”!
It’s awesome ans powerful!
This was a really powerful story; Marisa has some major courage for putting herself out there like that and sticking with it! It’s so beautiful to read about these type of things and to experience them firsthand. To be able to facilitate such healing among our fellow humans is a sublime gift.
Savasana….. For me this pose is all bout relaxation, but a few weeks ago I noticed that one of my new students wasn’t very relaxed in this pose and had her eyes wide open and then closed them for a short while. Although I do not know her story (yet), next time she is in this pose I will try a different approach and be more considerate about the last minutes in class.
While I am never tucked at the back of the class I suffer in silence because I am an extrovert with terrible anxiety. I aspire to teach in such a way my students trust me with their personal struggles. I want to study more yoga Nidra and how to introduce it in classes. It has helped me at night and I would love to bring that to my students. Sometimes just a moment of calm is worth so much more because it shines a light on what is possible.
If you have suggestions for how to teach yoga Nidra I would be appreciative.
Yoga for a long time helped alleviate much of my life long anxiety. My practice allowed me to continue working in a high stress environment with much more calm. Then I quit my job to teach yoga and my practice is now what no longer my own. While I love teaching, I find it challenging to be completely immersed in my own practice without observing what I’m doing as an opportunity to learn and integrate into my classes. I sometimes miss those days of being anonymous in the back of the class just practicing. But on the other hand, having experienced high levels of anxiety I hope that I’m equipped to help students through the practice to alleviate some of their stress. And I enjoy the YTU methodology that allows for working on the nervous system, which in today’s society, most of us could use a little bit more of.
My yoga story is similar to Marisa’s. We even have the same teacher : ) Just how tense muscles can clench or brace when touched, my experience of GAD felt a lot like constant emotional bracing. Through Roll Model Therapy Ball work and yoga, I was able to turn down this emotional safety mechanism long enough to start resting and repairing my nervous system. Thank you, Ariel!
Ooh, I like this testimony to yoga and yoga as therapy! I’ve never heard of ‘GAD’ before reading this, yet I work with a population in recovery and always presumed the inability to relax while in meditation/ savasana was due to past trauma of some sort. Heck, I’d be nervous to close my eyes in a room full of lycra wearing, incense burning, pretzel bodied people too, if I wasn’t aware of the powerfully healing effects of just one class with just the right teacher! One of my goals is to liberate just one person in such a way for them to ‘make shift happen’ in their own lives. You are an inspiration! Thank you.
This is so powerful–the more i study the more I understand how deeply the mind is in the body, and the body in the mind. Thank you!
Thank you so much for being so open w your story Ariel! I have a friend who has GAD and its devastating to watch anxiety control her, she’s getting better but I’m going to show her your article how yoga helped you!!! Thank u!!!
Thank you for sharing this story. I work with many clients both privately and in group sessions that struggle with anxiety & have my own experiences grappling with it as well. As Bo Forbes writes, one technique that often helps is quieting the mind & inhabiting the body in interoceptive awareness – which the balls most wonderfully assist!
Thank you to you and your student for sharing her story! The healing power of yoga is what inspired me to become a teacher, so it is always inspiring to hear of such success stories as this one. I’d love to learn more about specific Yoga Tune Up® techniques for helping with anxiety that I could try with one of my students who is also very anxious.
Thank you for sharing this. I think a lot of people feel guilty or beat themselves up if they can’t “relax” in meditation, savasana and life in general. It’s one of those things that can almost have the opposite reaction when you tell someone to “relax” in a heightened state of angst or anger, it might actually increase. In that way, Yoga Tune Up can be kind of sneaky in a good way, getting students to move and connect to their breath, give their minds and bodies something to chew on so that the relaxation is a by-product. Instead of focusing on calming down, it lays down new myelin in the mind and body so it learns and remembers how to regulate anxiety.
This is a beautiful antidote showing us how students are really the best teachers. I am always humbled when students share their stories of healing and perseverance.
Wonderful lesson in holding a safe space for your student, a helpful reminder to us teachers, to realise that we never really know that challenges of the people who we share practice with. Anxiety seems to be endemic in our society & really positive that yoga can be a refuge to release that, empowering each & every one of us.
This article reminds me of how we never know what our students are dealing with when they step onto the mat for practice. Thankfully, Marissa continued with her practice and was able to deal with her grief and anxiety.
I also have been in Marisa’s shoes with the sudden passing of my father and have experienced severe anxiety, stress and fear. Over the many passing years these have all greatly diminished but I’ve never experienced the resting/calmness in my sankalpa as much as I just did last week during YTU training thanks to Jill, Holly, Kim and Alex.
This is such an amazing story and a great example of how powerful the mind-body connection is in terms of our health and therefore how important it is to holistically approach our health.
What a wonderful story, and just look at how many people have felt compelled to write and/ or have been inspired by this post! We all live in a culture that almost challenges us to “thrive” on stress, with so many competing (and often contradicting) messages and images, anxiety is quickly becoming more and more common. It is estimated now that 60% of children suffer from anxiety, to differing degrees. Children! And at the same time, how beautiful the power of our own bodies- moving, breathing, sweating, accomplishing goals- can be as an antidote to anxiety and depression! Personally I have seen great success with the deep pressure and massage of the Yoga Tune Up balls at calming both adults and children alike, stimulating a deep para-sympathetic response.
While my situation is not as severe, I can definitely relate. Back in January I realized that i may be developing an anxiety disorder. Between planning a wedding, moving, helping my fiance run his business while also helping start a new one out of state, I was constantly on edge. I felt like I had no time to myself, I was tense all the time, moody, gaining weight, and crying at the drop of a hat. One day I was talking to a friend and she casually brought up going to a yoga class. I was instantly intrigued. I had heard many people talk about yoga but I was always afraid to go by myself, this gave me an in, I now knew someone who I could go with and not feel completely out of my element. I put off going for a few weeks, making excuses because I was terrified of what wouldn’t be able to do. Finally, with a ton of anxiety, I went to a class. I walked out changed. I was no longer thinking of what I couldn’t do, but instead was proud and amazed of what I could do. I was proud of my body and relaxed for the first time in months. I immediately joined the studio and have been hooked ever since. I see myself changing every day and both physically and mentally. Yoga has made me a much calmer person. Six months ago I was a high strung girl terrified to step into a class and now I’m in YTT…. Things are really amazing when you give them a chance.
Reading this post gave me goosebumps! Marisa’s transition is so profound and poignant, and my favorite thing to see was her jovial side coming back allowing her to crack jokes in class. It’s hard to explain to people that yoga really does have this kind of transformative, life-changing power, so it’s great to have a story like this that says it right there in black and white. She was helped by yoga. I am a high school teacher, currently in a 500 hour program to become a yoga teacher, and it’s stories like this that make me want to continue. I have so many teenage kids who do not know how to work through really extreme anxiety. I had one particular student this year who completely broke my heart. I knew her for a year as a bubbly, happy, energetic young woman with so much to offer – and then suddenly something changed. She was afraid, reserved, grades dropped, meetings with crying mom increased. She just…wasn’t herself. Reading this gives me so much hope that this little girl (an anyone else struggling) can become themselves again with yoga’s help!
Thank you for sharing this. I had a similar experience (though on a smaller level) when my 6month old puppy was hit by a car outside my house. I didn’t go back to my house for two months, and developed serious anxiety about being alone, as I had become used to a constant companion whenever I was at home. My doctor did nothing but prescribe me anti-depressents. In an effort to increase my own happiness and create a distraction I decided I wanted to get really fit and started running daily and then following my run with a yoga practice. I took the anti depressants for less than a month, deciding that I didn’t need them at all. I think that this time spent alone running and in my practice made me comfortable and able to be alone again, take in the beauty of nature and the outdoors instead of feeling the loss of someone to share it with.
I see people suffering from anxiety at different levels all of the time and can’t help but think “That person needs yoga”. The ability to take your mind away from everything except your body for a single hour can do wonders for the mind and the soul. I also think that the coregeous ball is a difficult but helpful technique for relieving anxiety. Our body displays what we are feeling on the inside – often in our posture. I like to think this works in the reverse as well, if you help your body become strong, healthy and happy your mind will follow.
What an inspiring story. I love hearing about the healing power of yoga, not only from a physical health aspect, but also from a mental health perspective as we see in this story. Often times people jump at a chance to quickly fix their problems with medications that actually tend to only mask their problems temporarily or force the person into a lifetime of taking medications that can actually cause a series of other problems later in life. I am a firm believer in self awareness and finding ways to face our problems head on . Only then will we have the ability to discover where the real problems of our ailments lie and have a chance to fix them once and for all. Yoga gives us all a chance to discover who we are meant to be. We come to yoga with many intentions and find unity through one practice, both individually and as a community.
This is a remarkable story. The healing power of yoga never ceases to amaze me. I opened up to yoga and became an avid practitioner in a moment when I was experiencing great anxiety as well. I was miserable with my career as a lawyer and this together with other persona and social matters were creating extreme anxiety in my life. Anxiety in turn naturally causing sadness. I had practiced yoga before a few times but never really took it seriously. However, this time around I opened to the spiritual side of yoga, the healing side. My yoga practice allowed me to connect to my inner guide and I got the answers that I needed. I got the guidance and clarity needed through the practice of asanas, I knew exactly what to do and changed careers and cities. I couldn’t be happier with this decisions. Yoga is a magnificent mean to overcome confusion and anxiety.
My brother has suffered debilitating anxiety issues throughout his life. I remember him telling me they first came up when he was constantly trying to meditate in his youth and having very dark emptiness start to rise up. I truly believe yoga and yoga Indra is such a better idea for some folks more unable constitution wise to be in that slow or still space. This story is a lovely confirmation of taking a more creative path to more balance.
Oh how this article spoke to my heart! I have a teenage daughter who suffers from anxiety. I have tried, as much as a teenager’s mother can, to influence her to seek soothing in physical activity and yoga. I particularly like the comment above that anxiety is a call for us to ground ourselves. Isn’t that the truth! And now, with YTUT in my toolbox, I’ve got another grounding technique to share with others.
This is a beautiful testament to the power of movement. In Chinese medicine anxiety is usually associated with over Qi stagnation affecting the heart. The liver is responsible for the free flow of all the Qi in the body and it is also associated with the health of the tendons. It is no wonder that moving this energy around through the practice of yoga, specifically designed to strengthen and nourish the tendons brought a lasting healing effect to this woman. It us wonderful to hear the power of healing from the outside in!
I have experienced GAD and it is rampant in my family. Just like your student, I have experienced the healing effect that yoga can have on this condition. I am a middle school and high school teacher and frequently I observe students with anxiety issues. Some of them actually have attendance problems because they are uncomfortable staying in school. I am currently going through the 200 hour training program and my goal is to be able to use yoga to help teenagers with anxiety. Thank you for a great article!
This is an amazing story! Great reminder that students are teachers. It’s an awesome experience to see the manifestation of principles in students. I also love the student committed to the work of healing herself. From my personal experience, Yoga Tune Up has also helped me be more of myself. It’s nice to have a yoga environment that is accepting of every body that walks in the door. Too often it’s only about the poses and the flow.
What a courageous student. I am amazed by these students who are brave enough to approach others in the yoga world in their journey to health; I have had students come right in to class for the first time and tell me right away that their anxiety or depression, etc. is what has brought them there, something I certainly was not able to do when I was dealing with those problems. Even after time has passed, being able to share that is so beautiful. Yoga was a huge part of my healing and I am so grateful for the opportunity to share tools with people in similar situations.
What a beautiful story, Ariel. I think most of us can relate to this. It makes very real the spiritual axiom that we are all connected, never alone. What has helped me is sankalpa. I have never rested in my sankalpa as much as I just did last week during Yoga Tune Up teacher training. I am very grateful to you, Jill, Dinneen and Sandy.
It is inspiring to hear stories where yoga has changed the lives of anotther human being. This story resonates with me personally and can say that I am not the person that began to practice yoga many years ago. We are all wounded in one way or another and those of us with emotional wounds tend to just suffer. Your compassion for your students is evident and transforming. I am honored I have been able to see you in action during training. By the way your compassion and understanding has made a signifiicant differance in my own emotional termoil wth anxiety. Thank you.
This story is inspiring. It is a true gift to be trusted with the progression of a student in this way – yoga is physical but the emotions that surface are the real deal. Whenever we’re allowed to connect with that underneath of ourselves and grow strong enough to carry that off the mat, it is a joy. What a beautifully written and recounted experience, Ariel.
i found this story really inspiring. I cannot imagine what it would be like a pose which is supposed to be of deep relaxation (like savansa) would actually invoke terror and increased anxiety. What a difficult place to start at and I really admire Marisa’s courage for sticking with it.
I strongly believe there is nothing wrong with having anxiety. Its an important feeling! Let me elaborate… I like to think of anxiety as “the earth calling you to come down”. When all your energy is in your head, your mind and emotions spin to the point of exhaustion. This leads us to feeling scattered, disconnected, restless, tired… But i believe this sense of anxiety as we call it, is your body calling you to come home. When you feel anxious it means you quite literally need to ground! Getting into your body by connecting with the breath is an easy and extremely powerful way to “come down to earth”. As exemplified in this article, yoga helps many people with down regulation. Slow mindful breath soothes the mind and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to turn on. It is in this space that all deep healing and restoration happen. But why would we ever enter this state if their was nothing calling us down? Thank you anxiety. I promise to always honor you and all my feelings.
This is an awesome story. I love hearing about other people’s experiences with yoga and anxiety because for so many years of my own struggle with it I thought that drugs were my only and best option. It was just a lucky coincidence (or the universe?) that brought me into my yoga practice at precisely the moment when my anxiety was so bad I could barely function, but it really is an amazingly powerful tool for not only alleviating the symptoms of anxiety but also giving people back the control over their bodies that being drugged up can sometimes take away.
This story gave me the chills. I feel like I suffer a little from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I never heard of this diagnosis before. It makes sense. I love the confidence and strength that yoga gives you when working through struggles. Its nice to hear that your student chose yoga over additional medications. I feel for your student as she had trouble finding complete relaxation in the beginning with savasana. I find that my mind still continues to race and I can’t relax fully. Hopefully in time that will change. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story!
[…] Relief, yoga breathing A few days ago, I noticed a Web article that claimed a good dose of stress and anxiety to be a healthy and even a necessary component of a healthy existence. Yes, we all experience some […]
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story, Ariel. Not only were you sharing the wonderful healing practices of YTU and yoga nidra, you really held such a safe and courageous space for your student to step into her own strength and greatness. The gift of you sharing your sankalpa come through in the space you held and yay to that. What a wonderful reminder to stay true to yourself and when you do, you create an environment that gives permission for others to be true to themselves. Sat Nam. 🙂
It’s neat to see stories like this. As we all know, the practice of Yoga is a freeing experience in many ways, inner strength, confidence, an awareness of one’s self as well as the physical mobility and breath. I think that is why once someone experiences Yoga, they stick with it. It can truely change lives!
This is a beautiful story and a wonderful reminder of just one of the gifts that a yoga practice provides. It is why I always come back to the mat. Because there is something so sacred, and so healing about the process. Every time I come back to yoga, I wonder how on earth I could have ever left it. And I become so grateful, all over again. I love that yoga can be such a sanctuary and a place for quiet and reflection. A place where tears can flow freely and openly, and where doubts and worries and questions and hopes and dreams can all just be. This story is a lovely reminder of that.
Beautiful story that shows the transformative and healing aspects with the regular practice of yoga. Its amazing how we reveal ourselves in a simple posture, while sometimes we go around with words to try to find an answer to our thoughts or emotions. Steping on a mat is a serious but simple matter. Both teacher and student commitement is inspirational, and sure must be an amazing experience as a teacher to be a witness of the evolution in such an important plane of someones mental and emotional health.
I’ve been in Marisa’s shoes, or rather, on her mat; and i’m still in awe of how much yoga (the joining of movement with breath) has helped me (and Marisa) stay strong during times of struggle.
Thanks for the report, Ariel… and the perspective.
What a wonderful story! It’s inspiring to hear about how yoga has bolstered someone back into Life. I think most people, including myself, get pulled onto our mats because yoga allows us to take control of ourselves and our lives in a gentle and supportive manner…at our own pace. You as a teacher and Marisa as your student, have given me even more reason to believe that I will find peace and personal growth as I continue my practice. Thank you!
This is a really amazing story that totally exhibits why so many of us do yoga to varying extents. With the chaos of our daily lives and the intensity of the stress put upon us by others and ourselves, the nervous system is rarely given the opportunity to wind down, giving peace to the mind and body. Yoga allows us to do this in so many ways. I’ve been trying to get my boyfriend to try yoga for his anxiety as well, and I’m sure after seeing this I’ll finally be able to get him on a mat. I’m doing my 200 hour teacher training at the moment and stories like this inspire me even more to be the best teacher I possibly can be for those that need yoga the most.
What a lovely story which shows how evident regular practice of yoga can have profound effects on calming our nervous system. They have done studeis how yoga can boost the anti-anxiety nuerotransmitter GABA in the brain. This is why yoga therapy needs to be reimbursed by insurance companies. This woman avoided the need for more doctors visits and medications b/c she is using yoga as her medicine. These stories as well as evidence based support to illustrate the value of yoga therapy in healing and managing various diseases need to be spread around the medical community. Thanks for sharing!