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.”