[Sidenote: I feel a little guilty writing this, as I have a post about cancer that I’m in the middle of and really want to get done today, but this is the kind of thing that is best to write about while it’s fresh, so the cancer post will just have to wait another hour or two.]
I had a really, really rough time at yoga today. By that, I don’t just mean that it was particularly physically difficult or particularly hard to focus, though those were both certainly elements of the experience. No, this yoga class was a unique kind of terribleness that I’ve experienced only a handful of times before.
Before I get to why though, let’s back up a bit so you have some context.
As I’ve discussed before, yoga is a really useful tool in my staying-healthy-and-sane toolbox, and ideally I want to have a daily or almost-daily yoga practice. But lately, for a variety of reasons, I haven’t been very good about yoga-ing consistency. For awhile I was trying to run and do yoga and I was sore all the time and kind of burned out and wasn’t doing EITHER enough to improve. And then more recently, I was pretty much useless physically while I had a bad cold and pretty much called it a win if I had enough physical energy to do my tutoring AND the dishes.
Since I got over the cold, I’ve been trying to re-commit to yoga. It’s infuriating, but I’ve lost SO MUCH ground in the few weeks I’ve been away from it, both physically and mentally. I get really sore after classes that I would have considered easy not all that long ago, and settling into practicing at home and ignoring distractions for a whole hour has become almost excruciatingly difficult again.
I might have given up on yoga completely, except that the friend I did my 30 days of yoga with invited me to join her in going to actual classes a few times. Those were still crazy difficult, but they did have the advantage of making me feel like I COULDN’T quit in the middle out of distraction or pain or frustration, because a) other people would see, b) it would be disruptive, and c) I would be wasting the money for the class that I felt guilty about spending in the first place. And I felt SO much better after making it through those classes… that I sucked it up and found a way to pay for a pack of classes (much more affordable per class than paying by the class, but an upfront investment that was hard to pull off/justify) so that I can sorta kinda afford to go to an actual studio class once or twice a week, at least until I’m back on track with my home practice.
So anyhow, today I woke up, ate some breakfast and did last night’s dishes, went to therapy, and then headed straight to yoga afterwards to use my third class out of that 23-class-pack. I checked in, rolled out my mat, grabbed my props, and then tried to relax and wait patiently for the instructor like everyone else in the room.
Even just sitting there was difficult. As you all may or may not be able to guess, the decision I announced yesterday to stop job searching for the next month was a difficult one to make and as a result my anxiety has been cranked up to eleven as of late. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m practically vibrating with it. So there I was, glancing around the room at the dozen or so other students calmly sitting or lying down or gently stretching, being all zen and shit… and I hated all of them. HOW were they all so fucking chill? I was aware, as I thought this, that there are days where I am one of those chill-looking people, but I didn’t care. I was just vibrating with tension and anger and fuck was this going to be a rough class.
The teacher at the Wednesday class right after therapy is absolutely lovely. She’s cheery and encouraging without being obnoxious, and she pushes the class in exactly all the ways I need to be pushed–she reminds us to have good form (even if that means adapting the pose to an easier version), reminds us to stay focused and in the moment, and always incorporates accessible but intense and repeated strength-building exercises into the class. I’m always grateful for the class afterwards, and I genuinely like her, but sometimes in the moment I hate her because she seems to have a knack for asking me to do the hardest possible thing for me at any given moment.
And so of course, today she walked in and started the class with seated meditation.
I know I needed it, but I wanted to strangle her. Sit here? Focus on my breath? Close my eyes? ARGH. I fussed with my clothing, I “fixed” my headband twice, I shifted my seating position… anything to avoid that attempt to be still and calm, because I just KNEW I couldn’t do it and I would hate myself for that and I would panic and why couldn’t we start by moving so that this would be easier and and and…. you get the picture. I probably ended up actually being still and noticing my breath for I dunno, one minute out of the five? I’d say it was torture, but I had no idea at the time how much worse it was going to get.
I became aware of the problem the first time she asked us to hold plank (the position you are in at the top of a pushup), which was probably the second pose of the class. It was excruciating. Now, plank is always somewhat painful, especially when you have to hold it for awhile–your abs burn, your shoulders and chest start to give out, even your legs start to complain at some point–but this was different. This was painful in all the same places, but it was like the volume was turned up on that normal pain. I felt like I was on fire.
After maybe thirty seconds like that, tears were already welling up in my eyes, and I was starting to panic. At first I was just confused. Why am I so sore? I took it pretty easy yesterday, I’m well rested and hydrated, and we just started; I should be good. What’s going on? But after a few more poses it became clearer: it wasn’t just that pose, or just my shoulders, or just my abs, or just me still needing to warm up. Nope, anything that took serious effort and would usually hurt some and be a little difficult, today all those things hurt like hell. Hurt so bad that I couldn’t stop my eyes from filling with tears. And then the panic became Oh my god no. Not today. Why? Why does this happen? Why won’t it stop? Oh god I’m never going to make it though class. Oh my god, I can’t do this.
Like I said, I’ve had this experience a handful of times before. I’ve never figured out exactly what causes it, whether there is something physiological going on that makes me weaker or more sensitive to pain, or whether it’s a mental thing (it does seem to happen on days where I really feel like I NEED to have a good class). I do know though, that there is more to it that just being a big baby about the pain of stretching and exertion. What really makes this an out of control horrible experience is my mental reaction to the pain.
I know I can’t entirely blame myself for starting to panic in the moment. I’m struggling to do poses that I usually don’t struggle with, I’m overwhelmed enough by processing the pain and pushing through it that I have to remind myself to keep breathing, and tears are pouring down my face while I’m in a room full of people who are managing to do the poses just fine without fucking losing it… that’s a painful, shameful, horrible-feeling situation. But panic just makes it so much worse. I breathe too fast and can’t catch my breath and the lack of adequate oxygen just makes my muscles burn that much worse. The feeling of not being able to breathe itself is a panic trigger for me, and so once that starts I really struggle to stop the panic spiral. Soon my tears are literally dripping off my face into my cleavage and onto my yoga mat, and my head is filling with snot making it even harder to breathe, and and and…
And at this point, I’m screaming in my head: this is so embarrassing, you have to be distracting the class/the teacher, this isn’t getting any better, you should just roll up your mat and go home. One thing stopped me from doing that.
See, the first time this ever happened to me in a yoga class, the teacher came over to me and asked what was wrong. I wanted to die from shame–up until that point I had hoped he wouldn’t notice, even though there was no way to miss me falling out of poses or occasionally gasping for breath. I managed to spit out, in a whisper, that everything was so hard that day and I didn’t know why and I was panicking and I was SO sorry for interrupting his class and I can leave and stop being a distraction and again I’m so sorry I’m not usually like this…and he stopped me. “It’s okay. Sometimes this happens. Just rest in child’s pose [a resting pose], catch your breath, and join us when you’re ready. If it gets to be too much again, take child’s pose again. I don’t care if you spend half the class in child’s pose, just do the best you can.”
That one thirty-second dose of reassurance endeared me to that weirdo hippy instructor forever. I DID spend most of that class in child’s pose, and some of that time was spent crying and the rest of it recovering from crying. I looked and felt ridiculous and I’m sure that half a dozen people in the class were thanking god they weren’t me. But I did it, and afterwards I felt better.
And so today, I pushed through that oh my god this is so awful I should just leave feeling. I pushed as long as I could, and then I took child pose and caught my breath and wiped my face and joined back in a minute or two later. And it didn’t get easier–several times I had calmed down almost completely, but the pain and the panic built back up and tears were running down my face again. Over and over, I had to beat back the shame to make myself take a break, and then beat back the panic to make myself try again. Only in the last 10 minutes of class was I able to stop thinking I should just take off early.
But god, when I got to that final resting pose, it felt so good. I was so proud of myself for making it, even with the tears and breaks. The panic didn’t win; I did it even though it felt like every inch of my being was resisting it. And god was that beautiful.
I would, of course, prefer that days like today never happened. Yoga poses plenty of challenges to overcome; I really don’t need to add pain-and-panic spirals to the list. Days like today can make me want to avoid yoga later–What if THAT happens? I don’t think I could take that today. And frankly, I don’t want to have that intense of an emotional experience every time I want a goddamn workout. I am by no means arguing that what happened today was something I want to experience.
And I’m also not saying that one should ALWAYS push through when things are tough, in yoga, in exercise in general, or in life. You can definitely overdo it or injure yourself that way, and sometimes you really are just too physically exhausted to keep going and there is no shame in that. But in this particular case, I know my body and even if I don’t have an explanation for why it happens, I know that this happens. Every once in awhile, I experience exercise as so unbelievably painful and difficult that I get overwhelmed and panic.
But I don’t have to let the panic win. I CAN push through. Sure, I may have to adjust my goals and expectations for the workout, but I don’t have to throw in the towel. I can be stronger than the panic.
And I am incredibly grateful for that.