By Dylan Barmmer
For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced anxiety and depression. I was the sensitive, creative, clever, curious, crazy kid, and as an adult, I’ve had to gradually come to terms with a lot of things that I used to run from, ignore, dream or laugh away.
I didn’t start drinking until I turned 20, but the roots of my struggle started much earlier. By high school, sadness and frustration were constant companions. And when I learned that pouring alcohol on those wounds really numbed them quite nicely, things got ugly.
Thankfully, I found yoga. And it has allowed me to stay grounded—even when the ground is muddy.
Yoga teachers and students, and an increasing number of Western-based scientists, doctors and therapists, claim that yoga offers a tremendous range of healing aspects. It can detoxify the body’s internal organs, help prevent injuries to muscles and joints, increase flexibility (physically, mentally and emotionally) and enhance breathing patterns.
Like any form of exercise, it can help regulate endorphins and serotonin levels and ease the symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is also a tremendous way to learn to stay in the present moment. In Sanskrit, one definition of yoga is union. Yoga then is the practice of uniting mind, body and spirit.
On a sullen Sunday in January 2007, I decided to start blazing a new path and entered my first yoga class. I almost walked out of an ashtanga class at my local gym when my racing mind wouldn’t slow down and I couldn’t master the poses and synch my breathing. I was intimidated because the class had so many more women than men—and they were doing everything better than I was. Fortunately, I stuck with it and now reap the many benefits of a deep and consistent practice.
Yoga is more accessible than ever before. There are an abundance of studios and most gyms offer at least a few yoga classes. You can also purchase DVDs that will guide you through a home practice, but you’ll miss out on the many benefits and sense of community provided by group practice.
There are lots of different kinds of yoga. If you’re new, it’s usually best to begin with a hatha or restorative class, as they tend to involve fewer asanas, or postures, and often move at a less vigorous pace than an ashtanga, vinyasa flow, anusara or bikram class.
Start with a beginners or level 1 class. You may want to check your area for studios offering an intro series where you meet once a week for about four weeks with the same teacher and students. This is a great way to build a practice, meet other people who are just getting started and get to know a
particular instructor. Most classes last between an hour and an hour and 45 minutes. When I first began my practice, I was going once a week at best. Now, two years later, I find myself practicing six or seven times a week. The more you resonate with a particular teacher, the more likely you’ll be to fall in love with your practice, and yourself, so give several instructors a try.
The typical yoga class begins with guided meditation, visualization or pranayama (breathing exercises). A series of movements follows, and class ends with a five-to-10-minute savasana, or resting period (literally translated as corpse pose). For beginning yogis and meditators, this resting period can often be the most challenging pose of class because quieting the mind is the only goal. Give it time and breathe.
I turned 35 in 2009 and took the day off work to treat myself to an extended restorative yoga class at my favorite studio in the yoga mecca of Encinitas, Calif. During the second half of class, it hit me just how far I’d come over the past few years and how much of my growth had come directly from developing and deepening my yoga practice.
At one point, I was propped up in a prolonged heart opener, wide open, so relaxed, so happy. Tears started to trickle down my face. These were good tears. Tears of pure joy and happiness. I was so thankful to be alive, so thankful to have found a peaceful, healthy, beautiful outlet for all my energy and passion and love.
I decided to go deeper.
I ended up practicing seven times over the next 10 days. And in the many months since then, I’ve kept my practice going at least four times a week.
But yoga isn’t about physical postures or even frequency; it’s about internal transformation. “We all have habits—some not so life-affirming—and a yoga practice affords us the opportunity to quiet the outer world’s noise, distraction and pull to really listen to what we want, how important this life is and how we can be the best versions of ourselves,” says Jennifer Waters, the Anusara-trained yoga instructor who teaches the restorative yoga class I attend.
For me, too many habits were not life-affirming (in fact, a handful of them were life-threatening). But my dedication to a consistent yoga practice has taught me to listen more and more to what I really want and need and what truly serves me, as many of my teachers put it.
My internal calmness and clarity have been greatly enhanced. I smile, laugh and make and maintain deep eye contact more. I obsess and worry less and love and live more. I respond less and react more; I find myself giving without expecting to get in return (a concept called “seva” in yogic philosophy).
Simply put, yoga is a great teacher and a great natural remedy for anxiety, depression and all sorts of mental and emotional blockages. It's also a wonderful tool for maintaining sobriety.
Om to that.
Dylan Barmmer is a writer, poet and performance artist based in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif. He is also the founder and raconteur of Word Is Born, a full-service, full-throttle creative copywriting and concepting consortium. Dylan also performs Random Acts of Poetry and blogs about yoga, poetry and life for at elephantjournal.com.