This is a brilliant question that I received this week from a newcomer to class. This particular lady was recommended yoga by her doctor, so comes as a special case. Ideally, it must be said, such a person would have private tuition. But, the mere fact that she has managed to make contact and come to class is practically a miracle.
Before the second class, she asked me this
During class last week, I felt very good. But afterwards, I went home and felt more nervous than ever. Isn’t yoga meant to calm me down?
Thus I replied: Most anxiety arises from repression of emotions. Anxiety and depression are often mixed, and sometimes confused. But they are vastly different. While depression has to do with a lowered level of mental activity, anxiety is a heightened state. In yoga terms, anxiety is rajas and depression is tamas.
Anxiety seems to arise when the brain is over-active. This can be an excess of information, or an excess of emotion. Most people with anxiety develop coping mechanisms. The best way to plunge on through life when your brain is screaming red murder is to pretend it isn’t happening. Here is the delightful Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s explaining it much more clearly than I ever could:
So, this lady suffers from chronic anxiety. ie: running to Tiffany’s every time she gets the mean reds. And Tiffany’s can be a place in your mind, it can be a bottle, it can be distraction, an addiction, whatever. You’re afraid and you don’t even know what you’re afraid of, the best response is to run, right?
Well, yes, until it isn’t the best response. Because, just like Holly Golightly, if we could find a real live place that makes us feel like Tiffany’s, then we would buy some furniture and give the cat a name.
You see, dear readers, dear students, dear seekers, yoga brings you home to that real live place. When suddenly you have contact with the Still Point inside of you, simply through breathing, movement and the right teacher, you realise that all your running was in vain. And you relax a little bit. But… the minute you relax a little bit and then go back to breathing fast and shallow, fighting with the traffic, being surrounded by people who are NOT on the Path and almost seem to wish to shove YOU off the Path, you have to start running away again. And you feel even more nervous than before.
You can think of it as a study of contrasts. If you are always in the mean reds, then a little deeper tone of red is hardly noticeable. But if you are suddenly “in the pinks” and you go back to the reds…ouch.
Why does yoga make me feel good in class but nervous afterwards? Because yoga holds a mirror up to your inner state and makes you look at the things you don’t want to see and have probably spent a lifetime avoiding. For that reason it is very, very, very important to have a trusting relationship with a qualified teacher.
Upon receiving that information from my student, a person I know hardly at all, I modified the pranayama at the end of the class and gave a technique specifically indicated for her, but that would cause no harm to any other members of the class. And then, the next morning, I texted her, to make sure she was okay. And she was. And what’s more, she felt good.
So, people, there are Youtube videos a-plenty, gymnasium yoga fit classes galore, all sorts of bells and whistles. But yoga is a practice that transcends all of this stuff and has tools to help everybody and the teacher is the one who will show you the path. Get on your mats, comes to class, breathe deeply, be joyful. The Spirit is within you, let it move you.