If you were to ask me what the most difficult thing I could do with my anxiety is, the chances are I would say: going to a place I’ve never been before, on my own, to do something that is for myself and costs money. And for this month’s scary thing? That’s exactly what I did.
For those new to this blog series – or this blog! – I have severe anxiety, and this year I’ve challenged myself to do one thing a month that I avoid because of my mental illness. The things that many people likely do without a thought, but to me are seemingly insurmountable tasks. So far I’ve had an eye test, a bra fitting, gotten my hair cut, and gone for a walk without my noise-cancelling headphones.
This month, I wanted to push myself even more.
So I decided to do something I’d been trying to do for ages, and go to a yoga class.
I’ve practised yoga on and off for quite a lot of years now. I have mild hypermobility that’s given me really severe back pain for a decade, and one of the ways I’ve managed the pain flares is by keeping my muscles strong enough. I enjoy yoga, I’m not terrible at it, and I know it’s really good for my body and mind.
But I’ve never actually gone to an in-person class. All that I’ve ever done is follow YouTube guides (primarily the excellent Yoga with Adriene, which if you’ve looked at YouTube yoga you’ve probably come across). I’ve only ever used a mat and blankets, never any other equipment. Whilst I have quite a lot of hours sunk into yoga, I’m very much a beginner.
I’ve also been bad at doing it recently – I know I struggle, even though I’m aware of how powerful it is for me, to make myself go and do it. Plus, the idea of going somewhere new? Terrifying. So…
I promptly procrastinated and did nothing about it until the 25th.
Oh, I thought about it. I thought: I should really do that blog for this month. I thought: maybe I could do something else. By the time we hit the 25th, I was thinking: what if I just didn’t do it this month?
I say this quite glibly, but the fact is that a lot of why anxiety is so debilitating is thoughts like these. Because it’s never just the one – these thoughts are hurling themselves into a melting pot of obligation and worry that sits on you like a dead weight. It’s pervasive and constant and exhausting. Getting out from under that weight is hard. Really hard.
So I did the only thing I could think of to force myself to go: I used my anxiety against itself.
You see, I get really anxious about failing to honour commitments. Cancelling things is a huge deal for me, no matter what it is. This, I could take advantage of. I found a local yoga studio that offered a free trial session – so that I couldn’t weasel out of it because of money – and I booked it for first thing in the morning, the first day back after the bank holiday.
No room to avoid it. No time to think about it with how busy the bank holiday weekend was. Just the booking, there, done. I won’t say it’s the best solution – obviously it would’ve been better if I could just have sorted it myself without all the agonising – but hey, it worked!
Then came the day before, which is when the anxiety really kicked in.
Fortunately I was spending most of the day gardening, which took up a lot of my thoughts. But when I stopped – oh, yes, that’s when the anxiety kicked in. Setting out my yoga clothing made it worse. I was trying to prepare myself a bit, to remove one source of anxiety (as if I would forget and not dress correctly).
This just led me to worrying that people would notice that I was wearing pyjamas, because they’re the only exercise-appropriate clothing I own. Granted the trousers I wore are in the yoga style, but I found myself getting really paranoid that my underwear could be seen through them (it couldn’t), or that I’d look fat where I’ve put a bit of weight on, or that I’d look “stupid” in a hundred other ways.
This continued when I got up the next morning. On the way to the studio, I had a series of thoughts that varied from painfully critical to ridiculous. About whether my hypermobility would just make me awkward, about whether I’d signed up for the right class, about whether I would be the fattest person in the room.
By the time I was standing outside the studio, which I walked past once to be absolutely sure I knew where it was, I was seriously considering leaving. There was nothing tying me there. I hadn’t paid money. No one knew I was there. I could just leave. The nausea roiling in my stomach was willing me to do it.
Reader, I did not leave. I went into the yoga studio.
I ended up standing awkwardly in the entrance with my stomach roiling and heart pounding – until a second woman, also on a trial class, entered and we were both pointed out by the instructor. We were told where to go and what to do, and helped by the other people in the class. There were only six of us, and everyone was absolutely lovely.
No one commented on the fact that I was wearing pyjamas. Honestly, we barely looked at one another for most of the hour and a half I was in there. My hypermobility wasn’t a problem – when I struggled, which only happened a couple of times, the instructor listened to what I was finding hard and gave me ways round it; something you don’t get from YouTube.
Nor did I need to worry that I hadn’t signed up for the right class. I went for Beginner rather than the studio’s lowest level of Basic, and this was 100% the right choice. It was challenging but not impossible. I didn’t recognise the untranslated names of the poses, but everything was explained. Being introduced to using the equipment by actually using it was great. I hadn’t realised how much of a difference it could make.
As it happened, I was the fattest woman in the room. I felt in a couple of poses that my belly – which is the part of myself I’m least comfortable with – was pretty thrust out and obvious. But the great thing was that everyone except the instructor had their eyes closed most of the time, so it helped me lose that anxiety a bit. It also meant my inability to make eye contact wasn’t a detriment.
By half an hour in, I was thinking about how many classes I could afford to book.
My anxious thoughts weren’t gone. I was still thinking things like I forgot to silence my phone and what if I don’t manage to do this harder pose.
But when I was told to breathe into a pose, I did. My mind didn’t empty, but it got as calm as I’ve ever managed whilst meditating. Something about being in a room with people and having someone there actually telling me what to do made it much easier for me to actually do it. I couldn’t escape – I was trapped in having to do as I was told. That sounds weird maybe, but it was comforting to me.
It wasn’t easy either, which also helped with clearing my mind. OR at least taking out the anxious thoughts and replacing it with oh god my thighs. A preferred state of being it is not, but as an alternative, it’ll do. And guess what – this was a ‘relaxation’ week, rather than a fully intense session!
One of the best things though was that people didn’t talk too much. I think it’s something to do with the nature of yoga being a combination of exercise and relaxation. People were there to go into their own place, more than to socialise. This might’ve happened if I’d gone to a different kind of fitness class. But no one was rude, either. We all helped each other out getting equipment and so forth, and people said goodbye at the end.
By the time I came out, I felt absolutely amazing.
I think a lot of this was the triumph at having done something that I was so utterly terrified of. If you’d told me a few years ago that I could do this, I genuinely would have laughed in your face. It’s such a normal thing, to have to go somewhere new, but I think everyone finds it challenging. To not be able to do it was awful.
As I was walking home, all I could think about was how I missed out on so much when my anxiety was worse. Now that it’s at a manageable level, and I’m in a place where I can push the boundaries of it safely, I am so incredibly grateful for the chances I am getting as a result.
Several hours later, the fatigue of having to put myself through that intense anxiety was starting to hit me. I was still immensely proud and satisfied, and still really excited about how much I enjoyed it. I just ached quite a lot.
Next month we’ll be halfway through this experiment, and after this, I just want to push myself more and more. I think, finally, I’m ready to do so.
Oh, and incase you were wondering…
…I booked ten more sessions at the studio.
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