How Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy Transformed My Relationship With Anxiety

It starts with something small, insignificant even. A moment of embarrassment, a minor conflict, an unintended hurt. 

Suddenly: you’re choked up.

Your lungs can’t get enough air.

Your chest is too tight, your limbs feel heavy and a little numb, your face is flushed and sight and sound don’t seem to get through and the same words keep circling around in your head and they are hateful and mean and you are lost in dark heavy feelings that may never end. 

My most productive yoga therapy session hinged on this moment where I felt what I have learned is an anxiety attack. My instinct is to run away. This is physical, even: my feet can’t stop tensing and curling and moving. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get away from your own body. That is the worst part of the attack for me: that spiraling feels like falling down a dark hole, grabbing for an escape rope you’re certain exists but is impossible to find. 

When I was younger, it was in these moments I would self-injure. I felt the need to get out of myself, to escape. Self-injury was one way to satisfy that feeling of wanting to rip myself open and disappear. Although I was luckily able to move away from this unhealthy coping mechanism, I never found a great replacement.

Instead of trying to tear myself open, I would curl up and ache and cry and hope to break through. 

I have been to therapy at several different points in my life, and although it has helped me understand myself with a little more depth, it has never helped me out of this space. I am an extrovert, so I am practiced in talking through what I am feeling. But when words fail me, when my body reacts in a way that makes it impossible for me to process out loud . . . that’s when I want to run.

It is easy for me to intellectualize my feelings, but not so easy to sit in them. 

My talk therapy sessions have always started with some version of the question, “What’s on your mind today?”, which gave me the opportunity to direct the conversation in whatever way I wanted it to go. Even just unconsciously, I could avoid those topics that were too hairy, too embarrassing, too surrounded by shame to bring up.

In talk therapy, I could talk about the issues that were hard and made me tearful, but not the things that I couldn’t find words for in the first place. Not the things that got stuck in my throat, that made my face burn, that made me go cold.

It was easy to bring up what I wanted to work through. It felt impossible to bring up what I most needed to work through.

I knew someone who was training to be a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist and needed to fulfill some practice hours. I agreed to help them, not having a clue what to expect. Each session was entirely unique, but had this in common: the yoga therapist encouraged me to stay with whatever I was experiencing if I was able to. When I experienced that anxiety attack during a session, they gave me a safe space to be able to sit in that feeling, to be on that edge in security, to feel it and name it and find curiosity in it and play with it.

It was only through this process that I was able to start understanding these moments, to recognize why they occurred and communicate about them and most importantly to just be in them. 

It was like going down that hole with a flashlight. Rather than feeling so much self-loathing and anger when I came to this space of anxiety, wanting desperately to be out of it and scrambling around for that rope that would finally, finally take me out of that space, yoga therapy offered me the opportunity to find curiosity there. It allowed me to explore without judgement, without shame. 

I got more out of my few sessions of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy than my many sessions of talk therapy. That is not to say I didn’t feel talk therapy was beneficial; for me though, it simply sharpened many of the skills I already had. Yoga Therapy gave me an entirely new set of tools. It allowed me to reestablish a relationship with my body and learn how to feel okay sitting in moments of distress rather than attempting to escape.

I am good at talking about myself; yoga therapy taught me how to listen to myself. 

— Megan Patterson