The Yoga Teacher Diaries: Tips For Navigating Anxiety

It’s easy to idealize wellness professions that demand, to an extent, mental and emotional ‘stability.’ Occupations like therapists, yoga/fitness instructors, and other wellness jobs require you to make others feel safe, grounded, and supported. I’m here to tell you that, though I can only speak to my own profession, I am still a human with feelings and unstable moments despite my responsibility to help others feel secure. I’m also still a Junior in college, so trust me when I say I have not missed out on all of the overwhelming, anxiety-ridden, stressful-as-hell obligations of a full-time student about to enter the adult working world. 

Being a yoga teacher has forced me, at times, to reign in my over-caffeinated, if not neurotic student energy in order to create a peaceful and supportive environment for my students. I do try to be genuine about my personal crap when teaching and acknowledge when I’m having a rough day to show students that being ‘unstable’ is okay. That being said, I’m still learning to open up and find that common ground of also providing a sense of security and acceptance in this space. What I can say is that being in this yoga community has been a huge support network for me, and having the studio as an outlet through which to move and breathe has taught me invaluable lessons about myself and how I handle my anxiety.

First and foremost, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that anxiety is not something to be bottled or ignored. This may seem like a pretty foundational idea, but a lot of times we’re so busy running around doing the most we can that we subconsciously put our emotional stability on the backburner. Come the end of the week when all of our papers and assignments and exams are done, we get this overwhelming burst of emotion and exhaustion that feels ten times as big as when that seed of anxiety started growing on Monday. How many times have you run yourself ragged, skipped meals, the gym, maybe even proper hygiene to get everything done, only to reach a point of utter insanity and debilitation? Many students, at some point, experience this influx of uncontrollable anxiety. That build up is a culmination of days and days of ignoring what you really need. Sure, everyone ‘needs’ to get their school work done and log more hours at their job to make money, but sometimes that blocks us from seeing what we actually require to be healthy and happy. 

At the beginning of the week when planning out your school and work schedules, add in blocks of time for the things you love. Sometimes scheduling in concerted events or times for study breaks and self care, positive movement, and time with friends can help you prioritize them as you would a school assignment or shift at work. It may seem reckless to hold both types of priorities to the same strict standard, but unfortunately today’s fast paced, competitive world has taught us that our mental and physical health shouldn’t even be a priority at all. Though more recently we’ve gotten better as a society with discussing mental health and de-stigmatizing common issues like anxiety and depression, not many of us are as supportive of our own needs for stability as we are of others. It’s easy for us to remind our friends to eat meals, find time for exercise, cut off homework at a reasonable hour and get sleep, and take study breaks. It’s not as easy to look at ourselves and say, “Hey, you are allowed to slow down and take care of yourself!” 

Being in the wellness profession has also taught me that practicing non-judgement is one of the most important aspects of making others feel safe. The yoga studio is a place where all bodies, all types of practitioners, old and new, and all walks of life come to breathe, sweat out all of their crap from the day before, and find some peace. A significant part of that peace comes from my ability to enforce and evoke a narrative of acceptance, non-comparison, and learning to not label, evaluate, or judge oneself or others. The funny thing is that as soon as I lock up the studio after a class and start to head home, I almost immediately begin to mentally barrate myself about the things I need to get done during the day and all the reasons why I haven’t done enough. Any student or type-A person is all too familiar with the thought process, I didn’t work hard enough on this. I suck. I have so much to do, and I’m overwhelmed. This type of judgement, the overall “I suck” narrative, is probably the hardest to tackle. It produces the kind of anxiety that makes you freak out about everything at once because all you can do is criticize yourself. Where is there to go when this happens? For me, I cope by going to my favorite coffee shop, cafe, or aesthetically pleasing spot that will help me get through the work I need to do. I can understand that, as a college student, we’re deep in the on-the-go lifestyle mentality of “I don’t have time for an anxiety attack right now,” and that’s totally fine! However, an anxiety attack is quite literally your body communicating that it is stressed, overworked, and needs to be cared for. History shows that ignoring your body’s queues telling you that you need a breather will only resurface in bigger ways when you finish that long list of tasks at the end of the week. 

When I’m feeling overwhelmed and beating myself up, relocating to somewhere more comforting can make work less daunting. It can help to treat myself to being somewhere cozy, maybe to splurge on a good latte or avocado toast, and to do my work in a setting that makes me happy and calm. Even if you are someone who needs absolute silence to concentrate, just take 30 minutes to be somewhere comforting that has your favorite feel-good food or drink and see what happens when you try to do your work there. You may find that the suffocating intensity of a library or study room may not always be the best place to ride out a wave of anxiety while also remaining productive. 

My last tip is to lean on others. Again, cheesy and inferrable, I know. But almost everyone in your life experiences anxiety every now and again, and shutting yourself in your room with all of your responsibilities and negative self talk only pressurizes the way you’re feeling. In the yoga studio, we often remind students that as hard as a pose is or as nervous as you are about a vinyasa sequence, everyone in the room is going through the same thing. Everyone is challenged and everyone needs support at some point or another. Plan study groups so you are your friends can power through the school stress together. Hold each other accountable for self care by planning days to get active as a group (maybe a team yoga class!) and take study breaks for food and social stimulation. Isolation may as well be anxiety’s cousin, which is why we feel unstable and maybe even a little freaked out when we’ve spent 6+ hours locked in the middle of Hatcher basement, wedged between bookcases and probably needing a shower. That 12 page research paper is important, but so is your sanity. Take care of yourself as you would an equally academically-driven friend and make your health a priority.