My yoga story: training the monkey mind (ENG)
I don’t remember much about my first ever yoga class. It was in an old room of a community centre. There were lots of middle-aged women present. I zoned out to the chant of Buddhist monks in what I now know to be savasana.
When the teacher instructed us to wiggle our fingers and toes I could not, for a moment, remember how to move. It was a not-quite-scary but certainly strange experience. And that is as far as my memory goes.
It’s the mid-nineties and I am seventeen when I am introduced to this yoga-thing for the first time. Puberty has hit me hard. Besides getting ready for my exams and hiding the fact that I am gay from the world, I also struggle with anger, anxiety, impulse control issues and panic attacks. I am no longer the cheerful, energetic little kid that I used to be, but a scared and highly-strung teenager, trying to keep up appearances. My GP prescribes me some valerian root to help me feel calmer and get me through my exams. My mom takes me with her to yoga class. I take the pills and the classes, but despite that one oddly calming savasana experience, it doesn’t cut it for me. At seventeen I am not ready to stop, turn around and face my demons.
Instead, I finish my yoga classes – according to my mom I took a whole season of lessons; I honestly don’t remember – I pass my high school exams and I move to another city, where I make awesome friends and dive headfirst into a student life filled with music, parties and booze. For years my spiritual experience doesn’t reach beyond watching Eddie in my all-time favorite TV show Absolutely Fabulous dabble in Buddhism, New Age-spirituality and Kundalini Yoga.
Oh yes, and I aspire to be a Wiccan. But that is mainly because I like the Gothic outfits.
All in all, my life is A W E S O M E as long as I keep on moving.
But as the years go by all that studying, working and partying takes on manic proportions. I am chronically anxious. I need to do something. Always. I can’t sit still. Not even for five minutes. Not even to save my life. The fear, the panic attacks, the temper tantrums and the impulsive behaviours stick with me, they become worse even, but there is nothing an unholy amount of alcohol and yet another night on the town can’t solve.
Fast forward ten years and I have graduated from university. Twice. I now have a degree in Journalism and a cum laude Master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam. I also have a cute girlfriend, an apartment and a full-time job in a bookstore. You could say that I have settled.
It’s the perfect time to stop.
And face my demons.
In 2006 I get burned-out. Of course I do. All I am capable of from that point on is sleeping. When I am not sleeping, I am crying, yelling, fighting or just sitting-and-staring, completely disconnected and caught in the web of paralysing apocalyptic fear-stories my mind has concocted. It’s not fun at all.
When my situation doesn’t improve much, not even after eighteen months of psychotherapy, I am subjected to several psychological evaluation tests. And yes, this also includes extensive drawing. There is no Rorschach Ink Blot Test, however. I am slightly disappointed.
Eventually, I get diagnosed with anxiety disorder and additional BPD characteristics. BPD, also known as Borderline or as Emotional Intensity Disorder, is a mental health disorder where extreme emotions get triggered very quickly and take a long time to die down again. Six years of therapy follow.
This time my girlfriend points me in the direction of yoga. And this time I am ready for it.
It’s safe to say that yoga saved my sanity. Together with lots of psychotherapy, haptotherapy, emotional regulation training and infused with the practice of mindfulness, yoga and meditation help me find my calm, my center, my Self. Through yoga I learn to inhabit my body and to regulate my trigger happy monkey mind.
Needless to say, I am forever grateful for having yoga in my life.
To me, yoga is therapy in action. The quickest and easiest way back to myself always proves to be through some form of yoga, whether it’s taking a class, going to a workshop, practising just one asana, breathing exercise or meditation, reading up on its philosophy or just reminding myself of ahimsa – being kind and compassionate, also towards myself – and santosha – the practice of contentment.
Yoga is an open invitation to turn inward to discover where I am at and how I am doing. Through it I manage to slow myself down, soften my body, my mind and my heart, and regain balance. It helps me to really feel; to observe what is going on and to do so without judgement. Above all, it teaches me to breathe.
Practising and studying yoga and meditation gives meaning and direction to my life. Obviously, it takes a lot of dedication, this process of yoga and the study of Self. And it is and always will be work-in-progress. But that’s what I like about it. It is not called a practice for nothing. I, for one, am happy to put in the effort, because from experience I now know that yoga indeed stills the fluctuations of the mind (yoga-sutra I.2).
Peace and quiet
My mat is my safe space. And yoga is my anchor. It prevents me from flying into destructive anger, nerve-wrecking obsession or paralyzing fear. And it works. Ever since I started practising yoga I no longer get rattled as much by external stimulations or by the crazy stories my monkey mind tries to feed me. Emotional sensitivity will always be part of me, but yoga helps me to feel the ground beneath my feet, the breath in my lungs and the air on my skin. It reminds me to take it easy, to let go and trust the process. And it always guides me back to the here and now, where it is just me, myself and that once-so-rare sense of peace and quiet within me that I experienced for the first time in savasana when I was seventeen.
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