I’m an active, exercise-loving person—but my favorite workouts are sweaty, high-intensity sessions, à la Rumble and SoulCycle. I prefer to be so busy that I’m more focused on the struggle to catch my breath than on mindfulness about my breath’s very existence. I generally use my workouts as a means to distract me from how I’m feeling (whether that’s good or bad), so I can clear my mind and think about nothing at all. However, a recent breakup, which heightened my anxious thoughts, changed all of that. I tried calming yoga for anxiety, and it worked.
In the weeks following the rough breakup, I couldn’t eat, I barely slept, and my mind was running amok in circles. Traveling generally would have been a great, Eat, Pray, Love-approved way to escape these emotions, but unfortunately, my ex was slated to join me on a work trip I was taking to Dubai only a few weeks after our breakup. Clearly, that plan was no longer in tact. And even the trip itself, which I had be excited to take, became an emotional trigger.
So, when I found myself newly single and sad about it in the UAE, I searched for HIIT-style workouts to help take my mind off the anxious thoughts that wouldn’t stop buzzing: What’s he doing right now? Is he seeing other women? What could I have done differently? When will I be able to think about something else? And while I did find a few available spinning and boxing classes, they were (unsurprisingly) different than the local options that I enjoy back home, which only ended up exacerbating my sense of unease in this entirely new atmosphere. But I can’t live my life without moving, so I decided to try a completely new experience for which I’d have no marker of comparison to hold it to: an underwater yoga class at the Atlantis, the Palm Hotel.
To be clear, the class itself isn’t underwater: Rather, it takes place in the Lost Chambers Aquarium, a room of floor-to-ceiling glass windows showcasing some of the most exquisite sea life I’ve ever seen. Think: stingrays, a variety of colorful fish, and even several types of sharks. The clear blue water seemed to go on forever, and the dim lighting made me feel as if I were in the center of the ocean. The tranquility of the environment alone put me at ease. Everything in my real-life world felt far away—including my ex, our problems, and all of my anxious thoughts. Well, until class actually started, that is.
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The class focuses on a combination of a light flow and breath-work exercises, with an emphasis on how we we feel in our bodies throughout. Given that my workouts are usually results-driven, this practice marked my first experience of being encouraged to introspect deep into my feelings. While the intention of doing yoga for anxiety treatment is to squelch worries, my instinct was still to run away. Instead, though, I listened to the instructor’s advice to let myself breathe deeply and introspect during poses, holding each for a bit longer as a means to work on form and breathing rather than just going through the motions, which is essentially all I’d been doing in my real life since the breakup.
While holding poses and breathing deeply, we were instructed to be at one with our feelings. “The only way to find stillness is to really sit with your emotions,” Huda, the yoga teacher, says. “If your mind is racing, your body will, too.” I rarely dedicate intentional time to my thoughts, and instead prefer to distract myself from them—yet, running from my feelings clearly wasn’t really getting me anywhere. The feelings always popped up, sometimes with even more intensity, after my attempts to bury them. So, I decided to trust Huda and follow her instructions to discover whether feeling my anxious feelings might reduce the hold they held over me.
I closed my eyes, breathed in deeply (eight counts in, eight counts out), and tuned in to what I was feeling—and more specifically, which part of my body felt the feeling most intensely.
After breathing in, Huda encouraged us to imagine a warm glow of light enveloping the feeling and dragging it out of our body while we breathed out. After six to eight instances of this, I felt myself calm down entirely.
While my anxious stomach butterflies and barrage of internal questions didn’t vanish completely after the class, they became so much more bearable. Plus, realizing that while I can’t control my emotions outright, I can work to understand them—which is so much productive than ignoring and even running from them—was nearly life-changing. Throughout the remainder of my trip, I continued breathing in deeply and focusing on giving into my emotions. I was growing to understand that how I was feeling may not be comfortable, but it’s certainly normal and also not forever.
Now when I notice myself going down a rabbit hole of self-doubt and -loathing, I try to remember Huda’s advice to slow down. I forgive myself, breathe deeply, and release whatever emotions I’m holding hostage at the time. And to be honest, it often works.
Not in the market for yoga for anxiety-relieving benefits? Finding a practice in cities abroad can also help foster community—whether you’re in the middle of a trip around the world, or setting up shop in Paris for a few months.