March 11, 2021Madeleine Bong on March 11, 2021
My breath began to hyperventilate. I couldn’t get enough oxygen and my exhales were unsteady. The sensation of hot concrete began to fill my lungs and my whole body felt as if it was being buried alive. I frantically waved my arms, words unable to be heard, but my instructor had his back turned to me. Suddenly, Big Blue swallowed me up and my sight began to tunnel. I remember this day quite clearly. It was my first anxiety attack and I’ve never felt anything so paralyzing. One moment I was twirling around in complete happiness and the next second I was enveloped by a wave of fear and heaviness. It probably also didn’t help that my first experience happened while I was 12 meters or 36 feet underwater, scuba diving in Hawaii. Unable to swim to the surface, I turned to Yoga.
This day was months before my first teacher training but I had been practicing Ashtanga yoga diligently for months before my family vacation. Ashtanga yoga is a rather rigorous physical practice but what specifically helped me in this moment of absolute fear was my ujjayi pranayama practice. The rest of the group was ahead of me and there was no way I could get their attention. I had to figure this one out on my own. I curled myself into a little ball, closed my eyes, and tried my best to allow the magic of ujjayi pranayama to do its thing.
Let’s take a step back for a moment and I’ll explain what some of these Sanskrit words mean. It’s important for me to explain to those who do not know because it keeps the traditional teachings alive. Ashtanga yoga (pronounced “ahsh-tahnga”) translates to “eight limbed yoga” and was brought to the modern age through Sri. K Pattabhi Jois. The series of poses are harmonized together through the use of ujjayi (“oo-jai-ee”) pranayama (“prahna-yahma”), which translates to “breath of victory” and “restraint/control of life force”. This particular pranayama creates heat in the body through the soft vibration and constriction of the back of the throat. The reason I opted for ujjayi pranayama is because the vibration massages the vagus nerve and stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system which allows the body to return to a sense of safety.
Anyways, here I am, bobbing around in 12 meters of water, in a tiny ball, and trying to steady my breath. Luckily, breathing out of the regulator, which is the thing that connects your mouth to the oxygen tank is somewhat similar to breathing in and out of a bag, perfect for anxiety attacks. Within a minute or so, my heart rate and breath steadied enough for me to find my way back to the group. I can see now looking back, that for the rest of my day, my body was in shock. I had never experienced something like that and I was confused. The residual trauma from that experience has left me extra-cautious when I am diving, but if this experience has taught me anything it is that, I am incredibly capable of regulating my nervous system on my own and what a beautiful example of how Yoga can support me outside of the studio. For those who know me, diving has become a part of my identity. The silence of being underwater gives me the chance to slow things down and experience life other than my own. It’s an experience you can’t get anywhere else. Normally people shy away from fear but in this context if I allowed the fear of my past experiences to stop me from living this unique human experience, then what is point of all this?
Since then, I have practiced ujjayi pranayama before, during, and after my dive sessions. It gives me the space to become present and feel safe in my body and environment. It gives me a moment to dive in and cultivate trust and stand in my own sovereignty. For those who experience anxiety and panic attacks on a more daily basis. No that you are not alone and there are a variety of tools and practices you can try to support you along your healing journey. If pranayama saved my life it can certainly support yours.
Till next time,
The Magic of Pranayama in Supporting Anxiety Attacks
Here I share my first anxiety attack experience and how my nervous system quickly turned to my breathing exercises. I never thought I would have such a strong anxiety attack and under the water nonetheless!
Resources to find support, education, and community
A list of resources to educate and support BIPOC communities. This page will continue to grow as I learn too. I will be looking deeper into LGBTQ+ resources as well, stay tuned.
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