July 3


Pranayama and Prozac: How Original Hot Yoga Reduces my Anxiety Symptoms

By Erin Feid

July 3, 2024

hot yoga, original hot yoga, yoga, yoga for anxiety, yoga retreat

I’ve suffered from debilitating anxiety and panic attacks since I was 6; three decades ago, when mental healthcare wasn’t what it is today, when the stigmas were strong, and I was considered a worry wort or a Nervous Nelly. When a panic attack strikes, I experience the physical sensation of suffocating. I open all the windows when it’s 20° outside because I overheat, and I can’t breathe. Every muscle in my body tenses up and I feel as if I’m being choked by my own shirt, regardless of the neckline. My heart races and I can’t sit still. I tap my nails, shake my foot, sweat, and talk a mile a minute. Like the age-old debate of “Is it allergies or cocaine?” when someone is incessantly sniffling in springtime, my anxiety symptoms also have some questionable overlaps that are unwelcome at work.

When I talked with a doctor about obtaining a prescription to quell the panic in emergencies, she replied, “Have you tried Reiki?”

erin cupping

Oh lord, this doctor clearly doesn’t know that I’m a hippie and a yogi. I had to set my Drishti on her framed medical degree hanging on the wall behind her, and take a deep yoga breath, before responding.

“Yes, I’ve tried Reiki. I’ve tried THC, CBD, acupuncture, cupping, biofield tuning. I exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. None of that can help in the moment when a panic attack hits me at work. This is beyond Reiki.”

I appreciate Ayurvedic wellness as much as the next yogi. The services I received at Pura Vida Retreat & Spa in Costa Rica were extremely healing experiences, and I gained a lot of wisdom and clarity from them. Unfortunately, my current lifestyle and budget do not allow for regular massages, reiki sessions, and cacao ceremonies. If I had that kind of time and money, I’d be on the first flight to an Ayahuasca retreat instead of a psych hospital.

erin bow pose

What is attainable with my schedule and budget right now, however, is yoga. This recent mental breakdown I experienced was the catalyst for a long overdue lifestyle change. It’s when I realized I need to get back into consistent yoga practice again after slipping out of it during my mental health crisis. Even my kids will recognize and tell me when I desperately need to get to a yoga class. My practice is just as important to my mental healthcare routine as any therapy session, benzo, or SSRI. In fact, I consider every yoga class I attend to be a bonus therapy session for the week. I gain something positive from every class, whether it be a bit of wisdom, self-confidence, or even just a much-needed break from a stressful day. My body requires this regimen just as much as proper sleep and hydration.

While I keep a few different forms of yoga in my regular rotation, all of which provide their own unique benefits, it’s 26+2 that first decreased the severity and frequency of my anxiety symptoms. This class style may not offer me the emotional release I’ve experienced in Kundalini or the deep relaxation of Yin, but that’s not what I come here for, just as I don’t go to the Olive Garden for a hamburger.

I first came to Rhode Island Hot Yoga for the heat, but I continue to practice Original Hot Yoga for the predictability. What it lacks in terms of spirituality or open interpretation, it more than makes up for in its structure, focus, and consistency. This is a systematic, ordered practice that my anxious brain appreciates and can count on. I love that I always know what’s coming next. Unpredictability breeds fear in those who suffer from chronic anxiety. When life feels out of control, as it often does, the one constant I can rely on is this familiar sequence at Rhode Island Hot Yoga.

From the moment I walk through the studio door, I know exactly what to expect. Routine reduces stress, and I’m always prepared for 26+2. The more prepared I feel for something, the less stressful it seems. This is why I constantly research, make lists, gather information, check menus online before I get to the restaurant, read reviews before purchasing.

I love this practice for the same reason I love the Olive Garden and 90s rom coms. There are no surprises. They’re the comfort food and comfort movies that satisfy my expectations every time, and therefore never disappoint. Original Hot Yoga is nothing short of challenging, yet it’s my comfort yoga. In familiar situations of complete certainty, I feel safe. My brain gets a short break from its constant fight or flight mode as my cognitive load is lessened. The repetitive asanas of traditional hot yoga are my Olive Garden breadsticks, my Sleepless in Seattle, my all-natural Xanax.

erin in costa rica

At Rhode Island Hot Yoga, for at least 90 minutes, I know exactly what’s coming next. I can deduce how far into class we are without needing a watch, and I can anticipate any upcoming opportunities for rest. Over time, I’ve picked up on the specific language of this studio, of each individual instructors’ own fun quirks and unique phrases. I now know to respond with an enthusiastic “Woohoo!” when we reach Camel pose. I’ve come to expect certain verbiage that each teacher incorporates into their standard script. I find comfort in knowing that Charlene will always say “tick tock” at the warmup of Half Moon pose on Sunday afternoons, and I can count on Allison throwing in a “Turtle Power!” at Half Tortoise pose on Tuesday mornings. 

Solid, Concrete, One Piece, Lamppost, Unbroken. No knee! 

I’ve learned the distinct cadence of each teacher’s voice throughout their intricate, memorized dialogue. It’s like knowing the familiar sequence of a Catholic mass; when to sit, when to kneel, when to stand – but in booty shorts and surrounded by mirrors. 26+2 is essentially Sweet Caroline at Fenway. You needn’t be a fan of Neil Diamond or even understand the game of baseball to know what inning it is. You know what to do when that trumpet beat drops. It never changes. It’s tradition. 

Tradition is an immeasurably helpful tool in reducing my symptoms of anxiety. I simply show up, roll out my mat, and follow directions. As the constant decision-maker of my household, it’s refreshing and welcome to be told what to do for a change, to release that pressure of infinite options from my shoulders. Dripping in sweat while twisted like a rope, I feel peace in knowing that I get to attempt each posture twice in a row. The repetition of that second set offers me reassurance, an immediate opportunity for a do-over if I don’t get it right the first time. If only more aspects of life worked this way. 

Last chance. Lock your knees, lock your knees, lock your knees. 

When my anxiety is raging, every minor decision feels unbearably overwhelming. I contemplate office lunch options as if I’m purchasing a home, weighing the pros and cons of tacos versus pizza, lest I choose wrong and regret my decision, or worse, disappoint anyone else. Imagine having this baseline level of anxiety surrounding food, and then three miniature versions of yourself ask you every single day “What are we having for dinner?”  

As a divorced mother, and a self-proclaimed neurotic mess, perhaps the greatest personal benefit in my original hot yoga practice is the complete lack of decision-making required on my part. While we always have the available alternative to rest in savasana when needed, all control is essentially handed over to that person on the podium who tells me exactly what to do. They’re calling the shots; they’re driving the bus. I simply show up and give it my best effort. I don’t have to grapple with any choices in the hot room. 

When a teacher claps their hands, I drop into Tuladandasana. I know what to do. It’s Pavlovian now. I know I only have a matter of seconds to use my 100% strength, to balance on one foot and become a capital letter T like Tom. I hear the word “change” and I know it’s already over. It’s an intense physical feat and yet it’s as straightforward as playing Red Light, Green Light or Simon Says on the playground. Someone else controls the Twister spinner, and I’m told when to put my right ear on the mat, when to turn around and lie on my back in Savasana or lift my left leg in Half Locust pose. There’s a great comfort in simply following along with the constant flow of predictable instruction. It takes all the guesswork out and I can get lost in my practice, a ninety-minute moving meditation. 

Concentrate. Meditate.

costa rica students

Perhaps the greatest benefit throughout my years of practicing at Rhode Island Hot Yoga has been the strengthening of my mind-body connection. I have grown a deeper understanding and awareness of my body, a keen new ability to recognize subtle feelings and shifts that I would previously overlook without this clarity born from yoga. I’ve become more in tune with my physical abilities and limitations, able to pinpoint when something is off with my physical or mental health. My practice has made me mindful and present enough to recognize when something is “beyond reiki” and has given me the confidence to advocate for myself, the only person who knows my body best. 

Until very recently, I’d often experience intense crying spells that wouldn’t quit; incessant weeping that could be set off by anything, impossible to reign in once the floodgates had opened. Every task felt impossible, every aspect of life overwhelming. Simply living was a constant feeling of catching my shirt on a doorknob at every turn. Every minor inconvenience was a catastrophe that had me punching the air. Prior to yoga (and Prozac), I’d binge-eat my way through these periods of all-consuming hopelessness, drown my feelings in red wine, numb my anxious thoughts with edibles. I’d use attention from men as a distraction from my pain, like a pack of band-aids when I clearly required surgery. Prior to my recommitment to these 26 postures, the only one constant I had in my life was the guarantee that I would self-sabotage. 

I owe much of my personal growth and progress to my own hard work in therapy, to my somatic therapist who offers trauma-informed yoga practice in her office and recommends books like The Body Keeps the Score. I reluctantly credit big pharma as needed, but mostly I attribute my overall wellness and awareness to my yoga practice; that mind-body connection and clarity needed to identify deficiencies in my mental health. A significant aspect of yoga is honoring my body and listening to what it tells me. This has greatly benefited me in other areas of life as well. I can easily recognize and acknowledge my frustration when I have writer’s block; choosing to shut my laptop and return after a good night’s sleep or some fresh air. Had I not been so attuned to my patterns and needs, I may have overlooked the warning signs that something was very wrong. 

My yoga practice is not a magical cure for a long history of intergenerational trauma and mental health issues. My yoga journey has certainly not been linear or an overnight solution, nor would it ever claim to be – because nothing is. I’ve suffered many setbacks and taken plenty of time off over the years, but I always come back because it feels like home. I know I’ll feel better once I get there. It’s about showing up for myself, finding that balance that works for me, and honoring my body. 

Yoga has introduced me to sound baths and meditation, to new friendships and hiking buddies. Yoga has taken me on international adventures, eased the frequency and severity of anxiety and depression symptoms, and cumulatively saved my life. It’s a lifestyle comprised of daily lessons in determination, resilience, human connection, and self-compassion. My yoga journey has inspired me to write again, paving the way to grad school, new career goals, and a genuine sense of purpose. It’s provided the mindfulness necessary to know when to decline that glass of wine or block someone’s number, when to remove myself from an unsafe or unhealthy situation that is not serving me. It’s about slowing down, focusing on my breath, and taking that second chance. 

Continuously keep pushing. Push More. Push Harder. 

Erin Feid

About the author

Yogacentric freelance writer and soul searcher at stonedinsavasana.com. MFA candidate in Bay Path University's Creative Nonfiction Writing graduate program. Crazy Gemini.

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