How Aerial Yoga Cured My Panic Attacks

This guy walked up to me and asked me what was wrong. He said, “When I’m freaking out, I hang upside down.” What?
Publish date:
June 14, 2013
yoga, panic attacks, dealing with stress

Feelings are a pain. For most of my life, I’ve struggled to find healthy ways to express them. I’ve tried antidepressants, therapy, drugs, alcohol, reality TV, and shopping. But now I’m experimenting with this thing where I feel them in the moment.

And it can be overwhelming as hell. Who wants to actually feel? Yuck. I have the same instinctual revulsion toward feelings as I do to carrying a child.

The reason is this: feelings, like kids, can be totally unpredictable. I spent my high school and college years pretty depressed, so I was convinced that if I let myself emote at ALL, I’d feel that way forever. If I got sad, I’d go to the dark place and it would overtake me and I’d be out of commission for an indefinite amount of time.

But that’s not true. I mean, it can be. For me, I’d get sad and then drink (which is a depressant) and feel worse and over and over again. Emotions felt while you’re drunk or high don’t really leave your system. Once I took away the drugs and stuff, I learned that my feelings would pass. I could be sad in the morning and happy in the afternoon. It was all good. They don’t last forever.

When I first quit all the stuff I was using to cope, my emotions were on full blast. All of the pent up anger and sadness and grief would come rushing toward me and explode at once. My chest would tighten up and I’d hyperventilate. I’d cry hysterically, frequently in public. These panic attacks were embarrassing.

It would have been really easy for me to go to the doc and get a prescription for Xanax. I’ve done it in the past. If I lived in Cali, I could have gotten some of that sweet dispensary weed. But that’s not the point. My goal, today, is to feel my feelings in the moment in order to work through them. And there are a million ways to keep myself from doing that (I’m looking at you, shopping and reality TV), but the only legit way through them is through them. They’re only going to leave my body if I feel them.

I needed ways non-chemical ways to calm down so I got really into yoga. I became a teacher and went to meditation workshops. Eventually my panic attacks subsided.

Until a year ago. I’m a writer/performer, which is totally erratic. I never know how much money I’ll have or whether I’m ever going to be successful and this uncertainty drives me nuts. NUTS. A year ago, I was taking this class which helps you make a business plan for the next year of your creative career. IT FREAKED ME THE HELL OUT. The teacher stood at the white board like an Oprah fairy godmother and asked people what they wanted. “Let’s set some goals! You want to sell a screenplay? You want to book a commercial? Let’s say three commercials! Why not? Aim high!”

Sure! I’m gonna be rich and famous in a year just because you waved your dry erase marker and pulled some epic pronouncements out of your ass. Listen, I don’t have a problem setting goals or working hard. It’s just that my goals take a long time because they’re HUGE, and the little baby successes are so hard to see that I feel like a failure in the interim.

But, I firmly believe that all we can do is show up and do our best. The results are up to the Universe, a Higher Power, Durga, whatever the hell you want to call it. When it’s my time to be successful, I will be.

Right, that’s a tangent. This woman was telling us that we could achieve all of our goals in the next year if we just worked really hard. I wanted to punch her. After class, I went into the lobby of my theater’s training center and started having a panic attack. I hate thinking about big picture stuff. The key, for me, to be in control of my emotions, is to stay in the moment. Every day I’m happy with that day. When I think about the big picture (I’m not as successful as I’d like to be at my age and, frankly, who knows if I ever will be), that’s when the panic attacks come.

I was sitting in the lobby, eating Cheetos because they calm me down, and this guy walked up to me and asked me what was wrong. He said, “When I’m freaking out, I hang upside down.” What? Normally, I hate when people give me advice or tell me what to do, but this was interesting.

Because I’m not the least bit rhythmically inclined, I gravitate toward non-cardio stretchy sports. But even though I have my RYT, traditional vinyasa bores me. Maybe it’s because I go to the cheap places, but every teacher seems to be mechanically talking through a set of poses without understanding anatomy or that the real benefits come from staying in one place for a while. I swear. Last week I had a guy with a heavy New Jersey accent who talked so fast he sounded like the Micro Machines man.

Whatever, though. I put my judgments aside and went with him to my first Aerial Yoga class the next day at Om Factory in Union Square. Aerial was developed by circus performers and combines silks with traditional yoga to give practitioners a deeper stretch.

When I first walked in, I briefly wondered whether this stranger was taking me to a weird sex cult because there are these saffron colored silks everywhere. They’re large pieces of fabric suspended from the ceiling with heavy-duty bolts. I thought there was no way they could support me. My brain was like, “AWW HELL NAW!!!!” But I’ve never even heard them creak. Ever. And I’m not a trusting person so I’ve inspected them thoroughly.

The silk goes in three throughout the class: at the base of your spine above your hip bones, underneath your sitz (butt) bones, or above your hip creases if you’re flipped on your belly. It allows you to go deeper in a stretch than you normally would. Think about it: you can go farther into your downward dog if there’s something suspended from the ceiling pulling your hips up in the sky than if you were just doing the stretch on your own.

All of the classes I’ve taken have had vinyasa, yes, but there’s always a portion where you just fly. The silk supports your torso and you lift your arms and legs and let go. It’s so comforting because even if I don’t always get the success I want in my life, at least for one moment of my day, I’ve soared.

Aerial yoga also incorporates a lot of monkey shit, which I love. Hanging upside down, climbing the silk, falling backward, that sort of thing. I love knowing that even though I’m getting older there is still a sense of adventure inside of me.

And the svasana! An aerial yoga svasana is like nothing else. You spread the silk out and let it envelop you like a cocoon. I can just be alone, in the moment, and cry if I want to.

Bear with me, here, I’m about to delve into some hippie shit based on stuff I learned in yoga school three years ago. I believe that we store emotions in different chakras throughout our body. And there are a ton of chakras in our hips. If you’ve ever cried during half pigeon, then ya feel me. By stretching my body in ways that it wouldn’t normally stretch, I can unlock some of these emotions that have been hiding out and let go of them.

If I’m practicing regularly I don’t have panic attacks. For whatever reason, aerial helps me to access the place in my body that stores up the shit that makes me sad. Aerial yoga is like getting a hug from your mother while eating tuna noodle casserole and sitting next to the fireplace. It gives you the safety and warmth that you need when you’re freaking out. And it makes feelings way less scary.

So, yes, I can audition for commercials and I can be funny as fuck. But unless it’s my time to book it, I’m not going to. I can’t manifest that shit. All I can do is perform as often as possible to ensure that I know my sense of humor and what I find funny so that I’m prepared when I go into that audition room.

I used to date this guy who was in college to join his mom’s psychiatry practice. They practiced holding therapy, which meant that all of your problems could be solved just by being held real tight. I totally buy that.