Burn Out, Yoga and a Big Move. My life-changing experience
Written by Angela Muller Habig
Yoga found me – I did not find it. I remember walking down a dark rainy alley in Hamburg. It was early spring in 2011 already but the weather in Northern Germany is notoriously gloomy and I hid from the drizzle by walking underneath the shelter of an arcade. I passed by a Studio with a quirky sticker reminding me of 70s poster calligraphy. Underneath the flowing title ‘Power Yoga Germany’stood a smiling cartoon woman, one leg bent up to her thigh in what I would later know as tree pose. Curtains were drawn in front of the large windows and all I could hear was the blasting bass of hip-hop. Naturally, I was intrigued and showed up the next evening with a bad rubber mat, totally inappropriate sweatpants, and absolutely zero physical conditioning. I was 31 and had never worked out a day in my life.
The room was packed and I snuck my mat somewhere in the back rows. I tried copying the moves as best as I could, having no clue about how to place my limbs in space. All I knew was that the music was banging and that my body was loving the challenge. It felt like this was the movement I had been craving for. It was close to dance, which I love, without being performative or tightly choreographed. No one was mentioning the energetic effects or the roots of this movement; I just noticed people breathing rather heavily through their noses and tried to copy that as best as I could. I wanted to come across as a super seasoned yogi. Nothing makes me more insecure than being a beginner. All walk-ins were welcome so I was thrown in with practitioners flowing through their Vinyasa and one-legged Chaturanga’s with ease and grace. We even did headstands, which took me a whole year to get even a foot up in the air. All that didn’t matter – I was spending all my free time becoming my very best version. At least that is what I thought yoga meant – good vibes only, a knowing smile, and an ethereal glow. Until I had burnout.
A few weeks into my journey into yogic bliss I woke up at 4 am to finish proofing a gigantic project for print. I had worked on this layout over the past three weeks, one of which sitting behind a hotel reception in Santorini, hooked to a dial-up cable sending over files while my friends danced in an ouzo stupor. My work-life balance was absolutely non-existent and my body pulled the breaks into a full stop. On that morning I was triple checking all the folders containing pictures that needed to be integrated into the layout, only to find a completely unopened folder with 30+pictures I never noticed before. My last thought was I’ll never make it to the noon deadline, then all went black. I woke up on the floor without a sense of time or space, just dread. On all fours I crawled into the bedroom, hysterical at this point, hyperventilating, trying to wake up my partner to call an ambulance. It was the first of several panic attacks. My partner helped me onto the bed and it felt like drowning in the sheets. There was no air.
Paramedics came and sedated me. I couldn’t regulate my breathing so one medic was kind enough to sit on the bed with me and try to convince me to breathe slowly into a paper bag. I wanted to smash the bag at him – I was already choking! The tricky thing about hyperventilating is that it can exacerbate shortness of breath. I hope you never have to feel your diaphragm cramp, it is a horrible feeling of loss of control.
After the sedatives kicked in I lay there, wrung out, with a hollow space in my head. Everything was fuzzy and I understood why it is called burnout. It was as if a fire had erased my identity, my interests, my ability to form ideas and perform the simplest tasks. Strangely it would have been a pleasant state if I didn’t have deadlines still looming.
I tried to open my laptop and laughed. I had no clue where to begin, couldn’t decide if I had forgotten how to edit or if it just wasn’t important anymore. Life became translucent and I was a hazy ghost passing through. No attachments, no identifiable markers tethering me to the material. Just floating.
I took unpaid medical leave and went to yoga twice a day. It was all I was capable of. I had no interest in anything else and battled intense memory loss for over a month. The simplest tasks took so much energy and focus. I was constantly exhausted. Yoga was new, I was learning and felt safe. I had permission to reinvent myself, whole and healed.
Hoody pulled down to the tip of my nose as being in social settings became extremely triggering. Sometimes I would wear my prescription glasses and purposely take them off in class so everything beyond the perimeter of my mat became a blur. The world became too intense too fast and all I wanted was to hide. Asanas helped me feel my body again, ground me, gain a feeling of accomplishment. Even if everything else fell apart, I had something to hold me together.
For the first time in my life, I was consistently dedicated to a task. Me, the avoider, the crash and burn queen of chaos, the pick-up and go at any time free spirit. I convinced myself Yoga was my saviour.
My mistake was not realising the connection I was looking for was to myself. In the relatively safe environment of the yoga community, I projected my attachment traumas and externalised my rewards. I wanted to become the quickest learner, my desire to be seen was my fuel. I craved recognition, attention, to be taken by the hand. I idolised my teachers and would find ways to stick around the studio. Eventually, I struck a friendship with an English-speaking teacher who encouraged me to pursue my education in Yoga. After only 6 months of joining the studio, I wrote a long essay convincing my teacher trainers to let me join their next programme. I was thrilled with my newfound purpose.
As it happens with cosmetic changes I lived my yoga life at the same pace and intensity I lived my ‘regular’ life. Drama, unrequited love stories, bullying, being dropped by my yoga studio, gossip, affairs with fellow teachers, showing up to class still drunk from the night before. I was a hot mess, burning brightly and ready for combustion. Only now my uniform was leggings and Uggs. I felt special, different, part of the enlightened ones. I was vegan before Impossible Burgers, I had an arsenal of crystals and incense was my smell of choice. I drank rivers of Yogi tea. I was fully sold on the cult aspect of the wholistic scene.
Saving yourself while looking damn good and effortless.
I followed all the skinny white girls with dubious Instagram handles and #boho everything. Nothing in my mindset had changed, only the setting. I was a yogic teenager in my emotional landscape, rebellious and moody.
Luckily, yoga and life have a sneaky way of shaping you even when you aren’t aware. Experiences make you wiser, more selective. Pain molds you patiently, purposefully. The veil falls and you yearn for authenticity. There comes a point where you have no choice but to look for true healing. You recognise the medicine and that is what you want to share.
I am not a very serious, traditional, or preachy teacher. I understand that everyone is going to take the lesson which picks them up wherever they are on their journey of self-discovery. It is not up to me to fast-track them towards enlightenment or insist. I am doing enough by taking care of myself and if this is inspiring, wonderful!
Now, being a Yoga teacher is not a full-time choice for everyone. Attending yoga teacher training only cracks the door open to a wonderful journey of self-practice. It does not guarantee a change in your life path nor bring you answers to all of your soul’s questions. If anything, it will inspire you to keep on searching for interesting challenges to explore. Yoga is one tool of many.
In the long run, Yoga did rescue me. I am not certain I would have become a bodyworker without the influence of Yoga. I am very certain I would not feel as healthy and comfortable in my mind and body without the therapy of movement, breath, and mindfulness.
Yoga created an outlet for intense emotion that wasn’t self-harming. I slowly learned to feel safe in my body. To regulate my nervous system. Yoga reconnected me when I was triggered into emotional shut-down and dissociation. It taught me that I can have a conscious influence over how I feel and most importantly, how I choose to show up in the world. I learned to understand how my reactivity and my irritability stemmed from feeling unsafe. I embraced my shadows slowly.
Today I honour my resilience and know that anger makes me brave. I am slowly becoming my own caretaker, providing the safe space I need as a tender-hearted empath.