According to Dr. Elaine Aaron, author of “The Highly Sensitive Person”, around 15-20% of individuals in every animal species, including humans, are heightened in their sensitivity. Meaning they absorb external stimuli on a deeper, more intense level than the average person or animal does. And, like many yoga practitioners, I’m one of them.
Benefits and challenges of being a highly sensitive person
Being highly sensitive has benefits and challenges. From an evolutionary perspective, we would be the first ones to notice a lion on the horizon, for instance. It allows us to be deeply empathetic and attuned to people’s needs. It becomes effortless to see where spaces could be made more comfortable, who needs an encouraging word, or whether the music needs to be changed.
But it also can mean that we find ourselves overwhelmed relatively quickly in the presence of large crowds, violent TV or even just busy city life. In my personal journey, the sensitivity and overwhelm was so strong at one point that I couldn’t even get into a train without developing a full-on panic attack. My anxiety levels were constantly high, without any obvious reason for it. I didn’t know what to do, and neither did my doctor.
How yoga helps me
That is when I decided to step into my first yoga class. And ever since, I’ve been hooked. I remember so vividly that feeling of stepping out of the studio, and that despite the fact that I couldn’t do half of the poses and felt incredibly clumsy, there was this sense of peace, stillness and relaxation that I literally hadn’t felt in years. I truly remember walking out of there thinking I could just hug every single person (and tree) I came across on my way home.
Back then, I didn’t know what exactly it was. Now, as my own practice has deepened and I’ve been teaching different styles of classes, I know that it’s a combination of factors that add to the delightful concoction that makes yoga a perfect balm for the highly sensitive.
Some of the ingredients are:
The stillness in the room
Ah. Bliss. Even just this turning down of the level of external stimuli is so soothing for our nervous system. How often do we take 1-1.5 hours out of our daily lives to just be quiet?
Introspection – turning your attention inwards
At the beginning of most classes, teachers will invite you to shift your attention inwards. To your body, your thoughts, your feelings, your general experience. Even this, for many sensitive people, is a whole new perspective as we can be quite used to tailoring our behaviour and actions to suit those around us. This way, we are encouraged to be with ourselves, which in and of itself is deeply healing.
The yoga poses themselves
Especially with more gentle and restorative practices, such as yin, gentle flow, or restorative yoga, the poses have a deeply calming effect on our nervous system. And as our bodies calm down and relax into a pose, our mind gets to calm down too. See, the feedback loop between our brain and our body goes both ways. So yes, of course, the body takes cues from the brain. But the brain also takes cues from the body. Relaxed muscles invite a relaxed mind. Again: bliss! Plus, we get out of our heads and into our bodies. Much needed for most people.
Conscious deliberate breathing
Of course, we breathe all the time. But a slow, gentle, deep and steady breath, which we are guided into during our practice, is yet again another nervous system’s favourite. It helps balance out our hormones and gives our minds a focus point when it needs help winding down.
The collective energy
This is true both when you go to a studio, and when you practice yoga at home via EkhartYoga. We attune ourselves to and begin to resonate with the energy of the teacher, the energy of the practice that is offered and, in the case of a studio, the energy of the place and other students.
There are many more intricate facets that add to the healing benefits of a yoga and/or meditation practice. Some of them are very personal to each individual, and some work their magic on nearly everyone.
For me, yoga and meditation have been the tools that have completely healed my panic attacks and anxiety. I’m still highly sensitive, and always will be (this is not something to be cured, it is simply a biological reality), but I now know exactly what to do when I feel overwhelmed. Usually, this involves lighting some candles, grabbing all my blankets and props, putting on my softest yoga clothes, and settling in for a nice, long restorative or yin class via EkhartYoga. Works like magic, every time.
Some of my favourite EkhartYoga classes to bliss out with:
Surrendering to stillness – with Esther Ekhart
The focus of this Yin class is stillness – it’s a great practice for when your body is tense, your mind is racing and you want to let go and relax.
The great unravelling – Yin – with David Lurey
The term ‘unravelling’ defines the act of ‘undoing or untwisting’ something, like tension in the body, for example. This Yin class does exactly that.
Sustenance – with Katy Appleton
Most of us don’t take enough rest…So gather all your props and take that time you deserve to come and rest deeply in this restorative practice.
Relax and feel deeply restored – with Esther Ekhart
With some calming alternate nostril breathing and loads of relaxing restorative poses, this practice is a beautiful gift for your body and mind.
Lazy yoga practice – with Marlene Smits
Perfect for those times you feel like doing some yoga, but you’re too tired, fragile or lazy to do anything active. Some lovely stretches and a couple of twists to make your body feel nourished and calm.
You can find more information and a short Are You Highly Sensitive? test on Dr. Elaine Aaron’s website.