Triggered

Exploring the psychological landscape of OCD

The Pains and Gains of Yoga for OCD

Yoga, Pilates, and even a little Zumba can help treat anxiety

I’ve been told countless times about the mental health benefits of exercise.  But the cruel paradox of mental illness is that, while exercise is most important to someone like me, OCD also makes it uniquely challenging to get to the gym in the first place.

Fatigue from medication or anxiety can make it tough just to get out of the house - and even when you manage to, the exertion, discomfort and boredom of both weightlifting and cardio exercise can make obsessive thoughts spike.  If it can be difficult to distract yourself from obsessive thinking at home, when you’re comfortable and in your own space - it’s nearly impossible when you’re straining to support heavy lumps of metal above your head, with your headphones cranked loudly enough to (almost) block the grunting of gym-goers and the cacophony of the Billboard Hot 100 screeching through the speaker system, with nothing else to occupy your mind.

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I’ve struggled to establish an exercise routine for a few years, and though I’ve succeeded at taking off some weight, I’m still not quite where I’d like to be.   So at the start of this year, in the spirit of new beginnings (without anything so formal as a resolution, which, as we all know, would be doomed to fail) I decided to try a membership at a local yoga studio.

Here’s the first thing you need to know about yoga – despite appearances, it is not easy.  Before trying it, I figured yoga was mostly stretching and balancing, maybe a little uncomfortable, but nothing a young man in the prime of his life couldn’t handle.  But yoga is hard.  If you’ve never tried it: imagine alternating between sit-ups and push-ups and sprints for an hour.  Imagine doing that while a soft-voiced but insistent instructor, doing the exact same exercises without breaking a sweat, is calling out orders.  Also imagine that sometimes while doing these sit-ups and push-ups and sprints - you are sideways, or upside-down, or balanced on your baby toes.  Yoga isn’t quite like anything I’ve tried before but it’s definitely a workout, and I’m glad to report I’ve enjoyed the promised benefits of exercise, mental and physical, since I’ve started.

I’ve also experimented a bit with some of the other classes at the studio.  I’ve had some success with Pilates and with restorative yoga, which is less active and incorporates meditative practice.  And then I tried Zumba. 

Honestly I think I would have been better off leaving Zumba in the same category as same-gender sexual experimentation or psilocybin: experiences that most people might benefit from trying at least once, but that I might be better off avoiding because of my personal issues neuroses.  I had high school flashbacks, both of the annual spring musical and of cross-country; Zumba brought me back to the bleeding-lung exhaustion of the latter and the humiliating, zombie-like choreography of the former.  Despite eight years, a bachelor’s degree, a published memoir and untold hours of therapy - the uncontestable truth remains: I’m still a six foot three inch tall white man and I am not built for rhythm.  (And honestly, I think a big part of the problem was the music, because aside from the inevitable “Gangnam Style,” the only song I recognized was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.”  Would it be that difficult to play something from this Willenium? I’m not asking for Robyn or Azealia Banks, but seriously: “You Ain’t Got No ***in’ Yeezy” in your Serato?)

Happily, I’ve been taking classes at my yoga studio for almost two months now, and yoga accommodates my anxiety disorder far better than other forms of exercise.  The scheduled classes make it much more difficult to procrastinate and encourage me to get out of the house earlier.  The directed structure of the classes, which requires listening to the instructor and following specific commands, is much more engaging and helps distract from OCD symptoms.  And again, while I can’t claim to be specially gifted at Zumba, I found it a useful way to confront my social anxiety and my pervasive phobia of looking silly in public.  Because I promise you - with Zumba, you will look silly in public.

It won’t be for everyone, but I’ve found my yoga studio membership has improved my management of my disorder as well as my general health.  If you have a mental disability and you’ve struggled with maintaining an exercise regime in the past, it may well be worth a shot.  After all, it’s not too late to get a healthy start to the new year.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2013. 

Author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (St. Martin’s Press), named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2012”.

Visit my website:  http://www.fletcherwortmann.com/ 

Read my Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/triggered

Image:  ©iStockphoto.com/FurmanAnna

Fletcher Wortmann is the author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

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