I’ve noticed that a lot of people, including myself, that have tried breathing exercises or mindfulness practices come away from them feeling as though they don’t work. For a while it was a mystery to me why some yoga classes or meditations felt so much more healing than others. I realized that the practices that weren’t able to recenter me were more like going through the motions rather than truly being present. I may have been meditating but my mind was wandering and/or my breath was short and shallow the entire time. Sometimes the internal experience does not mirror the outward manifestation of mindfulness practices.
Some days you’ll find you are just not able to focus as easily as other days. However, this does not mean that you shouldn’t try breath work or yoga or that these practices don’t provide any benefit. One thing I’ve found that helps me stay in the moment if I find myself struggling is imagining I’m writing a story. When the mind is very busy, stopping all together can feel impossible. Instead, try to describe the tiny sensations, sights, sounds, feelings that are happening around you that you normally wouldn’t pay attention to.
For example, say you are taking a quiet moment to connect with the earth. Rather than merely trying to force your mind into focusing on the breath, start writing a mental story as if you are trying to explain everything you are experiencing in that moment to someone else. Are your feet in the grass? What does that feel like? Where is the sun in the sky? Is there a breeze blowing? What sounds are there around you? Be as descriptive as possible. If you find it hard to keep your mind on this task as well, you can even bring a notebook and physically write it out on a sheet of paper.
When you start to put seemingly bland or uneventful moments into words, you realize just how much is actually going on even in stillness that you might not have noticed before. I always find this practice very soothing and pleasurable. Even if it feels like you have no time or your mind couldn’t possibly stop racing, set a timer for just 1-5 minutes. It doesn’t take long for your to settle the mind and body. You may even find you enjoy it so much that you make a little more time than you thought you’d be able to devote to this little mental, emotional, spiritual break. And if not, be grateful that you at least gave yourself one minute to rest. You deserve it.
I have always loved that particular quote from Walt Whitman. As I grow and change, I always come back to those words of his with a new insight or depth of understanding and resonance with them. I found myself contemplating that quote again a few days ago as I was meditating. Normally we tend to identify with one version of ourselves. We play the role that we have given ourselves in our own story. We become overwhelmed by our emotions, only imagining ourselves as the one feeling the emotions, not realizing that we can choose to be another part of ourselves entirely.
To better explain what I mean by this, take the example from my meditation the other day. I began to feel tension seeping into my body, winding up my muscles, shortening my breath. My initial instinct is to succumb to these stress reactions. “I’m anxious. I’m so anxious. I don’t want to feel anxious. I’m wasting my meditation. Why am I so anxious? I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I can’t even relax while I meditate. What is wrong with me? There must be something wrong with me.” This is the death spiral of thoughts that come over me when I start to notice my own anxiety.
The pathways craved out in my brain supporting the habit patterns I exhibit internally in response to anxiety are quite strong. It isn’t always easy to switch to a different aspect of myself when confronted with these difficult feelings. Occasionally, I am able to flip a switch inside my own head, though. After taking a moment to come back to my breath and surrender to the thoughts and feelings that I was experiencing, I felt a significant shift. Suddenly I wasn’t the anxious girl, full of frustration and despair at my own inadequacies. I became the neutral, yet compassionate observer.
Suddenly I was the witness, the me outside of me, the higher self within me, watching lovingly, offering that other self understanding and tenderness. A healthy amount of space existed between me and the emotions I was experiencing. I could see that we weren’t one and the same, I and the anxiety. I began to tell myself that it was okay to experience those uncomfortable feelings. It was okay to be scared and stressed out. I didn’t need to run from those experiences. I could choose to hold space for them instead. I could choose to accept them and surrender to the moment, even if that moment wasn’t what I wanted or expected.
This internal shift is something that we can all learn to utilize with practice. It’s not the same as denial or disassociation. It wasn’t that I was using this other version of myself to run from or ignore the anxiety I was experiencing. In fact, it was just the opposite. I used that other version of myself to create a safe space for me to acknowledge those feelings while at the same time being emotionally available and separate enough to also offer myself comfort in that moment.
This concept is quite hard to explain, but it can be easy to practice. The next time you feel overwhelmed by a situation or an emotion, try this: When you catch yourself falling into unhelpful thought spirals, pause. Return to your breath. Take a moment to just explore the feeling. What does it feel like in my body right now? Then instead of thinking: I’m so anxious, I’m so sad, I’m so angry, etc. Change your internal dialogue to: I am noticing that I am anxious, sad, angry, etc. This shifts you from the perspective of the one suffering to the one observing from a distance. It helps you disentangle yourself from the more visceral reactions and gives you a bit of space so you don’t feel as overwhelmed and consumed by the way you are feeling. It’s much easier to be the observer and be able to offer your other selves comfort.
This technique may not always work to find relieve from difficult situations and emotions, but it is always worth a try. Shifting which “self” you identify with is also a practice. Don’t get upset with yourself if it seems hard or even impossible at first. I hope this explanation hasn’t been too confusing. Let me know if you would like any further clarification or what your experience with this type of mental exercise has been.
Anxiety is a bully. It feeds off of the fear that it creates. The longer you avoid something because of anxiety the harder it becomes to face. Fear is a powerful motivator. It doesn’t really matter if the fear is rational or not. Sometimes anxiety and fear become inseparable. They swell and become monstrous in size, looming over us. We do our best to hide from them. But they are inside of us, so no matter how hard we try, how much we practice, there is nowhere safe to seal ourselves away.
The good news is just like a schoolyard bully, anxiety is easy to defeat. Bullies rule by fear more than might. Standing up to them is all that we really need to do. When we experience anxiety, the body is on high alert. It is telling us to get the fuck out of there. It feels like we will certainly die if we do not somehow escape the situation and the emotions we are feeling. Thankfully, there is still some part of us that knows this is untrue, that these feelings are unfounded.
When we listen to our anxious feelings we are reinforcing the brain’s believe that this fear response was correct. The good news is we don’t have to listen to our anxiety. It feels counterintuitive. Centuries of evolution have programed us to heed these warning signals from inside. Luckily we are intelligent enough to outwit our instincts. Don’t allow your anxiety to bully you anymore. Here’s a little meditation I am working on to help me stand up to my anxiety.
Face Your Fears Meditation
Take a deep breath and notice what anxiety feels like in your body. Do you feel tense? Numb? Energized? Do a full body scan and take note of any places you can feel nervous energy in your physical body.
Now start to take more deep, conscious breaths. Inhaling for a count of four. Hold for four. Exhale for four. Hold for four. Repeat this cycle a few times.
As the nervous system begins to relax, try to release any tense areas you identified earlier.
Let the breath return to its natural rhythm as you turn your thoughts to whatever is making you anxious.
Visualize yourself accomplishing or overcoming whatever it is you’re anxious about, experience the positive emotions of your success in your body.
Imagine what it feels like to be powerful, confident, brave.
Imagine how good it will feel to face your fears and overcome your anxious feelings.
Repeat to yourself softly, “I am brave. I am brave. I am brave.”
Now imagine it has already been done. Your anxiety vanquished, it evaporates.
Feel free to use, edit, or tweak this meditation any way you see fit. If the suggested mantra feels a bit empty or corny to you, pick one that resonates with you more. If that particular form of pranayama doesn’t suit you, incorporate another such as nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breath.) The words and breath you use in a meditation aren’t necessarily important. The most important thing is the emotions you draw forth. If the words courage or bravery don’t make you feel anything, instead you could try to imagine a time when you felt brave or imagine what it would feel like in the future.
At the end of the day, anxiety can only win if we let it. I know you are strong enough to face your anxiety and overcome it. It may never go away, but we can learn how to work with it instead of against it. We get to decide how we perceive this life. For so long now I’ve chosen to view my anxiety as a burden, something that constricts me and holds me back from living the life I want. But I don’t have to look at it that way. Instead, I am going to use my anxiety to my advantage. I don’t have to feel ashamed that things that are easy for others may be quite difficult for me. Each challenge I face, however small, is a gift. It is a chance to step into my own power. It is a chance to believe in myself. It’s an opportunity for triumph, an opportunity to be brave.
One of the first things you tend to learn when getting into yoga philosophy is that resistance to unpleasant feelings, situations, or emotions only leads to more intense, prolonged suffering. In fact, it could be said that all of the suffering we experience stems from our aversion to certain things. Life is about perspective primarily. So if we can teach ourselves to see everything through the eyes of loving kindness, there is no where for suffering to take root.
This principle of non-resistance can be seen in the mind, but also in the physical body. I have always been someone who detests the cold and avoids it at all costs. Unfortunately for me, I also happen to live in the northern part of the country where winters can be pretty intense. I read the other day that when you brace yourself against the cold and try to resist it, you are actually only making yourself feel colder! When we tense up our bodies, our blood vessels are constricted. Therefore less blood is able to flow to our extremities, making us colder. If we can breathe deeply and relax our bodies, we won’t be as uncomfortable with low temperatures.
This also works with other types of pain or discomfort. The breath is such a powerful thing, if we can only learn to utilize it. I often notice when I am in some type of physical pain whether it be a stomach ache, a sore throat, or just muscle cramps, I desperately try to avoid and disassociate from that area of my body. Sometimes as a kid I would even visualize boxing that body part off from the rest of me. Needless to say that type of response has never worked for me. Despite my best efforts I am unable to ignore my body’s painful cries.
The other night as I was struggling to fall asleep due to such a pain, I decided to try embracing that pain instead of attempting to push it away. I turned to focusing on my breath. I imagined sending the swirling, healing oxygen to that painful part of my body with every inhale. As I exhaled, I relaxed and accepted the unpleasant sensations. This didn’t make the pain go away, but after a few moments I felt much better. Today I am struggling with a very upset stomach from overeating yesterday. Stomach pain has always been one of the hardest problems for me to deal with ever since I was little. I’ve felt tense and uncomfortable all morning. Nothing I’ve tried seems to have helped. However, as I sit here writing this, I’ve been trying to also take slow, deep breaths down into my belly. I can definitely still feel some discomfort, but it’s much less pronounced than earlier.
Just like with most meditative practices, the hardest part is staying focused. Even after years of practicing yoga and meditation it can be hard for me to take deep breaths as I move through a normal day. In fact, a lot of the time I find that my breath is exceptionally shallow or that I’m holding it! It can definitely be frustrating when it feels like despite your best efforts you aren’t making much progress. The good thing is each breath is another opportunity to practice. Breathwork is something we are able to work on anywhere no matter who we’re with or what we’re doing. Not to mention it’s free! It can even be quite fun once you start to notice the connection your breath has on your body and mind.
I find it really helps me to attach an image or an emotion to my breath to help me concentrate. Recently I’ve started to imagine each sip of air as a delicious food, drink, or even a drug that I get to consume. I look forward to every inhale and exhale. I savor the way it feels as it moves through my body. Sometimes I’ll also picture all of the wonderful things my body will be able to do with so much fresh oxygen. I imagine it providing me with energy and happy feelings. I imagine my body using it to perform all of it’s vital functions: building new cells, cleansing toxins, healing me, etc. Just thinking about it makes me so grateful for this body I have been blessed with. It inspires me to breathe deeply as a gift to this body. Inhale – I love you, body. Exhale – thank you, body.
The next time you are feeling upset or you’re in pain, whatever it may be that you find yourself resisting, try to honor that feeling rather than running from it. Perhaps it will even turn out to be a gift. It is easy to go through life without growing or changing when things are going well. However, pain and discomfort are necessary signals that we can learn so much from. For instance, my stomach hurting this morning is a reminder to take better care of my body. It is my body asking me for love, kindness, and respect. Instead of being frustrated and upset with my body for not behaving the way I want it to, I am going to listen to it’s urgent request. I am going to use this unpleasant morning to push me to do better for myself today and from now on. It all begins with the breath.
As I’ve mentioned before, I began yoga for pretty superficial reasons. For years, my practice was about changing my body, trying to make it fit into a certain mold through simply practicing different shapes. Yet, even with a practice that hasn’t yet scratched the surface of yoga, it is impossible to avoid receiving some of the more spiritual benefits. Even without meaning to, you start to drop into the breath. You start to really become acquainted with it, maybe for the first time. You have moments of perfect peace, of true presence of mind. In the beginning, these were just pleasantly surprising pluses from my practice, not the focus of it.
Throughout the years my practice has grown. At times it almost feels like a completely different activity all together from those first forays, which I would now think of more as simply stretching. Back then yoga was all about the body. Now it is also about the mind and spirit. It is incredible how much this mental shift has changed my practice. On the outside, it may look identical, but now I am able to more fully absorb all the goodness yoga offers me and use it to heal.
I no longer care to push myself into my fullest expression of every pose when I lay out my mat each day. I am not trying to prove something to myself or anyone with my practice anymore. If I learn to do a handstand without a wall to support me, that’s great, but these types of things are no longer the types of goals I set for myself. Now it is more about what I would learn on the way towards such a goal. How do I deal with frustration? How to I react when confronted with limitations? Can I be patient? Can I embrace where I am now? Can I be resilient? Can I persevere in the face of adversity, of failure? Can I trust? Now most of the work is going on inside of me. When you approach your practice (and life itself) in this way, no effort is “wasted.” If after years of working towards a handstand, I never quite make it, that’s perfectly okay. I will still have gained so much through my efforts.
Now it isn’t about how a pose looks. It is more about how a pose feels. How it affects the breath. What thoughts come up? Can I allow them to pass through me without clinging to them or pushing them away? Can I find the perfect balance between effort and ease? Can I notice what my body needs today? This inner work, this is what yoga is truly about. Truthfully, learning how to do impressive physical feats is cool, but ultimately doesn’t matter much in life. What we really learn from yoga is how to live. I am much better off having done all of that inner work and never being able to do a handstand than if I learned how to do a perfect handstand but nothing else.
Yoga allows us to explore what it means to exist in this body, with this mind, through this breath, right now. It teaches us how to cope with life’s struggles, how to more fully savor life’s gifts, how to work through anger and frustration and sorrow, how to be there for ourselves. In my opinion, yoga is therapy. Except you are the therapist and the client. You design and guide yourself through your own healing journey. After all, who is better equipped for this than you? All of the answers that we seek are already within us. Yoga teaches us how to tap into that wisdom, how to listen to the body, to the heart.
I still have a lot to learn, but each moment is a lesson. Not only during my work on the mat, but off it as well. True yoga isn’t left behind when we step out of the studio. We try our best to take it with us into the rest of our life as well. When you stay mindful, every moment can be part of your practice.
All of this, this is the reason I became a yoga teacher. I am overcome with gratitude whenever I think about this gift of yoga that has been passed down through the ages, eventually finding its way to me. I simply had to do whatever I could to share this gift with others. It is my sincere hope that this beautiful practice continues to help the whole world to heal. I will keep doing my part by learning how to heal myself through this ancient art and passing it along to others so that they may begin their own healing.