Staring Down Anxiety

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.

Inhale Courage Exhale Fear. Inspiration Support Saying, Motivational Quote.  Modern Calligraphy In Floral Wreath Frame. Stock Vector - Illustration of  concern, panic: 119681270

Sit With It

When you notice yourself starting to feel overwhelmed, remember one thing. It’s okay to feel that way. There seems to be a constant pressure to make every moment of your existence pleasant or pleasurable or exciting. It is easy to forget that there is still value in the more difficult moments. There is nothing wrong with having an off day, month, or even an entire year. We don’t need to hurry ourselves to get out of these low periods in our lives. Often it is that very desperation to avoid our feelings that causes them to be such a burden on us. I would definitely say that my panicked reaction to noticing that I’m anxious or worrying that something will make me anxious is far worse and occupies more of my time than the anxiety itself.

It’s easy to skip a day of meditation or shorten my practice when I am feeling particularly jittery or restless. Even if I do make it into my seat, it can be an irresistible temptation to fidget, twist, stretch my neck, etc. Sometimes it’s impossible not to give in and allow some gentle movements as I’m first settling in. One of the things I’ve learned, however, is that resisting those urges can lead to a very meaningful, reassuring, and nourishing practice. Letting our minds trail off in thought or moving our bodies around are excellent ways to distract us from what we are feeling. Sometimes it feels like I am afraid of having any free time, because I won’t be able to avoid myself. But the beauty of these moments is what happens when you force yourself to face them.

I’ve learned that when you run from things, they keep chasing you. It becomes an endless race that leaves you exhausted. There is no true escape. On the other hand, when you ground yourself in the moment and allow your fears to catch up to you, they often dissolve in your gaze. It is so strange to be human, to be this unnatural animal living in an artificial reality. The mechanisms of evolution that have led us to this place, given us these bodies we now have, no longer seems to serve us. We are fish out of water. Yet we are the ones that have removed ourselves. We have created technology that allows us to breath on dry land, yet our physical forms continue to send signals of danger and death with every breeze.

While these signals are meant to protect us from real danger, sometimes the signals themselves become the thing we fear most. When we simply allow those feelings to wash over us, something amazing happens. We realize that these feelings cannot harm us. Subconsciously it seems like stress alone will suffocate us, so we continue to run from it every day. Once we finally decide to stop running and sit down to face these feelings of disease, we see that we have nothing to fear. We will survive the stressful moments. We will survive heartbreak and embarrassment. These emotions may never be easy, but we don’t have to let them control us either.

Meditation can be similar to exposure therapy. When a person is put into contact with an irrational phobia, this shows their body and mind that their phobia won’t really harm them. Then the fear can finally begin to dissipate. Meditation can be scary for this very reason. This is what makes it so hard for so many people. The fear of the unknown or even the fear of ourselves keeps a lot of people from every venturing to begin a meditation practice. Even after years of practicing every day, I still get nervous at the thought of sitting in that stillness. But it is always worth it. It is difficult to face your fears, but we must challenge ourselves to do so. We’ve got to have faith in ourselves in order to carry on. We must trust that we will make it through and that we are capable of handling whatever this life brings to us. Even when it seems impossible, take a deep breath, and try to sit with it.

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Vegan Dating

Yesterday I had my first date with the vegan guy I met on Veggly. It’s one of the few vegan dating apps I’ve found. It has a lot of glitches and isn’t perfect by any means, but it gets the job done. It allows vegans to find other vegans, and that’s good enough for me. I can’t imagine they were able to put a lot of money towards development, so I’m grateful for whatever I can get.

Anyway, I’ve met a few guys on this app in the past. The first date is always a gamble. And not in the sense that you might imagine. The gamble is whether or not you will ever hear from them again afterwards. I’ve been completely ghosted more than a few times. It’s hard not to take it personally, but I’ve learned not to waste time wondering why or getting angry about it. After all, I’ve done my fair share of ghosting. I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s true.

Yesterday I tried to keep my mind on the present and just enjoy our walk on the trails together. It was a beautiful day, and I was pleased to find I had good company. I knew once we parted ways that may be the end of it. Either way, it was so refreshing to have another vegan to talk to, someone who truly understands my point of view, politically, dietarily, and environmentally. A very rare find in my neck of the woods. Which is why I generally have to search for vegans about an hour away in the city, like I did to find this one.

It’s hard to gather a full impression of someone from speaking with them for only a couple hours, but as far as I could tell, I like him. Then the question became if I would ever hear from him again. I try not to get my hopes up. To my surprise, he messaged me again a few minutes after I had returned home. He even wants to set up another date this coming week, which pleases and terrifies me at the same time. I’ve made a lot of progress over the last several days, but even so it’s been hard for me to divert from my normal routine. Although it is a much needed challenge for me.

My friends and family always seem perplexed at my insistence that my partner be vegan. It’s really hard to explain to them without coming off as aggressive or offensive. The only way I can think to properly explain it always sounds like I’m being a jerk to my non-vegan friends. No one seems to understand the vast moral divide between vegans and meat-eaters. Trying to explain it always leave me sounding harsh. But the truth is often harsh, and I don’t know how else to put it.

What I want to say when they ask me why I don’t want to date non-vegans is this: Would you want to date someone that eats children? Puts dead baby legs in the freezer? Or someone who ate cats and dogs? Buying bulldog flesh at the market and barbecuing it on your grill? Sharing your kitchen with gruesome death? Being reminded of ignorance, selfishness, and suffering at each and every meal? You can see why this type of response wouldn’t go over well with the questioner. Instead of understanding, it just illicits resentment.

That is why it is so refreshing that my new vegan friend, Nick, understands. It’s hard to explain how nice it is to speak with someone who you don’t have to edit yourself around. I don’t need to water my opinions down so I don’t upset or offend him. I can speak my mind. Not only that, but I can be heard and understood while doing so. Dating a meat-eater is accepting that your partner will never truly understand you. Because if they did they would no longer continue their died of death.

All of these things contribute to my excitement about Nick. He even ended a two year relationship because his partner refused to transition. To me that shows that he truly has the courage of his convictions. I greatly respect that difficult decision. Hopefully things will continue to go well between us. For the first time in a long time, I am excited to see what the future holds.

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Balance

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Once again it was teacher training weekend at my yoga studio. This month they are learning about balancing postures. I think these poses have the potential to be particularly special teaching tools. We are able to learn so much about ourselves through them. They help us build strong stabilizing muscles. They allow us to connect with our center. They help us develop focus, perseverance, and grace. They help us create beautiful shapes with the body. And they also lead to profound insights about who we are and how we deal with life on and off our mats.

One of my favorite sayings in yoga is: the mat is a mirror. Our yoga practice is a little microcosm of life. When we are performing our asanas, when we allow the mind to be still, when we watch our thoughts, our reactions, we are able to learn a lot. One of the most important things balancing postures showed me is how I deal with frustration. I can still remember following along with challenging advanced yoga videos online and getting absolutely infuriated when I wasn’t able to keep up or move through the poses in time with the video. I was literally almost in tears I was so angry. One day I was able to pause long enough and find enough space to see this. Then I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. Why on earth was I getting so mad? Why was I acting so vicious and serious? Why was I being so hard on myself? It all seemed so absurd.

This lesson has stayed with me ever since. I still catch myself becoming upset sometimes when I keep falling out of a balancing pose, but now it just makes me smile. It’s just a reminder to be gentle with myself, to come back to my breath, to remember why I’m here. Falling out of a handstand is just as important as holding one. Maybe even more important. What does doing a pose perfectly teach you? “Failing” to reach your goal is much more helpful for our internal and external growth. When we fall, we learn to fall safely. We learn where are limits are, when to honor and when to challenge those limits. We learn how to keep trying. We learn new things to focus on. We learn how to forgive ourselves. Aren’t these the reasons we keep coming back to our practice? Isn’t that why it’s called a practice? All of these things are so much more valuable to our lives than being able to balance on our hands upside down.

Yoga is a constant reminder that this life is truly about the journey, not the destination. It reminds me of something I saw recently online. It was commenting about how messed up those posters are in schools that say things like: Failure is not an option! How silly that sounds. Failure is always an option. Failure is just another part of the journey, not the end. Failure is full of lessons. It’s an opportunity for growth. It’s not something we should fear or try to avoid. It is necessary. And it’s a perfectly acceptable part of life, no matter what stage of it you find yourself in. We shouldn’t be teaching our children to fear failure but how to embrace it and learn from it. There are so many poses I am able to do now with ease that I never would have imagined I’d be capable of a few years ago. If I wouldn’t have allowed myself to try and fail dozens if not hundreds of times, I would never have found out what amazing things my body could learn to do.

It makes me wonder how many opportunities for growth I’ve already passed up in this life simply because I was too afraid of failure to try. It is these types of thoughts that make me believe that yoga is the best gift I have ever been given in this life. Yoga allows you to realize that you are holding your life in your own hands. It is a soft lump of clay that you can form anything you want out of. Hardships, suffering, failure. Things that once seemed so impossible to face, I now see as lessons, puzzles, mysteries, or riddles. What can I learn from this? Can I find the glimmer of light on the horizon of the darkest night? Can I learn to accept and fully experience whatever this life presents to me? Can I find joy and ease even when it’s hard? If you’re someone who loves to learn like me, you’ll be happy to know that there is a lesson in everything if you look for one. Better still, when you are looking for your own lessons, you will find exactly what you need most.

There is still so much left for me to learn and discover in my yoga practice as well as my life. I’m sure there are even more things like what I’ve discussed today that I will encounter along this strange and beautiful journey. Things that will change me forever. Things that will challenge me, surprise me, test me, and remold me in ways I am unable to imagine as I am now. I can’t wait to keep practicing, to keep searching, learning, finding balance, falling, failing, laughing, and getting back up.

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I Can Do This

Every time I sit down to write, most of the ideas that come up are about what is going wrong in my life. How can I fix myself? Why am I the way that I am? But I don’t want to write about those things. I don’t want to ruminate on my shortcomings and oddities any longer. I get to write my own narrative. I get to create my own story. The story of a desperately anxious young woman that is frozen in place isn’t the one I want to tell.

Sometimes after years of following these kinds of thoughts and description of yourself, it can feel foolish to try to think of yourself in any other light. But it just takes practice. I have had years of telling myself “I’m afraid” or “I can’t.” It is going to take a little while for a new narrative not to feel forced. This new narrative is also true. I just have been choosing not to see these more positive parts of myself.

I may be anxious most of the time, but I don’t want that to define me. I am also resilient. I am strong. I am intelligent. I am creative. I am funny. I am capable. I am loving. I am loved. I don’t have to focus on that fear. There is so much more to me than that. I want to build myself up with the way I talk about myself, not box myself in or tear myself down. There is nothing wrong with me. I am splendid just the way that I am. I can do anything I want to do just the way that I am. I don’t have to wait and hope I change some day. Today is a beautiful day, and I am lucky enough to be here for it. That is all that matters in the end. At least for today, I am going to move from that deep well of gratitude within me.

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Pushing Past Your Comfort Zone

This weekend is for teacher training at my studio. I am always excited to get to help new teachers learn more about yoga. It’s also nice to get to stay after my class for a bit and hear feedback on my own teaching. I’ve been looking forward to it all week.

The teacher trainees had only positive things to say about my class. However, my mentor from when I was a trainee myself had some constructive criticism. It was nothing I haven’t heard from her and others many times before. Because of my anxiety, I am pretty disconnected from my students when I’m teaching. I am immersed in my own practice, modeling every pose and going through the flow with everyone. This is what I always envisioned for myself when I decided I wanted to teach. This is also what I’ve learned from online yoga teachers who constitute the vast majority of my history with yoga.

But online yoga teachers do not have a classroom full of students in front of them. Students who have come to a studio to be in the presence of their teacher. I am doing my students a disservice by not engaging with them more during class. My cues are flawless, my practice is beautiful, my flows are creative, fun, and different every week. However, I do not watch my students nearly enough. I do not give adjustments. I do not compliment or comment on their expressions of the poses.

I know I could be a much better teacher and greatly benefit my students by doing these things. The only reason I don’t is because I am afraid. Even though my social anxiety has practically disappeared thanks to Paxil, it is still quite intimidating to stand in front of a group of people and meet their eyes. I’ve only learned to make eye contact in general a few years ago. To closely observe and engage with my students in that way has always been something I felt I simply cannot do.

I’ve comforted myself with the excuse: “Well this is just my unique teaching style. If the students don’t like it they can go to another class instead.” But that is absurd. I don’t want to make excuses for myself anymore. I want to be brave. I want to push myself to try new things, to face my fears. I’ve done it before. And even though it is scary, it is also so rewarding.

We can never know what we are capable of if we don’t test our limits. Yoga is about personal growth. Not just in the body but in everything. It may be safe to stick with what you know, with what you’re good at, but it is also boring. It isn’t truly living.

There are a lot of changes I have been planning on making. And they scare the hell out of me. Yet once again yoga has given me the opportunity to challenge myself within an environment, a community of curiosity and love. Maybe if I show myself that I can do something scary, try something new and still be okay, it will give me the courage I need. Maybe it will remind me how good it feels to face my fears and overcome them. It is one of the most exciting, empowering things we can do.

Even if we “fail” it will still be a success. Because we tried. And now we’ll know we can always try again. So allow your curiosity to inspire courage. Surprise yourself every day. And no matter what, love yourself. Trust in yourself. You are capable of more than you know.

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The Mirror of Yoga

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A yoga practice is quite often a reflection of the yogi’s inner life. Yoga has the potential to be a window into our personal struggles, fears, strengths, weaknesses, and much more. Even before I knew about the spiritual side of yoga, I could feel it changing the way I thought about and perceived the world as well as my place within it. Those who have a personal yoga practice as simply exercise or stretching like I once did, still can’t avoid the deeper impact and insight it provides.

It is a rare opportunity to go within, to be alone with ourselves, to notice the patterns of our own minds. Are we easily frustrated? Are we critical of ourselves at every turn? Is it hard to let go? Is it hard to be still? To remain focused on what’s in front of us? Can we learn to settle our minds, to use our breath? Yoga provides us with a chance to learn all of these things about ourselves. When we practice yoga, we are not only training the body. We are also training the mind.

I have noticed my own struggles reflected in my practice lately. It has felt like my safe haven recently, a way to escape from my reality. Yet yoga has a way of showing us things, even things we don’t want to see. Having an “escape” inevitably begs the question, why is one needed? Allowing my practice to be a shield from the rest of my life, has caused it to become rather stagnant. I feel stuck. Just as I do overall right now.

Our daily lives feed our practice just as much as our practice feeds into our lives. That vital loop has been severed for me for awhile now. It is hard to feel passionate, inspired, playful, or courageous in your practice when you aren’t able to feel that way day to day. It is hard to practice self-love, self-care, compassion, and ahimsa in a one hour vacuum. It is hard to teach from the heart, when you have been hiding your heart from even yourself.

Lately my practice, while always an enjoyable time of peace, rest, and rejuvenation, has felt like hypocrisy at the same time. I am isolating myself within my yoga, instead of allowing the nutrients of my practice to sate the gnawing pangs of my real life problems.

My yoga mirror has been showing me the reflection of my fear, my avoidance, my inertia. I am afraid to challenge myself. I am afraid that I won’t be able to rise to those challenges. I am afraid to fail, to fall. I have remained in one place for so long, not progressing in life, nor my asanas. Telling myself I can’t do it before I have even given myself the chance to try.

But I should know better. Because yoga has also taught me that there is no reason to be afraid. There is no reason to fear failure. Because even failure is not final. When you are learning to do a headstand, you are going to fall. A lot. If I had taken that first failure as proof I was incapable, my body would not be able to do any of the incredible things I’ve taught it to do. Yoga teaches us that failure is a necessary part of growth. When you fall, you laugh, get up, and try again. And with each fall, you learn something new. I need to engage my core more. I need to place my hands wider apart. I need to focus. I was holding my breath. Failure is not something to avoid, it is a valuable chance to learn vital information.

I want to use these lessons and the many others yoga has given me. I want to move forward in my practice, in life. I want to try new things. To be playful again, curious, excited. To laugh and learn and love myself despite my missteps along the way. No matter what happens, I know I’ll always have a safe place to rest. On the mat, and within. We all do.

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Shifting Your Focus

One of the main things I have been trying to cultivate this year is a stronger ability to focus on the positive. Now that I’ve learned the mind is like a muscle and can be strengthened with the repetition of exercises I have been using this knowledge to improve my life. Whether we set a conscious intention to do so or not, our minds are always doing these exercises. It’s up to us to decide what we want our experience in this life to be. The things you focus on and the habits and patterns you repeat each day make your brain “stronger” in these areas. It’s important that we spend our time nurturing positive mental states rather than dwelling and feeding negative ones.

Before I knew what I do now about the way our brains work, I thought I was basically in the passenger seat when it came to my reactions to different things. I thought that my genetic code and my past experiences left me basically no choice in the way I felt and experienced the world around me. I used to roll my eyes at those overly positive, happy people that would say things like, “You have to make yourself happy, you can make your own happiness. You can love yourself.” It seemed utterly impossible to me. I always thought it just didn’t feel right. Why should I pretend I’m happy if I’m not?

Now I see (and have also experienced) that there is actually power in “pretending” for awhile.  It’s actually more like practicing. And don’t get me wrong I’m still practicing every day. What I didn’t understand before and what I feel I need to share to help other people like me understand is that it gets easier. At first it may seem dishonest, but what you are doing is creating and strengthening new pathways in your brain. It can be quite difficult, especially if you have very strong negative pathways your brain has been using for most of your life.

However, I think that it’s a good thing even beginning to notice when I am practicing negative self-talk and catastrophizing a situation. Now even when those thoughts inevitably come up I’m able to distance myself from them somehow. I try not to buy in to those thoughts. I keep myself from being caught in that current and spiraling deeper into that harmful cycle. More importantly I’m learning to nip those thoughts in the bud and use them as a signal that I need to be there for myself in those moments. I see myself struggling and I know that instead of allowing myself to wallow, I need to comfort myself. It’s a moment to take a deep breath and think about what it is you’re wanting from the world in that moment, the lack of which is causing you distress, then give it to yourself. Because you already have the potential for all of it in your amazing brain. All the confidence, all the beauty, all the love, all the creativity, all the abundance, all the gratitude, all the happiness. They are all yours to create. All you need to do is practice them. It’s just like learning a new language. You just have to keep practicing.

This year when I catch myself thinking things like: I’m stupid. I’m ugly. I’m fat. I’m lazy. I’m worthless. I’m unloved. I’m unhappy. I’m going to stop and instead change that dialogue to: I’m grateful. I’m safe. I’m beautiful. I’m intelligent. I am loved. I am enough. I’m strong. I am happy. Gratitude has been one of the areas I’ve been focusing on a lot and it’s incredible how much easier it has gotten to notice little things to be grateful for in ordinary things like the sun’s warmth on my skin or catching sight of a cute squirrel in my yard. I can find something to be grateful for even in awful things, like a chance to start again, or a new direction, or an important reminder.

A few really bad things happened to me yesterday and I’ve been very down on myself because of them. I can see myself falling back into familiar patterns. I’m not worried though, because now it’s so much easier to get back up and brush myself off and love myself anyway. In 2019 I want to get even better at being there for myself and giving compassion and love to the world. I hope that we can all do that together.

Let’s keep practicing ♥