Of Fall-ing down and getting up.
Autumn, the time when change is in the air, in all its hues of oranges and crimsons against a crisp blue sky, when nature teaches us lessons in impermanence and change is my favorite time of the year. Ironically, it is one of the toughest times of the year since it is when I schedule my annual physical tests, that visit to the oncologist, ominous, looms large like a dark cloud. I wake up at 2 am, heart racing, muscles clenched, jaw tight. Its been 6 years and I know this feeling and have almost made peace with it. And yet, this year, this season has been particularly trying, probably because of the uncertainty in the world today, the political climate around healthcare, in the work that I do, this is a topic that is very closely followed by many of us for obvious reasons.
As a teacher of Yoga, how do I, with integrity, show a calmness, that seems tenuous, wispy, and sometimes merely a wish within my own self? Do I acknowledge this struggle within, share with my students? And to what extent? This question arises again and again and I go back to what my teacher, Jennifer Prugh, has shared with us. If we perhaps, examine an emotion, or experience from a perspective of inquiry, one can be truthful. Then we don’t profess to knowing; rather, we acknowledge the learning and discovery in what we experience, and that this too is often open to change. Impermanence! And in this spirit of inquiry, of inquisitiveness, one can approach solutions that work for one’s personality and circumstance.
Yoga practices such as asana and meditation have been studied and found to be valid approaches to help those dealing with anxiety and panic. Breath awareness and mindfulness practices have been shown to modulate the stress response and reduce stress hormones. It has been shown in controlled studies to decrease hypertension, depression, anxiety and PTSD. My practice is one I go back to again and again to recharge, rejuvenate and just plain old sweat and stretch to smooth the creases in my mind and body. In addition to this practice on the mat, I find myself increasingly drawn toward Yoga philosophy and its very practical concepts and this is what I hope to share more and more with my students as I am learning and practicing off the mat. This is not to undermine in any way, what anxiety and panic attacks are for many people, and to prescribe or diagnose any other’s experience of trauma; my only intent in this sharing is to be truthful in what I have discovered to be helpful when I trigger.
Here are three concepts and/or practices that have been immensely helpful as I traverse this bumpy terrain.
Samasthithi: A seemingly simple pose where we just stand still, palms on either side of our hips, toes touching, aligning our hips, shoulders and ears, and being present with our breath and all the sensations in our body. We draw our attention within and how our spine is in relation to space and gravity. It is a state of equilibrium, and poise and no movement at all, hard to achieve sometimes for a person like me when all one wants to do is move to quell the emotions within. It has helped me to acknowledge turmoil and tension both in body and mind. As Pema Chodron, the renowned Buddhist teacher says, we can make the choice, moment to moment, to be fully here. Perhaps off the mat, one can explore what during our day, imparts this stillness, where we are just intensely aware of the moment and feelings instead of packing them away for another day. And the answer varies from person to person and day to day, so to be curious and explore what works for one would be a great start.
Satya: Truth. Undeniably the pot of gold at the end of the mind body rainbow, except its potency lies in that it is different for each of us. What makes us anxious? Fearful? How does this manifest itself? In grief? In anger over the loss of control? In that bag of chocolate chip cookies? To examine one’s feelings without judgement, with compassion just as we would practice this on a person we love. This is something I am working on. Can we be open to our truths changing? Its mutable nature? I know that I am like a pressure cooker, cooking away some emotions within and suddenly burst out in irritation at innocuous stuff and yes! the first ones to feel the brunt are the people we live with. Yes, my son, you have to clean the room. No, my son, my rising blood pressure and the words that come out is perhaps not your fault entirely. Only when we unravel the root of the disquiet within, can one begin to still the waves of anxiety.
Santosa: Contentment. The second niyama of the 8 limbs of yoga. A deep acceptance of what is, a pretty challenging practice when one’s internal life is in crisis. I am learning though that those who have gone through traumatic times and have come through on the other side have developed this with an intent to develop it, not in a grasping way, but gradually with reflection and support from those around them. Perhaps being with a pet, or being amidst nature, or doing something for others. How can we cultivate what gives us a sense of contentment every day? Explore and inquire of yourself and be okay if what works for you today may not work for you tomorrow.
As I step into my doctor’s office today, my inquiry has helped me move with an awareness and attention to what I feel. I know now that trying to keep myself “busy” merely postpones the cumulative effect of the build up of stress and the fear of the unknown. I prepare in anticipation, center myself with a slow Yin practice and notice the discomfort, the ease and the effort that ensues. I have discovered I find stillness hard to achieve both within the mind and the body. I can only achieve it briefly before the waves of thoughts rise and fall and I need to move. I practice some alternate nostril breathing..waiting for a test… Yes, the nurse looks at me a little weirdly but she has also given me tons of chocolate before, so she KNOWS me 🙂 I go offline for a bit, which for anyone who knows me is a big, freaking deal! Going offline I find incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding. For its when I shut out the external noise, I find I can be completely present in my body and mind, and no the irony of publishing this on social media isn’t lost on me.This is a work in progress and will continue to be one, hopefully! One that I can share with those who need this perhaps on and off the mat.
The three concepts are linked to each other, in order to get off the internal roller coaster, one first may have to get off the ride for a while, gain some semblance of quietness, unravel a nugget or two of satya to get at the santosa. The journey of self inquiry and reflection is a tough one for its not smooth and there is no clear instruction manual. We are all having this beautiful and flawed human experience together.This is not a one act play, its a multi sequel story. And the good news is that we get a chance to write it.