Awakening Through Grief: Yoga Therapy Program
8-Month Recurring Payment Option
Awakening Through Grief: Yoga Therapy Program
8-Month Recurring Payment Option
A part of my journey in finding my way back to life after my son died was the teachings that came out the suffering of my loss. When we are in the chaos of Grief, our instinct is to hold on tighter. To grip, grasp, control our surroundings and ourselves. To work harder, do more, try to fight our way through to the other side where the world makes sense again. This is what we have been taught to do by our society, but Grief can also teach us how to slow down, sit in the unknown and lead with love so that we can embrace the parts of ourselves (and the world) that are changing. To create positive change, both inside and out, we have to BE in the chaos and explore our shadows to find the answers that we seek. Our fear will not guide us through. Hate does not conquer hate. Only love does and compassion for the parts of ourselves (and others) that are hurting. To rise up out of the ashes of destruction, we are called to heal deep, ancestral patterns of trauma and loss. When we do this, we become free from the past and have the opening to start anew. This is the work of our times. This is the Gift of Grief and Chaos. And, it may be the very opposite of what our minds tell us to do. When we are hurting we want to bypass or resist the pain and hold on to something, anything to keep from going under, but at some point we have to sit in the fire and let go. Only then can we soften around our edges, lighten our grip on what we are trying to do and step back so there is more space for the Divine to come in and help us find peace. When we are aligned, we can then manifest what is true and good and WAKE UP to the call of our soul’s purpose.
When I lost Noah, the world went dark. I was lost in the ‘tunnel of terror’ for days, weeks, months, years – it all blended together into a bleak, groundless period of time where I wandered between the worlds of the living and Spirit. Untethered. Broken. Lost in the chaos of my life path taking such an unexpected and painful twist, that I had to experience navigating through it. Within the tunnel, chaos and fear presided and I had nothing but myself to hold onto to keep from slipping away. But, as I was tossed and thrown in my nightmare, my shadow grew bigger and I learned how to sit in my own skin and feel the pain. The tunnel was a scary place to be, much like our country feels right now, but there was value in what I learned there. I was forced to become brutally honest with myself. I felt almost naked as I came to see issues that had always been there, but were now so in my face that I could not ignore them anymore. My grief broke me open in a way that cultivated greater compassion and understanding for myself and most importantly, self-love and acceptance. In the tunnel, I found my spark. The light of my essence that was so much brighter, stronger, more forgiving and loving than I had known before. I learned that I wanted to be in the world, to be happy and whole again and that I had the resiliency to weather the shit storm of my life and not only survive it, but thrive. As I slowly, tentatively emerged from the tunnel, I found my voice and power in a way that was new. Who was this new person I was becoming? The anxiety and self-doubt that I had struggled with throughout my life had a different flavor. I felt like a warrior. A Heart Warrior capable of overcoming the most unimaginable pain and finding my way back to life with a greater authenticity and gratitude than I had known before. A Heart Warrior that had the courage to be vulnerable and strong. Our country needs us Heart Warriors to rise up together and lead this revolution with Love. My new favorite Phish song says it best.. “Vibrating with love and light. Pulsating with love and light. In a world gone mad. In a world gone mad. There must be something more than this.” I, for one, believe there is. Out of chaos and darkness, we can rebuild ourselves and the world to create something better.
Wendy Black Stern
By Dr. Arielle Schwartz, GSN Board Member & Provider
If you have experienced a recent traumatic event NOW is the time to get support. Interventions immediately following a traumatic event help prevent the development of Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD). Do not wait. Many people inaccurately believe that they need to “give it time” and do not take advantage of this crucial period of healing.
“This post provides recent trauma survivors with an understanding about the types of feelings and experiences common during the weeks after such terrifying and life altering events. When we have such knowledge we are less likely to feel frightened by the intense emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations that typically occur. As a result we deepen self-compassion for our symptoms and work with rather than against the body-mind connection to facilitate healing.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
As human beings, we are wired for survival. We will respond with stress whether when we experience any difficult life event. Stress involves an increase in cortisols such as adrenaline into your bloodstream that facilitates a fight or flight response in your body. This prepares you to move in a way that metabolizes the energy released in your body. We are meant to move our bodies through running or self defense when threatened. Ideally when we reclaim safety the stress response resolves, your brain receives a signal to stop releasing these neuro-chemicals, and your cortisol levels return to baseline.
Trauma is typically understood to occur when we are in a situation that has life threatening implications with no actual or perceived exit. Typically we are trapped or immobilized that prevents us from engaging our defenses. In such a situation the body recognizes that fight and flight were unsuccessful and resorts to a “faint” or feigned death response.
You can think of it this way, a mouse is being chased by a cat. In the initial chase the mouse runs as fast as it can (flight). If the mouse makes it to the safety the rapidly beating heart and quickened breath will eventually subside (healthy stress response). When there is no place to hide the mouse runs without end exhausting resources (chronic stress). However, what if the mouse is caught by the cat? Once in the jaws of the cat the mouse faints in a last ditch attempt for survival. Perhaps the cat will mistake the mouse for dead and lose interest in the limp creature. This is traumatic stress.
Differentiating between an acute traumatic stress reaction and full-fledged PTSD provides an essential key to unlock healing. There are a wide range of sensations and emotions that occur in the weeks after a traumatic event and these do not mean you will develop PTSD. Symptoms common during the initial period of acute traumatic stress include
You can think of these experiences as your built-in biological protection mechanism that buffers you from the reality of the event.
When numbness subsides it is more likely to feel intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, and panic. You might also find yourself feeling depressed, helpless, or hopeless.
Like the old adage, it is better to get back on the horse that bucked you than. When we begin to avoid going to places or being with people that remind us of the trauma we are more likely to develop long term effects. PTSD is made up of symptoms that persist well after the event is over. Common symptoms include:
Many people suffering from PTSD seek out medications to manage these symptoms post trauma exposure. Unfortunately, the use of such medications suppresses the very physiological and psychological processes necessary to facilitate resolution. Historically, military services have relied on prescription drugs (primarily benzodiazepines such as Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin) to help troops manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, as of 2012, the Army Surgeon General changed the military’s policy around prescribing benzodiazepines concluding the harm outweighs the benefits. This class of medications is now considered contraindicated for acute traumatic stress because they increase the likelihood of the development of PTSD. They are contraindicated for PTSD because they prolong the healing process.
You do not need to medicate your feelings. Intense emotions and sensations are your body’s natural adaptive healing process at work. Anxiety and panic are expected after trauma. These are signs of your mind and body seeking resolution after a traumatic event. However, if you do need support to “cut the edge off” of overwhelming emotions consider this a short term option rather than a long term solution.
In the wake of a trauma it is important to have strategies for healing. Otherwise we are more likely to lapse into passivity or feelings of helplessness. Resilience in the face of traumatic events does not always come naturally. Recovery from acute traumatic stress involves a mindset and behaviors that help you reclaim trust in yourself and the world.
Based upon the six pillars of resilience explore these action steps to facilitate your recovery during the acute phase of trauma recovery:
“My name is Jenna, I started with GSN about a month and a half after my beautiful mother passed suddenly in an accident. I am 32 years old and she was the young age of 59. I have never lost someone close to me, and as I was trying to soak in the news of this disbelief, I was also scared about how I was (and am still) reacting to the load of grief in such a busy fast past society where our lives get swirled into the tornado of never having enough time to focus on what we should for ourselves. Let alone process the loss of a loved one and give ourselves time to heal on top of having the heaviness and unknown of this brand new emotion.
I knew right away when I talked to Wendy that this was exactly where my heart was guiding me to be. For some reason when you are in a heavy grief you feel alone in the world. Even though you know there are many grieving the same person as you and many who have gone through the same type of loss as you. When I talked to Wendy I didn’t feel that way, I knew right away that GSN was exactly what I was looking for. This woman didn’t even know who I was or even if I was going to decide to take classes through her or not and she gave me her full attention, time and more amazingly she gave me the kind wisdom of her heart, and I could feel from her that she knew exactly where mine was sitting at that time. She also gave me the full understanding and hope that we have the ability to transform our grief into growth. She told me that when your heart is broken that gives it the space and capacity to grow and get bigger. Those were exactly the words my heart needed to hear.
This is an incredible program, ever since I have been attending, there is a new layer I shed off from my personal self into my growth and healing every week that I go. This class has allowed me to know that I have the support and love of a group healing the same wounds and acknowledging that they are there, not just shoving them away in our busy lifestyles. Acknowledging that death is a part of the circle of life and therefore should not just be brushed under the rug, for the emotional and physicality that come along with death are very real. The meditation has helped with the emotional challenges and the yoga has helped with the physical and emotional symptoms of my grief. This group helps you to understand that we are also all different in our grief, therefore it is important to get in touch with our inner self allowing us to understand who we are right now and the changes that are occurring and how we can turn them into positive growth.
I am beyond greatful and blessed to have found this amazing family of incredibly wise and giving heartfelt people. This program is not only helping me through my grief and understand it on a personal level but at the same time helping me find myself and the strong woman I can be in a time of extreme change.”
-Jenna, current GSN Yoga Program participant
By Andrea Nakayama
It’s been just over two months since my dad died.
The death of a loved one still lands as a curiosity and somewhat incomprehensible reality this early in the game, as you may very well know. And yet grief is a well-exercised muscle for me.
I encountered grief through loss earlier than some yet later than others. Sure, I suffered the loss of my grandparents. But they had lived long-lives and their passing, while perhaps still too young, followed a sense of natural order.
And I’ve endured the death of pets. These yank at our heartstrings as we often feel wholly responsible for their well-being. These are our true “dependents”.
But what I’ve learned over the years – particularly after the loss of my husband nearly 14 years ago, when he was just 34-years old – is that grief is a many varied thing. There are myriad factors that impact our response to bereavement.
Relationship is one of those factors.
The grief of a spouse is different than that of a pet or a grandparent, a sibling or a parent, or, I can only imagine (and hope to never know), a child. I witnessed with a keen eye how my in-laws, brother-in-law and I each processed Isamu’s death differently at a deep internal level. And how, for my son (who was just a toddler when his dad died), grief is still unknown despite the loss.
And I watch now as my mom assimilates to a new life after a partnership of nearly 60 years, as opposed to the near ten that I had with my husband.
But one place where grief does not differ is on the inside.
Just what’s going on in there when it seems like our heart has been twisted in a knot, our gut is hollow and void, and the compass that directs us seems to have gone haywire?
Research in the area of psychoneuroimmunology shows how grief affects a number of bodily systems, in particular, the immune system. While your mind is grieving, it may come as no surprise that there’s what’s called “crosstalk” between your head and your heart.
And it’s your heart that pumps the blood that carries so much information throughout your body and to your cells. Immune cells travel readily along that serum superhighway.
On the inside, a state of grief results in a depression of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that helps us fight infection and is part of our first line of immunological defense against viral and bacterial infections.
Simultaneously, there’s an acceleration of lymphocytes, a different type of immune cell that is part of our adaptive immune system and makes our allergic or autoimmune response more reactive. These cells are jumping in to save the day to keep us from getting sick, but their efforts can lead to further immune imbalances.
This likely explains why sometimes, in the elderly, one spouse dies shortly after the other. Or why we literally feel “sick” when we are grieving. And it’s why my mom arrived at my house early this week with a dual eye infection – red, itchy and flaking.
Yet despite these imbalances, we just can’t wish grief away.
All that crosstalk is happening and all we can do is stand by and witness it, as a natural part of human reality.
Yet what I’ve learned with my well-exercised grief muscle is that the best way to manage grief is to digest it.
After Isamu’s death, one thing I used to find myself saying was that “he brought out the best in me.” I was my best self with him and in his reflection. He thought I was captivating, beautiful, sexy, brilliant. He was completely enchanted by me and it was evident in his eyes when he looked at me.
In the months after he died I no longer knew who I was without that reflection.
And then I realized that what he was seeing was in me. It was me. (That’s what a reflection is, right?)
It was in that way that I began to digest the impossible. In small bites. It was as if I was taking each memory and literally swallowing the parts that were me and mine. Those, I realized, did not have to leave with him.
By embracing Isamu’s reflection of me, he is always with me. I’ll notice him in a gesture. In a song. In a place. Or in an expression from my son or his brother. But mostly I notice him in me. I would not be this version of myself without him. And in this way he lives on.
You may be sitting in a different grief today. It may be an overwhelming sensation that cannot be broken down into bite size chunks just yet. Or it may be grief for the loss of a favored food that you discovered you can no longer eat – like eggs or chocolate.
And I know many who grieve the self they once were when a new reality, like a diagnosis, is revealed. Those losses present grief too. And grief, as we now know, does not discriminate on the inside.
I invite you to digest. Digestion is how we assimilate what we need and filter out what we don’t.
Know that whatever you mourn has two sides – the sting that comes with its absence right beside the pleasure that once existed in its presence. And that mirth that makes you want to savor that person, place or thing forever has a memory that exists deep within you that is all yours. Nobody can take that from you. It’s yours to digest and assimilate and carry with you… forever.
When people ask me if I have taken time off to grieve, I say ‘yes’ – but honestly, I don’t know what they mean. You see, I have to break it down, do it in the moments in between, in an everyday sort of way. That’s the only way I can digest it.
Today, I savor a memory of my dad, to honor him, yes, but also for me and my immunity.
By Cindy Sutter
This article was originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera.
When Swati Miller’s mother died suddenly three years ago, the then-Californian found herself awash in grief.
“It just destroyed me on every level,” she says. “It was not just loss. It was also trauma. Dealing with the level of trauma compounds the grief process.”
What Miller was experiencing was more than just deep sadness.
“The grief process has affected me physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” she says.
One of the hardest and most shocking things was that the grief took away her most effective life coping mechanism: movement.
“Physically, my body completely changed. It was something I couldn’t have been prepared for,” says Miller, who was 35. “I’m a dancer. I’m an artist. I’m a mover. I couldn’t even move anymore.”
The inability to move came as Miller was in a movement-centered master’s program in California.
“I was not feeling safe physically,” she says, explaining the experience of being overwhelmed: “I might get flooded with tears, start to go into stories and remember … places that really increased the trauma of my loss. I found myself avoiding movement of all kinds.”
Miller relocated to Boulder in August and found the Grief Support Network, a local non-profit started by yoga instructor Wendy Stern, after her 9-month-old son, Noah, died.
Stern’s group offered support and resources. And something else: an emphasis on the physical aspects of grief and the healing power of movement through yoga. The marriage of the two was born from Stern’s own experience.
“(It was) so powerful for me to have my yoga practice as a personal sanctuary,” Stern says. “It was a safe place I could go to … to be with all the big feelings, pain, love, joy … one place I could show up and be with my own self.”
But that practice wasn’t necessarily the peaceful picture that might be painting itself in your head.
Stern would set the timer, roll out the mat and let the grief out.
“Some days I would do yoga, stretch and breathe,” she says. “Some days I would throw an epic tantrum, kind of scream on the mat.”
When the specified time was over, no matter what the practice had brought that day, she rolled up her mat and walked away.
“It served a very specific function,” she says of her yoga practice in those early days. “It was a container to let go and fall apart. I needed to do it over and over … to begin to move through it. It showed me how much of my grief and pain actually lived in the personal body.”
Stern, whose nonprofit has sponsored support groups and put together a network o
therapists and practitioners who help with grief, has now started a new program that in some ways mimics her own experience. It is a nine-month program with classes once or twice a week, as well as meditation, journaling and nutrition support. The program costs $150 a month or $1,350; an option with one yoga class a week is somewhat less expensive. Stern hopes to raise money to support those who are unable to pay the full price through a Kirtan fundraiser on Thursday.
Stern says she has been influenced by several different yoga styles, but the one that she taps most is Phoenix Rising.
“I’m using a lot of language to stay very connected with what’s happening in the body. It’s not about being perfect,” she says. “It’s what people are experiencing and exploring, noticing in their p
stures, the physicality and also the emotions that come up, the connection to a higher purpose, the deeper parts of ourselves. This style of yoga helps.”
The group that started Tuesday will contain about 10 people, as will a new group that will start in September. While anyone is welcome, Stern says the group would probably be most effective for a person in their first year or so of loss, perhaps a few months after the loss has occurred. Too soon, and the person may not quite be ready for it.
Stern emphasizes that the class is not just a place to vent sad feelings, although cathartic release is a part of the class and part of the healing process, she says.
“It’s also inspiration from the collective, the themes of the classes and teaching that
llows you to be present with sadness,” she says. “It also gives you this spark of hope that there is a pathway out of the darkness and into the light.”
In the body, anger and fear are “sticky and hard to move,” Stern says. But grief is different. “Grief moves in waves. It flows like water. It can move through us easily if we let it.”
Avery Oatman, 26, has been working with Stern after her father died from pancreatic cancer in August. She has struggled with the suddenness of his death three months after diagnosis, the fact that few people her age have similar losses and the profound sadness of missing him in her life.
Therapy has helped, as has yoga in a different way
“To get up and move to do yoga is extremely powerful,” she says. “It helps integrate the inner body sense of extreme grief with a kind of outer expression.”
The sadness is still there.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get up in the morning,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to be in tears all day.”
Even in her grief yoga class, which helps, there’s the ironic realization that she wouldn’t be there if her father hadn’t died.
Yet, she says, “I’m always left feeling a sense that this is such a universal thing. It helps to shift things …”
It can also bring a different sense of self.
“I feel like I get caught up in my mind, my emotions, missing him,” she says. “Through the movement, I can feel, ‘Yet, I’m still here. The world is moving quickly. It can move through me. It can’t be so awful forever.'”
Stern says yoga connects her to her body and helps her find pleasure there.
“I remember how powerful it was when I was grieving to have a place where I could access some pleasure,” she says.
Still, Stern says, yoga is not like a magic pill.
“It’s an ongoing process. The yoga opens the door, but the work is for each person to do,” she says. “Yoga gives you this very direct connection to your heart, to your spirit. It gets you really engaged with yourself. The personal growth work — that’s a life’s journey. The yoga’s a tool on the way. There’s no quick fix.”
Tanja Pajevic is a writer, mother, teacher, dancer, coffee-lover, fierce and tender hearted. This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post’s Common Grief Blog.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I feel an old, familiar dread. My mother died two years ago and no, I’m not over it yet. Worse still, I may never be.
After the second anniversary of her death, I assumed I’d finally be all right. At least I’d be over the worst of the grief.
But the grief continued to rise and fall in unpredictable patterns. At first, I blamed it on external events: another holiday season, the 22nd anniversary of my father’s death, my 45th birthday. Or perhaps it was perimenopause, I told myself. As if the peaks and valleys of my grief were simply a side effect of my hormones.
Then I found myself thinking about acceptance and surrender after reading about a man struggling with the news that he might lose his leg. Instead of acknowledging the severity of his situation, he denied it, which magnified his suffering. Can you guess how the story ends? The man finally found peace after surrendering to the worst possible scenario, and accepting the loss of his leg.
This resonated with me on multiple levels. I’d heard others liken the loss of a loved one to the pain of an amputated phantom limb. Perhaps the loss of my mother was something similar. Perhaps it was something I’d never get over. And perhaps it was time to stop trying.
Anyone who’s lost a loved one will tell you that the grief, at times, appears endless, with its changing slopes and facades. For some of us, that doesn’t go away. At the end of his life, Morrie Schwartz (from Tuesdays with Morrie) still felt the pain of losing his mother—more than 70 years after her death.
What if Schwartz wasn’t the exception, but the norm? If that was the case, I desperately needed to find some long-term solutions for my grief. At very least, some more sustainable techniques. Ones that didn’t cause quite so much suffering for me or my family. Grief counselors suggest we keep our loved one’s memory alive through rituals, traditions and stories. Some holidays, I do this by lighting a candle in my mother’s memory or by cooking her favorite foods. One summer, I created a small memorial garden in my backyard before a windstorm destroyed that, too. Smaller rituals are also important. Some days, I spend a few moments at the small altar I built in my mother’s honor, or I say a prayer. Other times, I bring my mother into my day by choosing her favorite cup for my morning coffee. Lately, I’ve been making my coffee extra strong, as my mother did—zesty, she called it. But what I’m looking for these days goes even deeper. After having spent the past 28 months struggling to reconcile intense feelings of grief, anger, joy, rebellion and abandonment with a changing set of spiritual beliefs, it’s time for me to choose my own narrative. During this time, I’ve questioned myself, my past, my values, my heritage and my loved ones, not to mention who I am in the world and who I want to become. Now that I’ve passed my mother’s second anniversary, I feel an added pressure to get on with it already, and solidify my identity. Solidify my life.
Part of this process, I’m finding, involves reassessing my relationship with my mother.
Which of my mother’s ghosts am I ready to release? Which traits would I like to preserve?
This Mother’s Day, I choose to remember the funny, rebellious mother who pumped her fists in the air when she was excited and flipped people off when she wasn’t. The music-and-literature-loving mother whose passion for nature inspired us all. The woman with the tender heart.
As for the rest—the fearful, highly critical, wounded mother—well, it might just be time to leave those characteristics behind. Not just for my mother, but also for myself.
Meanwhile, I continue to sift through various grief rituals and traditions, so many incandescent bits of broken glass. There’s no right way to do grief, I’m finding. It’s messy, unpredictable and imperfect. It can also be quite frightening. And it makes us vulnerable as hell.
That’s OK. I choose to keep going because I can’t imagine any other way. I’ve chosen this open, tender heart, remember; it’s time to let the rest go.
However we choose to express our grief, let it be exquisite and true. Explore what that means, if you need to. Or experiment until something feels right — you’ll know.
For me, the method is always changing. Today, I choose story as memorial. Tomorrow, perhaps it will be laughter. And every once in a while, I’ll give somebody the bird.
There is no urgency. Summer does not rush towards autumn. One tiny blade of grass is not trying to grow faster than its neighbour. The planets spin lazily in their orbits. This ancient universe is in no hurry.
But the mind, feeling so divided from the totality, wants answers now, wants solutions today, wants to know so badly. It wants to reach its precious conclusions. And, ultimately, it wants to be in control.
So slow down, friend. Take a deep and conscious breath in your belly. Trust the place where you are, the place of ‘no answers yet’, the precious place of not knowing. This place is sacred, for it is 100% life. It is full of life, saturated with life, dripping with life, drenched with life.
Don’t try to rush to the next scene in the movie of ‘me’. Be here, in this scene, Now, the only scene there is.
Now is the place where questions rest, and creative solutions grow.
By Jennifer Delaney, MA, NCC:
A body-centered psychotherapist, certified in Brainspotting, blogger, writing coach and speaker practicing in Denver and Boulder.
Several times a day in fact…
I was at a party last night when someone asked me what I speak about. “Or is it too esoteric?” he added. “No. No. Not at all,” I replied. As a matter of fact, it’s so simple that people find it hard to believe that it makes a difference at all.
It boils down to this:
Take your pulse.
Notice your feet in your shoes or against the rug.
See and describe the setting sun paint the snow a pink-gold.
Listen to the sparrows or to your cat purring.
Smile at someone –what does your face feel like when you smile?
Notice the tension in your body – maybe shoulders or stomach.
Breathe in for 5, hold for 3, exhale for 7.
Try one of these right now!
Do any or all of these as often as possible and you will change your brain wiring.
Many people don’t realize just how stressed out they are until they begin to check in with their bodies throughout the day. That’s when they realize how nonstop and compulsive their thoughts are. The thoughts don’t want to let go.
By Dr. Arielle Schwartz
From as early as I can recall the idea of standing up in front a group of people has terrified me. As a child, I loved the idea of acting but the reality of getting up on the stage was overwhelming. I remember wanting to shrink so small to make myself disappear. I know I am not alone. Today I routinely teach classes and offer presentations. I still have anxiety when I step out in front of a group of people, however, with my training as a clinical psychologist and therapeutic yoga instructor I have cultivated effective tools to work successfully with anxiety.
“Growth and change often require exploring the edges of our comfort zones and challenging ourselves to step into unfamiliar territory. Yoga for anxiety guides you to harness the power of your thoughts, works directly with your body, and helps you to face your fears. Be willing to take risks and make mistakes. You may just discover that you are stronger and more capable than you imagined.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
The Power of Thought
Our thoughts powerfully impact our lives. This is not a new idea and like me, perhaps you were first introduced to the power of positive thinking by The Little Engine that Could who huffed and puffed his way over the mountain repeating, “I think I can, I think I can.” Truth be told, we cannot always predict success, however the likelihood of a positive outcome greatly increases when we change our thinking from “I can’t” to “I will try.”
Well researched psychotherapy interventions for anxiety, primarily from cognitive behavioral therapy, support the idea that changing negative thoughts into those that are more helpful and supportive. Clients are asked to keep track of thoughts in a journal and to challenge irrational beliefs, replacing them with more beneficial thoughts. For example, when you say, “this will never work,” “what’s wrong with me,” or “I’m worthless” you reinforce self-limiting beliefs and painful emotions. Whereas, saying “It’s okay to be nervous,” “remember to breathe,” or “most people will accept me if I make mistakes” is likely to create a greater sense of possibility and positivity.
Patanjali’s Sutras, a major text in yogic philosophy, also emphasizes observation of our thoughts in order to develop “clear perception.” The Sanskrit word Klesha translates as “trouble maker” and refers to our mental misperceptions and misunderstandings. We work with them through increasing self-observation and labeling our thoughts as useful or not useful. It is important to note that we are not judging our thoughts as “good” or “bad.” We simply recognize that there are thoughts that create greater ease and those that create more distress.
Body and Breath
Somatic (body-centered) psychology proposes that a healthy nervous system is one that oscillates naturally and freely between active (sympathetic nervous system) states and relaxed (parasympathetic nervous system) states. Anxiety tends to occur when we are stuck in a sympathetic nervous system response. In short, a perceived threat triggers a release of cortisols such as adrenaline into your bloodstream facilitating a fight/flight response and this response continues after the stimuli is gone.
If you, too, have experienced anxiety then you know well the accompanying physical sensations; usually some variation of quickened breathing, racing heartbeat, and sweaty palms. In addition to working with the mind, we also can directly intervene with the body in moments of anxiety or panic. Yoga for anxiety offers practices such as deep relaxation (yoga nidra) or conscious breathing (pranayama) which are powerful tools for calming oneself during surges of panic.
My yoga practice has become an essential somatic tool to work with anxiety. Stepping onto my mat, I appreciate the ways that yoga offers opportunities to observe my body in both active and resting states. In challenging postures or extended holds, such as warrior poses or backbends, the sympathetic nervous system activates by fueling my body with the energy needed to sustain action. In resting poses, such as child’s pose or shivasana, the stillness allows me to feel my rapidly beating heart and quickened breath begin to slow down again. I gain tolerance of a broader range of somatic sensations and feel that I have a choice to create more alertness or calm down at will.
Practice not Perfect
A common cause of anxiety is the need to be perfect. As I step on my yoga mat I remind myself that I am engaging in yoga practice not yoga perfect. Each practice is an opportunity to explore my mind and my body and to refine my awareness in one small way. Now, when I step in front of a class or audience for a presentation I imagine my yoga mat beneath me and remind myself that I have permission to take risks, make mistakes, and to learn in the process. I have discovered that my need to be flawless actually inadvertently distances me from my audience. However, my anxiety is greatly reduced when I show up humble and imperfect, relating to others from common ground. We are all in this imperfect, human experience together.
Eventually we have to take our learning off of our yoga mat and into our lives. One well researched therapeutic approach to working with anxiety is exposure therapy in which you challenge yourself to engage in the feared activity with sufficient support to have a positive experience. Ideally, you will recognize are stronger and more capable than you previously realized. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
You are Not Alone
Performance anxiety and panic are common reasons clients come into therapy. I have been working with anxiety (my own and others) for many years and am deeply appreciative of the therapists who have supported me along the way. My aim in sharing my story is encourage you to seek support as necessary. Anxiety can lead to shame that can interfere with reaching out. Asking for help can often be the hardest step. You do not need to continue to suffer and you do not need to walk the healing path alone.