From Anxiety to Ease

head spatter image from card (1)

head spatter image from card (1)

Two articles in yesterday’s Sunday NYT’s really caught my attention, especially when taken together. One showed a map of the US and state by state anxiety levels compared to a national average. I was stunned to read Maine was the highest (21% above the US average anxiety levels) with Presque Isle being the national epicenter of this condition.

Two primary underlying conditions of this high anxiety are poverty and withdrawal from opium addiction (ie NOT terrorism, fear of who will win the election, etc.). The second article was about blood pressure: essentially that blood pressure “normal” rises, and is maintained by the body, in part based on our response to social (including economic) circumstances. High blood pressure, like anxiety, correlates with poverty. The conclusion states that “chronic diseases … are inextricably linked to our neighborhoods, jobs, and family.”  (Photo is artwork of Elizabeth Grekela) (Links to both articles are at the end of this blog.)

Since I am a yoga teacher, not a politician or policy maker, I won’t talk about the need to address poverty, race, addiction, etc., but rather what each of us can do at home, for ourselves, for our families, to lower anxiety from any source, and its attendant health and quality of life costs.

Wisdom from the East

In my years of teaching I have noticed how few of us consciously (ie with awareness) inhabit our bodies. We in the West have gotten stuck in the “I think therefore I am” and its correlate “mind over matter;” Mind is who we are, and the body is like a car we drive around in. Yoga, at its best, offers us practices to create union between body and mind, and also spirit, which can re-balance mind/body and reduce our mind’s myopic focus on the external world, the past, and the future.


Essentially interoception is paying really close attention to bodily sensations including negative sensations, without moving into any action or judgment based on the sensations; simply staying with sensation after sensation. 

Recent research into the brain shows that even a very short segment of interoception slows breathing, lowers heart rate, anxiety, and practiced over time additionally reduces blood pressure, depression, and lowers inflammatory markers. [studies by Norm Farb, David Cresswell, and many more]

The first, most essential practice of yoga is to learn to how to pay attention to our breath and to our present embodied experience. (Sadly many yoga classes skip this, and instead treat the body as mere matter to be bullied into the form du jour, with the attendant injuries, anxiety, etc.) On the mat we turn our attention away from the external world, away from the chattering of the mind, learning to become a witness to our body as it is, instead of fighting, resisting, or ignoring our body-temple. Our time on the mat becomes a Pause in our daily rush and push, regardless whether we are working on stress-reduction, stability, flexibility, or even strength. We are present in, and moving from, our internal embodied self. Students then learn how to take this Pause with them into their daily life, on the mat or off. 

Yamas and Niyamas – Yoga’s Guides to Joyful Living

The Yamas for example help us explore: non-harming and compassion; out-dated belief structures which limit our development; cultivating right relationship and new skills; non-excess; and non-possessiveness. I have been working intimately with these guidelines for about 17 years now, and leading groups for the last two. I am in awe as I watch particularly this current group internalize the “pause and reflect” nature of this work, with visible positive effects on their relationships with family, co-workers, friends. They are becoming freer to be themselves, with less anxiety, less fear, less second-guessing of self. They are learning to “travel lighter”, with less baggage mentally, emotionally, physically, each step of the journey.  (A new group is beginning in September – let me know right away if you are interested!)

Here are some quotes from students' weekly reflections:

“I realize I have been living with a self-image from long ago that is not serving me now. I am exploring my interactions with my family and I just keep going back to my breath.”

“An old belief that I am not capable and can’t do things on my own came into focus. … With this belief I have developed fears of saying the wrong thing, making mistakes, being rejected, trying to fail before I really tried, hiding. Now I am telling myself that fears are normal. I am normal. I am capable of learning and going through the process to bring my work forward.”

“As I prepared for a meeting, the voice in my head began: ‘He (the peer) is much smarter and better than you...’ It's almost as if I set myself up for failure by discounting my abilities and thereby I don't put my best foot forward. I noticed and stopped the story, [and made the presentation just fine.] … My nervousness was less than in similar presentations.



Choosing to get still, in order to gain greater clarity. 

Letting go.

This is where change happens.”

Putting these together

What I see happening for many of us is when challenges arise (as they will forever!) we “spin:” our mind, sometimes even our body, goes around in circles with reasons, stories, excuses why our options won’t work, or we will fail, or our best isn’t good enough, imagining the worst case scenario, etc. Or perhaps we strike out at ourselves or another (physically or verbally), or we hide in addictions (food, drugs, alcohol, TV, etc.). None of these states support skillful action. While our mind can travel to past or future, our body lives in the present. So when the mind is remembering the pain of past failures, or feeling the fear of future pain, the body feels it as now. Therefore when we spin, this carries a physiological response, in the body, that correlates with diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, heart failure, and inflammation.

Without awareness, our conditioning continues to run us, and things will never change. If we can learn to pause, to pull our senses and mind back inside and into the present  to feel what is happening in our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our breath now, (interoception) this changes our physiological experience. Spinning slows, the stress response begins to lower. We begin to shift from the primitive brain to the neo-cortex, where higher reasoning and skillful action can happen.

Applying the Yamas into this Pause, we can see what stories or beliefs have us in their grip, we can identify triggers, we can see ourselves and others with compassion, we can bear to be present to what is instead of running or hiding, we can see what we are holding onto that is keeping us prisoner in our minds, we can see options that before were hidden, and we can move through life with more ease.

Build the Pause into your daily life!

LINKS to NYT articles:  “50 States of Anxiety”  “When Blood Pressure is Political”