Anxiety, Surrender, and Yoga
Some of us have a tendency towards anxiety, while others seem not to. I’ve often heard those who have never experienced anxiety ask someone who has, “What’s it like?” It’s always hard for me to believe there are people out there who have no idea what it is to feel anxious, because I’ve always had that tendency within me, even from an early age. I assumed it was a normal part of life.
I don’t get anxious over big things that actually matter. Somehow, I'm able to keep my cool in those situations. It’s the small, insignificant worries that pile up, or imagined concerns that taunt me. It’s not being able to go to sleep until I write down several reminders for the next day—reminders that I read upon waking and wonder why I’d thought they were so important. It’s spending a day with friends and later fretting if something I said or did was misinterpreted and caused damage to our relationship. It’s worrying about failing or making a fool out of myself if I start out on a new venture, even if it’s just a small one.
It sounds so silly when I type it, but throughout my adult life, it’s these types of worries that have caused me sleepless nights or even asthmatic breathing at times. Though I’ve gotten a good handle on it over the years, it still lurks in the shadows of my psyche. If not for my yoga practice, I would certainly be contending with anxiety on a more frequent basis.
One way yoga helps me with anxiety is through the simple expenditure of energy. I’ve always been drawn to physically demanding types of yoga (first Bikram, now Ashtanga). These intense practices have a way of burning off the excess energy that can cause us to spin our wheels. Barring times of exhaustion--when I’m susceptible to all sorts of character flaws--I am least anxious when I am getting lots of work done in the yoga room.
But the main way yoga helps me manage anxiety is through its principle of surrender. This is a concept I had to fully adopt when I started practicing Ashtanga yoga two years ago, because its progressive nature inevitably leads us to points of difficulty. It can be humbling, scary, even frustrating to bump up against your physical and mental limitations. But though our Western culture may have taught us otherwise, our worth does not equal our ability to achieve. We have to surrender to that if we are actually going to keep doing yoga the way it’s meant to be done. We have to surrender to not always looking good and competent so that we can learn and grow the right way.
For instance, I recently worked with senior teacher Greg Nardi, who illuminated many inefficient patterns in my practice. I was "muscling" my way through aspects of the asanas that were difficult for me, and burning up all my energy. I was dumping the work of forward bending into my hamstring flexibility, instead of developing the much-needed strength in my hip flexors and bandhas to actually deepen the fold at my hip creases. I had to go back and put a bend in my knee in many postures I was used to doing with straight legs, so I could feel and develop this deepening. I had to take some steps backwards in order to move forward. I didn't "look" as good in many of the asanas, but I surrendered to that so I could truly learn... And it's working :)
Not only do we have to surrender our ego, but we also have to surrender to our teachers as they call our attention to these inefficient patterns (indeed, these tendencies--using too much effort or too little, fidgeting, getting distracted, forgetting to breathe, not being present, etc--often reflect our patterns outside the yoga room as well). We have to surrender to them when they assist us deeply into postures or into ranges of motion of which we didn’t think we were capable. Most of all, we have to surrender to the powerful process of yoga in general as it exposes all manner of shortcomings, gaps in understanding, physical limitations, etc. We have to have faith that in bringing those things to light, we are on our way to transcending them and finding meaningful growth.
To me, surrendering means trust. I trust my teachers when they assist me. I trust that I will continue to find true and good knowledge as I continue along my path of yoga. I trust I will encounter other yogis who have my best interest at heart as we take class together or learn from one another. Most of all, I trust in the goodness of the universe to take care of me throughout this journey called Life. It sounds cheesy, but when I am able to surrender in that way, I really do find I am taken care of… and worrying never did a damn thing to help that anyway.
When you’re living from a faith mindset, it is hard for small worries to take hold and cause anxiety. Certain (small) things in life are harder for me to trust, like that those I care about in my life understand my intentions or that some mistake I might make won’t cause serious damage in our relationship. It’s hard for me to trust myself that I am “adult enough” to remember all the forms I need to do my taxes or manage my money or take care of my day-to-day responsibilities in the household without forgetting something “important.” These are the things that can trigger my anxiety--the areas in life where I am not as able to demonstrate surrender and faith.
So thank goodness (Isvara?) for my yoga mat, from which I am able to practice surrender on a daily basis. It has been EXTREMELY freeing to have much less anxiety than I used to, thanks to yoga.
Other Anxiety Crushers:
1. Meditation. The art of allowing a thought to exist, and then let it float away into nothingness has been extremely useful to me to combat anxiety. It teaches me that I am not my thoughts, and they aren’t powerful unless I give them power.
2. Gratitude. It’s almost impossible to worry after I spend a focused amount of time feeling grateful for the various good things in my life. I try to think of at least five things I am grateful for before I get out of bed, especially if I wake up feeling anxious.
3. Having fun and not taking things too seriously. The more I can have fun, not be too serious, and just enjoy my life, the less the small stuff seems to matter. This is one reason I love listening to comedians’ podcasts :) Next to yoga, laughter is truly one of the best gifts in life.