• ANXIETY (An excerpt from Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage & Compassion)

    Honestly, a bigger problem was that having anxiety made me feel like a failure as a yoga practitioner and teacher. How could I have anxiety if the focus of my life has been learning to calm my nervous system and control my mind?

    I’ve been using yoga to help me handle mild anxiety for my entire adult life, and it has been incredibly effective. But three years ago, just a few months after my mother’s death, I had a severe anxiety attack. I ended up in the emergency room since I didn’t know what was happening to me.

    After hours of waiting and a whole bunch of tests, I remember the two emergency room doctors coming to talk to me. The one in charge said, “We can’t find any physical cause for your symptoms, and we think it might be an anxiety attack.” I laughed out loud and said, “That can’t be right. I’m a yoga teacher!”

    For the longest time after that, I couldn’t bring myself to accept the fact that I have severe anxiety. I had kept up a regular yoga and meditation practice for thirty years, and I spent time every day calming my nervous system and working with my mind. But I couldn’t deny what had happened. For a while, my practice became very difficult. What had once been a sanctuary started to feel like an alien world.

    I know that yoga has been proven to support people with anxiety, but it took me a while to find my way back to a formal practice. Looking back, I can see that one positive outcome is that my experience gave me so much compassion for the resistance I had seen in my students over the years. All of a sudden, I completely understood how difficult it could be to turn within, and why the subtle practices of pranayama (breathing practices) and meditation are particularly challenging. I was a beginner again.

    Luckily, I haven’t had another anxiety attack like that one, although the fear still lingers. Since then, my practice has evolved in so many ways. Most of all, I’ve let go of the striving that came out of wanting to be a “good” yoga student. Now, I spend time every day with myself, but not always in the kind of formal practice that I used to require of myself. I move and find stillness in more spontaneous ways that support my mental and physical health in the moment. Sometimes I dance around the room and sometimes I lift weights and then do some asana and relaxation.

    One of the things that helped me with my anxiety was the support of an amazing yoga therapist who allowed me to be a student again. I had fallen into a trap that is so common for teachers: we forget to keep learning. We think we know enough and stop there. I’m not going to go as far as to say that I’m grateful for my anxiety, because that is clichéd nonsense. I’ve tried to engage with my anxiety to expand the way I conceive
    of, and relate to, my own mind. I accept that fear, worry—and even panic—are normal parts of my humanity. I don’t need to run away from those painful feelings toward some mystical idea of peace, which is what I was doing before.

    Honestly, a bigger problem was that having anxiety made me feel like a failure as a yoga practitioner and teacher. How could I have anxiety if the focus of my life has been learning to calm my nervous system and control my mind? Well, I think the answer lies in the latter part of that statement: controlling the mind is a dangerous game. Since my anxiety attack, I’ve been exploring new ways to approach my mind with kindness, and a new understanding of what I need. Instead of controlling my mind, I’m working on repairing my relationship with myself. Kabir describes it well:

    THE FAILURE by Kabir
    I talk to my inner lover, and I say, why such rush?
    We sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves birds and
    animals and the ants—
    perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you in your
    mother’s womb.
    Is it logical you would be walking around entirely orphaned now?
    The truth is you turned away yourself,
    and decided to go into the dark alone.
    Now you are tangled up in others, and have forgotten what you
    once knew,
    and that’s why everything you do has some weird failure in it.

    I love Kabir’s premise that, “you turned away yourself . . . and that’s why everything you do has some weird failure in it.” He gets right to the heart of the issue of identifying with ego-mind instead of spirit. I also love the idea of normalizing failure. Isn’t that what it means to be human? Isn’t life a succession of failures that we learn from? How can you learn if you don’t fail?

    Failure is the direct outcome of practice. Failure is what we get to do every time we get on the mat. We get to fail at this pose or that pose. We get to fail at relaxing when we lie in Shavasana and our nervous system is buzzing with caffeine, and we get to fail at meditating every time our mind wanders. I’ve never practiced yoga and not failed, and that’s exactly the point.

    Failure is the key to yoga. It’s like that expression, “the broken place is where the light shines through.” The failure is where the light of yoga shines through to expose our most tender places—our wounds. It illuminates the limits of the body and mind, not so we can overcome them through sheer force, but so we can love them more. How else can we become whole (healed) without completely embracing our mistakes and our failures?

    If we don’t accept failure, we live in an imaginary bubble of our ego-centered imagination. We deny anything that goes against our self-image; we create “alternate truths.” The first step in social justice and equity work is identifying our shortcomings. We need to admit to our prejudices, our unconscious bias, and our mistakes. We need to clearly see our failures so we can do better. But how can we see them if we are constantly defending ourselves, no matter how many mistakes we make and how
    many people we harm?

    We can learn how to fail in public by apologizing for our mistakes. If I make a social media post that is offensive or incorrect, I can either defend my position over and over in angry comments, or I can say, “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.” As Maya Angelou famously said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” There is tremendous wisdom in that simple statement.

    Yes, yoga practice is a journey to self-love, but not in an egotistical way. This is where we so often get it wrong. It’s about loving our differences instead of hiding them, celebrating our limitations instead of denying them, and literally investing in our failures. By embracing failure, we integrate our humanity and our spirituality. Rather than dance between them, we can love our limited human body and mind as fascinating expressions of our spirit, and appreciate how essential they are to our journey.

    Failure reminds us that complete identification with the body-mind is unhealthy, and that we haven’t been “orphaned” here, as Kabir describes. Our spirit isn’t separate from this human experience, rather it’s the glue holding it all together. There is no part of us that is not connected to spirit, even the ugly, dirty, and painful parts. And the way to experience spirit isn’t by denying the ugly parts, but by loving the most orphaned parts of ourselves more.

    Reflection: Can you think of an experience in your life that felt like a failure, but in the end was actually a kind of success?

    Excerpted with permission. For more information visit Yoga Revolution.

    By Jivana Heyman

    Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of the Accessible Yoga Association, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. Accessible Yoga offers Conferences, Community Forums, a Podcast, and a popular Ambassador program. He’s the co-founder of the Accessible Yoga Training School, and the author of Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body, as well as the forthcoming book, Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage & Compassion. More info at jivanaheyman.com

    Photo by Natalie from Pexels

  • Decolonizing and Demystifying Anxiety and Depression

    Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).

    The past year has been a reckoning for most of us as we faced:

    1. A life-threatening global pandemic, lockdown, and quarantine
    2. Global economic meltdown because of businesses shutting
    3. A rapidly worsening climate crisis that puts all life on the planet in peril
    4. A tipping point in the collective awareness of the ravages of racial oppression, white supremacy, and colonialism
    5. An ever-widening political divide that put the US on the brink of civil war
    6. The growth of extremism, conspiracy theories, and fringe cult groups unable to deal with these realities, perhaps as a form of counterphobia

    There is plenty to be anxious and depressed about, and data shows that anxiety and depression rates skyrocketed early in the pandemic lockdown. To top it off, the SARS-CoV-2 (or Coronavirus 19) also seems to have neurological and psychiatric impacts on those who have been infected, with 1 in 5 people who have had COVID meeting criteria for a mental health disorder after the infection. Given these facts, I propose that we cannot center problems in the individual without addressing also the social, cultural, economic, and political realities that influence people’s fears and hopelessness. Healing must happen in community.

    The year 2020 has challenged many of us to question in what unconscious ways colonialism, white supremacy and white privilege have shaped us personally and professionally. Asked to write a blog on yoga for anxiety and depression, I struggled to identify a context that felt satisfying. Finally, I understood that I wanted to bring a new perspective to these very real and disabling, but also all too common human experiences.

    Disease, according to Yoga Sutra 1:30, is one of nine obstacles that obstruct progress on our path to experiencing the state of yoga. The yoga tradition understands disease as a misalignment with the rhythms of nature. We are increasingly out of harmony with the natural universe. After industrialization, even less so. The planet’s rhythms and our individual circadian rhythms are out of sync. Conditioned by a white supremacist culture that tells us our worth is dependent on performance, achievement, and amassing material wealth, we resist rest. The brain then sends us signals that something has gone awry, and we become anxious and depressed.

    Anxiety and depression are not new phenomena. They have affected humans through millennia because they are natural responses to an over-taxed nervous system. In a way, they are both a warning, and an attempt to re-regulate the human organism when it has become dangerously imbalanced due to extreme stressors. Anxiety is the mobilization of metabolic energy towards necessary action, and depression is a demand that the system rest, so it goes into shutdown for energy conservation. These processes will be explained further in subsequent blogs detailing the neurophysiological and psychological or cognitive components of these experiences.

    Unfortunately, 20th century psychiatry, to categorize these phenomenological experiences as mental illnesses, began to reify these constructs and give them a life of their own—so we are no longer human beings having a transitory experience, but we become defined by our anxieties or our depressions. For many, their diagnoses begin to define their identities. Instead of seeking more complex explanations and taking corrective lifestyle actions, we look for a simple external agent (i.e., medications) to rapidly fix our distress. Our locus of control is outside of us, rather than within us. The yoga path, on the other hand, asks us to do self-study (svadyaya) and to engage in practice (sadhana) to shift states of consciousness and overcome the causes of suffering (kleshas).

    Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).

    Another disservice of modern psychiatry has been the simplification of solutions, so people (including some physicians) now commonly believe that depression is “a serotonin imbalance” to be rapidly resolved by a selective- serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor that will flood your brain with “feel good” neurotransmitters. But if that were the case, wouldn’t psychotropic medications have reduced the incidence and prevalence of anxiety and depression, and put a dent in the number of suicides recorded annually? Instead, what we are seeing are skyrocketing rates of all of these issues, especially in the more industrialized nations. And health and mental health professionals are bracing for a post-COVID wave of all of these “diseases” including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Clearly, our angst is a lot more complex than this simple neurotransmitter.

    Medications are fine as an adjunctive support, especially during times of extreme stress, but they will not “cure” the underlying causes and conditions that led to our “disordered” thinking, feeling, and behaving. They work best as a short-term salve to help us do the necessary work of change. In fact, most research done to get drugs approved is short term, and the bulk of the data shows that antidepressants, for example, only work better than placebo in cases of very severe depression. And many of these medications have undesirable effects and are difficult to withdraw from. Some Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), for example, have FDA black-box warnings about the potential increase in suicidality in certain age groups. Education on the pros and cons is imperative before agreeing to introduce psychotropic medications.

    The reality is that we are complex, multi-faceted beings whose unique and individual experiences require multi-faceted solutions. To decolonize therapy, we must humanize our experiences and bring back ancestral ways of healing in community by creating “communities of care.” We must de-mystify our experiences and put them in the context of social, cultural, economic, and political experiences and not “broken brains.” We must acknowledge the role of current and transgenerational, individual, and collective traumas. We must acknowledge all the ways that racist, sexist, fatphobic, transphobic, ableist, and capitalist ideologies impact individuals and communities – increasing anxiety and depression rates due to realistic fears and hopelessness regarding change. We must bring healing  (the process of ecoming whole) to the center of treatment.

    Decolonization is now used to talk about restorative justice through cultural, psychological, and economic freedom. Racial equality and eliminating wage disparities, for example, would do more for reducing depression and anxiety in certain groups than psychotherapy and anti-depressants. Decolonizing therapy means empowering individuals rather than making them dependent on a medical infrastructure designed to profit from illness. It means offering solutions that work for people within their cultural contest, even if they are not “evidence-based.” And finally, it means we must establish systems and institutions that understand dis-ease as just that: an attempt of the body and psyche to return to ease, flow, and coherence.

    This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health.

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.

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