I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Matt Dreyfus

Panic or Exhilaration? Your Choice.

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Viparita Dandasana

When I wrote my previous post, I was on a yoga HIGH. So high that I glossed over the moment where I almost had a panic attack. Almost. But didn’t. Maybe that’s why I was so exhilarated?

I’m not prone to panic attacks, so this was unusual, but I do tend to be anxious. Spend a few minutes in my brain around 2:17 am or 8:01 am or 3:33 pm or 9:15 pm and you’d be anxious also. It’s a constant struggle, alternating between worry that I am not good enough, fear that something bad will happen, and fantasizing about an unrealistic future.  It goes something like this:

What if I get fired? I wonder if I could make a living with writing, teaching, and Reiki? What if we lost the house? My husband would leave me. Where would I live? Would I stay in New York or move somewhere else? Back to D.C.? Why isn’t my father answering the phone? What if he is dead? How am I going to deal with the house and all his stuff when he dies? I want to be near the kids. My son thinks I love my daughter more than I love him. I am a terrible mother. How could I let that happen? Dammit. I need sleep! So I don’t lose my job. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. Try chanting. Abahu purusakaram. I forgot to water the plants.

And so on. However, after years of therapy and years of yoga, I’ve discovered a secret. For me, anxiety is a habit, a go-to emotion that I can change, not a disability that is inherent in my nature. It’s a learned response based on my upbringing and how my parents dealt with their anxiety and enabled my anxiety. It’s gotten me out of stuff I didn’t want to do and gotten other people to take care of me. And, let’s face it, anxiety is a terrific motivator! (If it doesn’t paralyze you.) We all have anxiety. It’s what we do with it that can make the difference between living a circumspect life versus a more open and courageous life. My biggest fear is that I will die regretting that I didn’t do more. Well, no, my biggest fear is that I will lose a child. And that is the worst anxiety that grips me at 2:17 am.

Back to my almost panic attack. After we worked on lifting our ankles and stretching our armpits, among other things, we did some back-bending poses. Back-bending poses alleviate depression and are exhilarating, though they can increase anxiety. I was a textbook case on Monday. We did a pose, similar to the one pictured above, where we used the chair to support and encourage lengthening and flexibility in the back, opening our chest, throat, and neck.   With a more familiar teacher and class, I might have stopped myself.

Sometimes, you need to get out of your comfort zone and do something different. Hear differently. See differently.

The teacher looked at me as I was wiggling my way into the chair, oh-so-cautiously preparing for the pose. (Frankly I was procrastinating.) He said he thought it might be good for my neck, providing a stretch, not a compression (as in headstand, which I currently don’t do). I was skeptical. And afraid, but proceeded. I got into the pose, and gently let my head lean backwards. My neck, throat, and heart open. Exposed.

That’s when the panic arose.

Whoa! My head is heavy. Body scan. Does this hurt? I don’t think so. But it should hurt! Breath tightens, fear arises. Is it okay? Body scan. Does this hurt? I don’t think so. But it should hurt! Breath tightens, fear arises. Can I get out of the pose? When can I get out of the pose? What if I can’t get out of the pose? Breath tightens, fear arises. Should I ask for help? He’s busy helping other students. Maybe I should get out of the pose. I need help! Breath tightens, fear arises. God Damn Iyengar Yoga. Why do they hold poses for so long? Body scan. Hmmm, maybe it doesn’t hurt. Breathe. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. Oh! I think I just felt my ear open up a bit. No, I must get out of this pose. Now! I’m going to regret this tomorrow. What if I really hurt myself? Breathe. Oh! I just felt my neck release. When is this pose going to end? How am I going to lift my head out of this pose without hurting myself? I must get out of this pose. Now! Breathe. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. Oh! My neck released some more. Phew. Pose is over. I am not doing it again. There’s no fucking way I’m doing this again. But. How about that. Hmmm. I did it!

That’s when the exhilaration arose.

There is new research released recently that studied the brains of people undergoing stress and anxiety. The brains of highly resilient people were demonstrated to acknowledge the stress and anxiety but to dampen the response. Those who were not resilient, who succumbed to the panic, didn’t respond to the anxiety and the stress until it was too late. Breathing became difficult and they overreacted, making the situation worse. One conclusion is that through mindful breathing exercises, you can become more tuned into your reactions and more able to control your response without overreacting.

Breathe. Feel. Feel fear. Feel panic. Feel exhilaration. Feel love. Feel joy. Breathe.

Photo Credit:  Viparita Dandasana by Bobby Clennell

 

Lift Your Ankles!

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Expand Your Heart

I decided to spend today’s holiday at my office even though it was closed. I have been very anxious about my workload as I more enthusiastically embrace a strategic role that involves interacting with high level decision-makers, not easy for an INFJ who would really be very happy quietly thinking by myself, at least most of the time. It was a good decision. The office was empty and I was able to concentrate and prepare for an upcoming meeting. After 4 hours, which was the equivalent of about 104 hours of a regular day filled with meetings and distracting emails, I decided to balance the day with a yoga class at The Inyengar Institute, a studio that is not particularly convenient so I don’t go very often. It is not my “home” studio and I don’t know the students nor the teachers. It took some coaxing to get myself there.

It was a Level 2 class. You’d think by now, after all these years of practicing yoga and teaching yoga, I’d have advanced to at least a Level 3. But it seems that the more yoga I do, the more I’m aware of how much I can still learn from a Level 1 or Level 2 class. And how unwilling I now am to overdo it in a more advanced class and get hurt.

The class was filled with Manhattan yogi’s. But that doesn’t mean what you might think. They weren’t young, athletic, competitive, flexible. They were Iyengar yogi’s, which are a slightly different breed, mainly older. Perhaps wiser, because they’ve dealt with injury. There were a variety of body types and abilities. What struck me was that everyone stood straight, looked you in the eye, and was welcoming. Iyengar yogi’s. A good bunch.

The teacher, a thoughtful and inspiring Matt Dreyfus, greeted me, listened to me share my physical ailments and quietly observed my anxiety and tension and physical pain. He made sure I was safe the entire class, all while keeping track of about 30 other students.

Class began. A completely normal Iyengar class. Who knows when the completely normal class that might be ho hum for one person feels transformational for another? We chanted. So slowly that the OM reverberated through my body. We started working on poses. In Iyengar Yoga, (unlike Vinyasa where you move and flow dance-like from pose to pose with the breath), you hold poses, using props, and building toward a peak pose. It is perhaps boring. The endless and precise instruction. Or it can be exhilarating. Today it was exhilarating. Matt implored us to lift our ankles! We explored the subtle movements that this entailed. We watched him lift his ankles. We laughed at the absurdity of lifting your ankles. And then we felt how different we felt when we lifted our ankles. How our legs became longer. How our spine became longer. How our chest, our heart, expanded. How our breath moved more freely. Wow.

Then we worked on back-bends, those heart-openers that alleviate depression and remind you that it’s good to be alive. Helpful when so many are dying. We worked with the chair. I found myself slightly panicking. Worried about my neck. Worried I might fall. I breathed into my fear. And felt my neck relax. Exhilarated that I did it.

It reminded me of the power of yoga. When you change your body – Stand up straight! Lift your ankles! Stretch you armpits! Expand your chest! Feel your heart! Soften you eyes and your tongue! – you change your mind. The worries of the day-to-day seem petty when compared to the vastness, the divinity of humanity.

Matt spoke about the purpose of yoga. Most of us are so absorbed in our thoughts and attach great importance to them: worrying, fantasizing, planning, hoping, regretting, wanting. Always wanting. With yoga, we focus on the breath and bring attention to the poses which allows us to take a break from all that chatter in our minds. When we can pause and find stillness, we can begin to observe all those crazy thoughts and begin to realize that they are just thoughts. They are not real. They are biased by our experiences.

He encouraged us to feel spacious. Larger than ourselves, larger than our thoughts. When you feel spacious and larger than just you, you feel connected to others and are more able to stand straight, make eye contact, and be welcoming to all. You take your yoga off the mat and into your world. A little bit closer to Martin Luther King’s dream of freedom for all.

Drawing:  Downward Facing Dog by Lovetta Reyes-Cairo

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