In my 15-year career as a yoga and meditation teacher, I’ve learned many techniques for stilling the mind and moving the body in sustained calm. I’ve learned to train my mind, like a plant on latticework, away from knotted, stressed thinking toward more relaxed awareness of myself and things around me. Meditating has always felt like going on a great date with myself; it’s intimate, I can be completely myself, and when it ends I look forward to the next time.
I knew I was in uncharted territory when, for 10 entire days after the 2016 election, I couldn’t sit still. Meditation and I had suddenly broken up. Like many people I knew, I swung from unannounced sobbing to aggressive feelings of rage, to utter despair. I had a tension headache — pain I’d been lucky never before to experience — that refused to ebb. I felt I had no option than to stay in motion. Tearing myself away from the news, disengaging to check in with myself, sitting cross-legged with my eyes closed — all this was out of the question. I couldn’t even entertain the idea, let alone create the space and time for it.
As for yoga, that, too, changed dramatically. One characteristic of my practice is that I love inversions; headstand, shoulderstand, handstand. I practice them multiple times a week because they literally turn my world upside down.
During this 10-day period, I couldn’t go upside down. I didn’t need inversions to feel upside down: I already was and it felt awful.
I was glad, at least, to recognize that this aversion to the very thing that had stabilized my adulthood was not normal. This wasn’t my usual, garden-variety avoidance, the “Oh-I’ll-just-send-this-last-email-and-then-practice” or “Tomorrow-I’ll-get-up-an-hour-before-the-kids-and-do-it.” This was a full-bodied rejection of the most treasured parts of a practice I had used to navigate my way through just about everything in my life up to that point.
The first thing I did was acknowledge it. I can’t meditate right now. To press my recognition further, I turned the statement into a question: Why can’t I meditate right now? Why don’t I want to? My answer? I’m too mad.
When I tried to practice yoga, I was having a near-food-poisoned reaction to the thought of standing on my head. Why can’t I go upside down? Well, because I’m too afraid.
Giving myself space to feel these feelings, to honor that they were bigger than anything I had ever felt before, was itself practice during these 10 days.
Importantly, I did not give up on meditation and yoga writ large. I stood by myself, held my own hand, soothed myself a variety of other ways, and kept asking: Can I meditate now? How about a headstand today? When practicing yoga during that time, I did a forward fold. Or child’s pose.
Eventually, I crossed my legs, closed my eyes, and scowled through several daily meditations. It was at this point, finally, that I laughed and realized that I was the only one in the room; the only one I hurt was me by avoiding meditation or acting like a punished child when doing it.
As for the yoga, I just kept breathing and making shapes. The forward folds turned into twists, child’s pose turned into down dog, the backbends turned into more backbends, and finally, I was in headstand again.
This is how it starts. If I show up, so will my body. When the mind suffers trauma, most of the time it wants to get lost in that experience. In the short term it often needs to. But the mind enjoys puffing itself up too much by replaying memories and projecting anxieties, which are both types of events that are not happening right now. Too much of this is disharmonious. To maintain good health, you must eventually return to sensations in the body and trust that they, too, are wise. This restores equilibrium.
To be clear, practicing advanced poses such as headstand or sitting in prolonged meditation requires a significant degree of effort. Any person of any level of yoga or meditation practice can do any simple pose to start returning to the body, to find balance again. Here are six ways to do it:
- Acknowledge yourself. When you catch yourself physically tight from emotional stress (head, shoulders, hips, for example), or when you notice you are repeating — to yourself or out loud — the same agonized set of words or sentences that are enhancing your feelings of stress, stop. Take one small breath. Acknowledge what you are feeling by naming your feeling, if you can. If you can’t or if naming causes more stress, don’t worry about naming. Just breathe.
- Identify the tight spot(s) and do something to or through it. Giving yourself a gentle massage is a great way to take acknowledgment to the next step. But, also, attempting to relax this area while you breathe normally, eyes open or closed, standing or sitting, works wonders. Particularly if your sensations are acute, as mine were, your body might push back. It might say, no thanks, I’m happy being really mad right now. If this is the case, go back to No. 1.
- Be patient, and recognize when you judge yourself. But don’t make excuses either. This is where practice meets the most resistance. The amount of judgment we cast toward ourselves — never mind the volume we send outward toward other people — is the single greatest obstacle to positive, self-supporting action. An example of non-judging, patient action for the practiced student would be to return to regular practice and/or to inquire into the quality of that practice. An example for a newer, less regular student would be to make a date to go to a class and follow through.
- Be simple, be regular. I can’t emphasize this enough! Once you clear away the mental weeds you now know are keeping you from coming into a rhythm with your body (see Nos. 1, 2 and 3), perform simple acts and pay attention to how you feel when you are doing them. For the practiced student this is: How do these poses feel now? How is my breath right now? Is there more I want to do or is this enough for today? For the newer student, this is: Can I notice my breath when I’m walking to the Metro? Can I roll my shoulders back a little or feel my legs more? Can I breathe a little deeper?
- Recognize that practice is the only antidote. No one wants to hear this. We all want to pop a perfection pill. But, it is humbling and energizing to realize that the more you use your body, the more balanced you are. The more you practice using your limbs and moving them even simply to and fro, the more you open up the pathways between the brain and body for constant negotiation and dialogue. To be steadfast in your body/mind project, remember that the body has its own language, often aching to speak up, just as the mind has words of which it often uses too many.
- Laugh and try to belong. All experienced yoga and meditation students acknowledge that they could not have progressed, learned to be steady in practice, and taken risks toward growth had it not been for the communities they chose to support them, and to support. Find these and nurture what you’ve already got. Your own family, your friendship network (offline or on), your work colleagues, your local yoga studio, your neighborhood coffee klatch — all of these are the next step outside your own body and mind. We can be balanced, this is in fact what the body wants and needs. But while it starts first on the inside, equilibrium is only sustainable when it is shared.
Kim Weeks started yoga in 1995 and has been teaching it since 2001. She was voted several times DC’s Best Yoga Teacher and has appeared on NBC4 Washington as a yoga expert and in a PBS documentary on spirituality. Mother to two young children, Kim currently teaches weekly classes at YogaWorks in Washington, DC.
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