We don’t really need a reason to feel anxious these days. It’s just like the spring pollen starting to fall – it just seems to be in the air, everywhere, and it is easy to pick it up unintentionally. It shows up in our thoughts and in our bodies. Perhaps this overwhelming and global anxiety is what has guided me to shift my practice even more towards what I call “a healing practice” rather than a fitness practice. While I could say that yoga has always been a path of healing, I am finding a more subtle understanding of how this approach can change our physical practice in a way that unwinds tension and creates more space and openness in the body for easier breath and movement. A healing approach can be used in any activity you choose to participate in, and at any level.
One aspect of a healing approach involves bringing mindfulness rather than resistance to feelings of tension and anxiety in our body. This might happen in your not-so-favorite pose or when we roll a ball in a well-used spot, or even off the mat when you hear the daily news and notice your chest begin to tighten.
When we encounter unpleasant sensations in our bodies, we often respond with anxiety (what is wrong with me?) and proceed to tense our muscles and our breath in response to the sensation. It is a natural response – part of our survival mechanism – as the body gears up to protect itself from harm. However, assuming you are not actually harming yourself, the problem occurs when we continue to hold on to the tension even as the sense of danger has passed. We can become so accustomed to feeling anxious and holding tension that we actually consider it “normal” and forget what it feels like to be completely relaxed. This chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness.
Rather than responding to feelings of stress with even more tension, we can respond to the sensations with curiosity and openness. What is the sensation that is present? What are its qualities, its color, its location? Without resisting it – by trying to immediately get rid of it – we can create a space to open and relax around it. Liken it to sitting down to visit with a friend in need. Rather than immediately rushing in to solve their problems, we lean back, open our arms, and listen without judgement. In the same way, when we feel an uncomfortable sensation or feeling arise, we can take a breath and pause, go within, and listen. We can relax and be present with ourselves without judgement or the need to fix. Remaining present with the sensations as they arise will remind us of their impermanence. Often within a few breaths, the sensation or feelings begin to change.
Next time you notice tension arising in your body, try this mindful approach:
- Notice the sensation. Breathe, pause and go within, noticing the ever-changing quality and complexity of sensations within you. Be curious. Be open.
- Relax around the sensation and notice what co-arises with it. Welcome any thoughts or emotions that accompany the sensations. You might notice judgements, fears, and urges (maybe an urge to run), among others. Again, be open without the need to judge or change.
- Let the “right action” present itself to you:
- pausing, breathing and relaxing, you may find you can let go of tension in the current position
- micro-move to explore the area of tension and notice if small adjustments in angle or depth bring greater release. The smallest changes are the most powerful in transforming the experience.
- modify or change the position to better suit you – if the tension is not subsiding, add support or change positions completely to find a position that feels “safe”. Remember that something cannot release unless it feels safe and supported – either with your breath or a prop. Ask yourself what needs supporting in your body.
- Be willing to wait for the release. No one said it would happen quickly! Touch into an image of something that evokes gratitude or loving kindness, like a friend or a beloved pet. Feel this sensation and offer it to yourself.
Please keep me posted on your experience!