If you’re anything like me, you’re fascinated by the causes and effects of anxiety. Like so many people, I lived with it for years. It was when I started teaching yoga more than two decades ago that I began to see how the powerful practice of calming my nervous system helped me overcome my anxiety.
I can honestly say that yoga changed me from the inside out. But as profound as my personal transformation was, it was even more gratifying guiding my students through their breakthroughs.
I wanted to learn the why and how behind these transformative moments. I became a licensed psychotherapist to understand the intersection of yoga and psychology, and ultimately I developed all my training programs around this amazing integration.
In yoga, as in life, the beauty is in the simplicity. As I dove more deeply into my practice and my teaching, I began to learn the potential of something I’d taken for granted most of my life. Something we all do, day in and day out. An untapped tool that, when you harness it, can bring your body and mind into a state of calm, balanced neutrality. It’s as simple as…
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Do you ever catch yourself holding your breath when you’re anxious or worried? This is related to your sympathetic nervous system—what we commonly think of as the “fight or flight” response. When you sense a threat, your pupils dilate, the blood rushes to your extremities so that you can fight or flee, your digestion goes off track to reserve energy, and your cortisone levels and other hormones spike, prepping your body for survival. This all happens instantly and subconsciously, and over time it results in massive inflammation and pent-up stress.
Now think about the opposite of a sharp intake of breath. When you exhale fully or sigh deeply, your whole body relaxes. This is your parasympathetic response — sometimes called “tend and befriend” or “rest and digest.” It is your body’s calm state of homeostasis. Sometimes when you exhale fully and deeply you say: Ahhhhh. Because it feels good!
When I first began studying yoga and breathwork, I learned how to downshift from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (tend and befriend). And I realized that when we achieve this shift into a neutral state, we can approach the stressful situation with our whole brain, not just the reptilian reactionary part of it. So I wanted to develop an intentional practice around breathwork, to turn it into a tool that I could regularly access, not just in times of anxiousness.
Sama Vritti or Box Breath
A breathing practice I love is called Sama Vritti. In Sanskrit, Sama means same, and Vritti means waves. Think of it as creating equal waves of breath to soothe the body. This simple exercise focusing on balanced breath consists of four counts: Inhale, pause, exhale, pause. Visualize the shape of a box, and breathe along each side.
Let’s try this together…
Wherever you are, find a moment of stillness. Remind yourself that in this moment, you are safe. Now, begin:
Repeat these steps for at least three rounds until you feel a sense of calm and ease. Let yourself return to your natural breath. If this exercise is comfortable for you, try incorporating it into your daily practice and notice how it helps you find quiet harmony, even in the most challenging circumstances.
Core wounds and your family of origin
You may be asking, what is the ultimate purpose of quieting your mind, beyond reducing inflammation and feeling a temporary sense of relief. The answer is profound. Once you’re in a steady-state, you can truly explore why you were triggered and where those feelings came from. And, my friends, it all comes from somewhere.
I want you to know that I’m right here with you on your journey of psychological wellness and physical vitality. That’s why I’m sharing with you the importance of locating your core wounds. This is where your triggers began. With the right guidance and support, identifying the wound can be healing. It can help you reach greater heights of self-awareness and self-love. It can quiet your inner critic and dispel doubt, fear, and shame. And it can help you develop the strategies to regulate your responses to all future triggers and stressful environments. You can look honestly at your shadows, those parts of yourself that you deem unpleasant, or inappropriate, or unhelpful, and become less reactive and more proactive. I want you to know…
Your shadows are your gifts
I write extensively about shadow work because it is the foundation of my signature program—Yoga.Psyche.Soul. In my upcoming, soon-to-be-launched podcast I plan to dive deeply into this essential teaching. But for right now, I want you to think about something…
Remember a recent stressful situation, where you felt your system escalating into “fight or flight” mode, and ask yourself: When was the first time you felt this particular trigger? What does it remind you of? Where does that memory take you? How old were you, who was with you, and how did you feel, in your body, mind and soul?
Your emotional body holds onto memories of grief, anger, fear and sadness. The experience of the memory is visceral—you may feel pain in your belly, the onset of a headache, or itchy, sweaty palms. This is why doing deeper healing work on your core wounds is so essential—it helps you recognize your triggers, understand how they link to your psyche, and mitigate the impact they have on the totality of who you are.
The work we’ll do together will help us bring the tender spaces in ourselves to a place of healing. I see the light and the shadow in you, and I embrace all of it.
Earlier this summer, I was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts — 20 Minutes to Get Om. I talked with the show’s amazing hosts, Katy and Jamie, about how to deal with stress and anxiety so that it doesn’t completely derail you. I described a few simple yet effective breathing techniques to calm your nervous system and quiet your mind. The solutions are holistic, and you can do them anywhere, anytime you feel triggered. I also talk about shadows, where they come from and what they mean. Listen now!