I became fascinated with words and definitions at an early age. I would write often in the earliest versions of Word Perfect and could entertain myself for hours with the right-click thesaurus option. Perhaps that’s why it surprises me now that the meaning of anxiety alluded me for so long. I had a close friend in high school who would often skip school, usually citing anxiety as the reason, and I remember having trouble grasping how that qualified as an excused absence. I understood that, although related, anxiety wasn’t the same as depression, but nevertheless had trouble identifying it as I waded through the murky and complicated emotions of adolescence.
As I got older, I realized it was because the feeling had been too familiar to pinpoint. Anxiety is something that has always resided within me, but my naturally nervous disposition never allowed me to recognize it.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that it began to diminish my quality of life. I was recovering from an injury that put me on the couch for several months and grappling with feelings of self-worth as I was unable to work or even do basic tasks for myself. Even after I recovered and left my mother’s house to return to LA, I was often crippled by anxiety and spent a lot of time alone in my room. I picked fights with my then-roommate, and eventually drove her away. We had been friends for years, and in a way, that was my bottom. I knew I couldn’t continue living like that.
Luckily, my anxiety is mild enough to treat without prescribed medication. For the most part, I’m able to manage it through a dedicated meditation and yoga routine, as well as by avoiding processed foods, drinking lots of water and limiting caffeine intake, sleeping at least 6-7 hours a night, and recognizing when I need to take some “me” time.
It probably sounds a lot simpler than the reality, and really it’s the culmination of these practices that helps me keep the demons at bay. It’s not uncommon for me to spend a weekend out of town and during that time I might not be as strict about what I eat, or perhaps my alcohol intake will be a little higher than normal, both of which can exacerbate my anxiety. The thing is too, that I don’t usually feel the effects for a few days, and when you’re in the middle of a panic or anxiety attack, it’s pretty difficult to distance yourself from the feeling to recognize, “Well I guess I haven’t taken the time to meditate in a week, and now that I think about it, I ate out all weekend, oh and I did have a 24-oz iced coffee this morning…”
My primary motivation for staying on course has been witnessing how my meditation and yoga practices have transformed over time, and the benefits that extend to nearly every aspect of life.
I first started meditating about a year ago when my friend Elysse began hosting a weekly sound bath. For one hour a week, I allowed my troubles to melt away as the healing vibrations from crystal singing bowls washed over me and Elysse’s soothing voice guided me through a mindful meditation.
I felt refreshed when I returned to my normal wakeful state, my mind sharp and uncluttered, able to approach my problems with a renewed clarity. I began to incorporate meditation into other activities. Most associate meditation with sitting or lying down, but really it’s just the ability to quiet your mind enough to be completely present in whatever you’re doing. Think of that moment when you’re brushing your teeth and your mind wanders until you’ve reached an almost hypnotic state. For me, that also happens when I’m preparing a meal, or taking a lazy walk.
Still, it’s beneficial to set aside time to be still and quiet, and that’s proven to be a challenge for me to commit to. I began by listening to guided ten-minute meditations during my lunch hour. The person speaking had an echoing, God-like voice, and in the background were the soothing sounds of ocean waves crashing against a shore. It was so much easier listening to instructions rather than relying on my own willpower to clear my thoughts and relax.
Gradually, I saw improvements. I forgot my headphones one day, but itching for a mental break, I challenged myself with a chanting “Om” meditation. “Om” is thought to be a sacred sound that connects us to the universe, and chanting that affirmation became my go-to meditation for a brief while.
I tried to return to guided meditations on YouTube, but quickly realized that I had exhausted my options, and where I had found the instructors’ voices soothing before, now they just felt distracting. I decided I would try it on my own.
I set a timer and sat crossed-legged on a pillow so that my knees were below my hips. For ten minutes, I focused on breathing in and out, tossing out any intrusive thoughts that attempted to worm their way in, usually mundane ones like wondering what I’d eat for dinner or whether I’d answered an email. Before I knew it, my alarm was trilling and the ten minutes were up.
I’ve made similar, although perhaps more predictable, progress in my yoga journey. We tend to demand evidence of physical activity, whether it’s sore muscles or improved stamina, but with a similar focus on mindfulness, yoga also has the potential to improve our mental health.
The postures seem daunting at first, but with practice you realize that yoga is not about forcing your body into any unnatural shape, but rather removing the assumptions about what our bodies are capable of and doing our personal best in any given moment. Yoga recognizes that like everything else in life, our bodies fluctuate, and what we were capable of yesterday might not be in the cards for today. It encourages us to pay attention, and most of all to be kind. It reminds us that life is not a race, and if it is we are only up against ourselves, so why not motivate with acceptance and understanding?
One of my favorite yoga instructors refers to this practice of pushing yourself further as “making space.” As we fold over to touch our toes, she encourages us make space along our shoulder blades, relaxing them away from our ears so that our heads hang heavy. I’ve come to regard the phrase as rather poetic.
In every situation, regardless of how challenging it may be, we have an opportunity to make space. All it takes is a willingness to make adjustments, tune into your body, and allow your breath to guide you. When I think of all that meditation and yoga have allowed me to make space for – peace of mind, calm, clarity, focus, compassion, confidence – it only deepens my commitment to staying on this path. I know that they will never cure me of anxiety completely, but they’ve taught me to celebrate the good days without dwelling on the bad, and gradually I’m learning to love the way these inevitable ups and downs color my life.