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Alleviating Anxiety: Bowing Down to the Breath

Sitting on my mat, I ask the class to bring their hands to their hearts and close their eyes, grateful for this moment, for this community, for the connection of this audible breath rolling through the studio.
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Photo by Ralf Kunze

I wake with something akin to a full impact collision. When I check my clock, I see that it's 4:45 in the morning. In the space of 30 seconds, my mind has turned from dream state to checklists, my heartbeat jumping from resting to I've-just-sprinted-up-four-flights-of-stairs. My skin begins tingling and then itching, mostly in my forearms, my neck and face. These are the warning signs I've honed in on ever since I had my first (and still, thankfully, only) anxiety attack over eight months ago. I lie back on my pillows, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing.

It is the season of giving thanks, and I find myself acknowledging a great many things in my life: people and experiences too special to call anything but gifts. But it is also a season of busyness and stress, of impending year-end deadlines and holiday gatherings, of adjustment to winter and dark days, and more often than not, I find myself grateful for one thing above all else: my breath.

When I say "breath" here, I do not mean just that I am thankful to be alive, to "still be breathing" as so many of our grandparents were fond of saying. I mean, rather, that I am thankful to have learned the right tools to bring some peace to my body in place of anxiety, to know the power of mindful breath, of our ability to mediate our experiences and bring ourselves into the present moment through this simple, beautiful act.

In bed alone in the dark, I begin the breath retention exercise I will be leading later this week in my first experience as a yoga teacher: inhale for five seconds, hold for five seconds, exhale for five seconds. Repeat. When I seal my lips I can feel and hear my heart beating against my bones. I continue counting. My rhythms slow. Eight months ago, I was overcome by a similar experience; this morning, breath by breath, I become sovereign of myself.

In his talk "Being Peace," Thich Nhat Hahn says:

Let us smile and enjoy our breathing as we go on ... breathing in I calm body and mind, breathing out, I smile ... the smile can relax hundreds of muscles on your face and relax your nervous system and make you master of yourself.

I tend to listen to Thich while commuting to work or driving in traffic -- times that create a lot of tension, when I'm worrying over whether I'll get there in time, wherever "there" may be. In yoga practice, my teacher Pete reminds us to come back to our breath, to our bodies, leaving the worries over the future or the past behind us.

"This sacred moment right now will never be the same," Pete said in a class yesterday evening. "The way you feel right now, the person practicing next to you..." he says, "You will never have this moment again."

Our anxiety arises out of fear, fear of the hypothetical future. One of my favorite reminders comes from my friend Julie's mom, who says, "95 percent of your worries never come to pass. The other 5 percent you'll never see coming," and how right she is.

Thich continues, "We can't be alive in the future -- it's not now. We tend to postpone being alive to a distant future ... be here and now; the only moment to be alive is the present moment."

With that, I rise up out of bed, pull on my clothes, and drive down through the dark for our early morning yoga intensive. In the afternoon, I practice teaching the breath retention exercise to my fellow trainees. Sitting on my mat, I ask the class to bring their hands to their hearts and close their eyes, grateful for this moment, for this community, for the connection of this audible breath rolling through the studio.

"If you do nothing else besides sit here and breath this entire next hour," I say, "then your yoga has begun." And then we bow; the teaching has begun.


For more from Jenine, check out her blog or find her on Facebook.

She's currently part of Pete Guinosso's Lighting the Path Yoga Teacher Training at Yoga Tree in the San Francisco Bay Area.