I have a younger friend who, apparently, is in many ways a younger version of myself. She struggles with stress, impatience, and anger. So I’d like to share here my story just in case it can help.

Dear friend,

I was a very short-tempered and angry teenager and young adult. I would react very quickly and snap mean remarks to the people who were closest to me and I loved most. I felt very sorry, but by the time I realized I was sorry, it had already shot out of my mouth. It all happened so quickly and I just couldn’t control or stop it. I was high-strung, frantic, probably stressed and scared, and not very happy – obviously – nor very pleasant to be around. I found I was putting barriers of irritation and snarkiness between me and the people I loved and needed most.

Then I started practicing yoga in Greenville, SC. It was not just any kind of yoga. In this yoga, deep breathing was the most important element. I learned to slow down and deepen my breath (ujjayi breathing). This type of breathing alone calms the nervous system. Soon after learning it, I found that just the sound of a few breaths while driving to work calmed and soothed me. The yoga classes themselves aligned breathing, movement, and attention. I learned how to observe myself (body, mind, moods) very closely. How to scan my body in each pose and see what I can relax. To relax my face and keep the breathing slow and smooth even when my leg muscles were getting uncomfortable and shaky after holding a pose for a while. This taught me a number of important things:

  1. That I can make myself feel better. I was, and still am, amazed at the powerful mood changing properties of yoga. I would walk into class a stressed, frantic mess, and walk out floating on pink clouds. The difference was so big and sudden I would tell my teachers that “she sold happiness at $10 a shot; and it’s so good it should be illegal :)” I discovered a deep sense of peace and joy – that everything was already OK – that I am not sure I had ever felt in my life. I learned that I could improve my state of mind and soul without the help of friends or that glass of wine.
  2. To observe myself closely, and to pay attention to my body. As I started observing myself more closely, and scanning my body to feel how things were, time slowed down. I noticed that anger and irritation do not happen as quickly as I thought. They usually start with a tickle and a tensing of the area around the stomach or the heart. With a line of electricity that tenses my shoulders and lower back. I felt it coming long before thoughts and words formed in my head. It is a very unpleasant feeling. I had to breathe through it. But it gave me time to make a decision about whether I really wanted to say something, and if so, what – and how. Many times, I decided I would say something anyway – otherwise, I felt I would have a heart attack. Some times, I was able to at least rephrase things so they were not as abrasive. With time, I got better and better at that. With time, the intensity of the original feelings of irritation lessened. I just don’t get quite that angry anymore. Not that often. Not several times a day. 🙂
  3. I learned that I can keep calm, smooth and soft (just like the ujjayi breath) even if my heart is racing, even if things get painful and uncomfortable. I learned to bear through unpleasant sensations and moments without letting them freak me out. In yoga class, yes, my legs hurt, but it was OK. It was safe. My heart raced and I was dripping sweat. Yet my breath and mind were calm and smooth. I learned to carry that over outside the yoga room. I started with physical pain. I would just try to relax my muscles (tensing intensifies pain), not be scared of the pain, not fight it, and just breathe smoothly and deeply (btw – you cannot feel pain on a deep exhale – just try it. I use that trick when I get injections).

Together, all these things changed my life deeply. Yet, I still struggled with occasional sadness and depression. I was OK, but I wasn’t happy enough. And then, a couple of months ago, I started practicing a tiny bit of yoga (15 minutes) every day. It changed my life all over again. It feels like every day I turn on the joy. I am in awe of the deep mood altering effects of just 4 sun salutations. I do not understand what is happening. I just know that by the time I start the second one, my body and mind seem to light up like a string of Christmas lights. I feel awake. And by the time I’m done, there’s a deep calm and joy that lasts through the day. Here is my dear teacher Liz guiding you through 7 minutes of modified (easier) sun salutations:

I also practice a bit of mindfulness meditation. It is great, but honestly, much harder than yoga. Yoga gets me into that meditative state just by moving my body, which is easier for most of us to control than our minds. I explain that in a different post.

I think the most important thing is that I gained that sense of “everything is OK.” I am less scared. Less insecure. I don’t need to control things quite as much (though that is still a work in progress). I don’t have a strong sense that things must be MY way, otherwise my position (at work) or my sense of self or who knows what will suffer. Everything is OK. That feeling of “everything is OK” is inside. All the time. It just takes going through a few motions (in my case, sun salutations) to unlock the door and access it. What a miracle!

So, dear friend, I hope my story helps you. And if I can help you with some customized advice, I’d be happy to. But really, the best advice I can give you is this: go to a class. Community Yoga is wonderful. Start with Tammy or Debra.

With love,

MV

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