September Newsletter: How Yoga Taught Me To Navigate Challenge Without Totally Freaking Out
Well heck, it's already the middle of September and I'm one week away from closing on my first home. For anyone who has been following me, this summer has been a somewhat chaotic experience for me, with obstacles to overcome every step of the way navigating this unexpected move. I look forward to landing in my new home at the start of autumn!
Navigating challenge is difficult and I think it's okay to say that most people do not enjoy experiencing challenging situations for extended periods of time. According to behavioral research studies such as this study published in the the US National Library of Medicine, a certain amount of stress & challenge can actually increase a person's engagement, efficiency & effectiveness toward accomplishing a difficult goal. This positive stress experience, called "eustress" can have a beneficial effect on a person's immune system, circulatory system, endocrine system & digestive system, thus keeping the mind-body youthful, vigorous & vitalized.
However, when a person is exposed to a prolonged and/or chronic period of distress that opportunity to fulfill a challenging goal starts to feel more like burn-out & fatigue from an insurmountable obstacle. From an ayurvedic perspective chronic stress depletes a person's prana & ojas, plus aggravates the doshas, thus initiating the disease process. Chronic stress leads to chronic disease such as hypertension, insomnia, eczema, gastric reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammation, etc.
Try as you may, but you can't avoid dealing with stressful, challenging situations at least a few times in your life, so how do you learn to handle challenge with emotional intelligence and Right discernment?
One answer to this question is through practicing the somatic experience of intentional breath observation. Known as pranayama, the fifth limb of raja ashtanga yoga is using the breath as a practice. This can be as simple as turning your awareness to the natural rhythm of your inhale and exhale, or can be a specific breathing technique such as the alternate nostril breathing called nadi shodhana pranayama or anuloma viloma pranayama demonstrated in the diagram below. The breath has the power to develop your ability to self-regulate the way your nervous system responds to stressors.
Next time you're feeling a sense of overwhelm, uncertainty, anxiety, frustration, isolation or any other reactionary emotion arising in your mind-body, try shifting your attention to your breath, and see what you breath feels like when you're experiencing that strong reactionary emotion. Next, see what its like to shift your breath and your emotional state of being to an opposite regenerative emotion, such as gratitude, joy, curiosity or appreciation. This practice of cultivating a regenerative positive emotion that is opposite from a reactionary emotional-mental state is called pratipakṣa bhāvana (YS 2.33). Continue to activate that positive regenerative emotion throughout your day by breathing into that opposite state of being as a type of meditation. Give yourself permission to just experience the shift in breath awareness free from any judgement, expectation, comparison or opinion and see what it's like to notice, sense & feel the intentional shift in your neurological state.
In my experience over this stressful summer, I could clearly perceive the arch of my stress-to-performance level transmute from eustress to distress. Even as I witnessed myself slip into a rajas-tamas loop indicative of the stress that came along with housing displacement, I was able to practice discernment & awareness to stay motivated & courageous as I took a big step into the unknown--perhaps at times myopic in that focused motivation but I hope with specific & urgent purpose. With the wisdom of my practice, I was able to maintain that motivated courage to transform a very destabilizing experience of being soft-evicted during a pandemic into buying my first house in less than 3 months. All I hope from this experience is to have an elevate awareness of what it feels like to practice self-regulation and cultivate emotional intelligence, and I hope I can better share my limited experience with others.
For now I'm floating at a friend's house while we wait to close, but I'll be landing in my new home soon. Thank you everyone for your loving kindness!