April 2, 2011

Look At Yourself, but Keep Your Eyes Closed. ~ JC Peters

Yoga and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

These past weeks I have been haunted by terrible dreams; fears of earthquakes, and a coffee-buzz, hand-trembling anxiety of hearing these words on the news: “consider the earth shaking to be your warning to evacuate the building.” That’s your warning, folks, the earth moving under your feet. Get the hell under a doorjamb, we can’t help ya now.

Photo: Evan Lovely

In the meantime, spring has sprung, the warm weather is goosing everyone, and my students are still coming to the mat to play. Seeing my students looking up at me with this supermoon infused, end-of-the-world desire to move and play and do something really fun and crazy and good has helped me more than they will probably ever know.

I have something called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This diagnosis makes me think of a friend of mine who had a skin problem near her mouth. She went to the doctor, who diagnosed her with something called Perioral Dermatitis, which translates literally from the Latin to “skin problem near the mouth.”

All doctors seem to know about Generalized Anxiety Disorder is that you get anxious, just generally, with no specific reason. And there are drugs you can take for that. That they know.

Photo: Ryochiji

I believe a lot of people have this disorder. The buzzing phones, the computer screens, the mutating diseases, the news, the coffee, the tsunamis have us all in a state of semi-shock, and we get all tight in the belly and can’t release our collective pelvic floors. I think the inside of my head, some days, looks like a cluttered bedroom, with dirty clothes and half-eaten sandwiches and past-due applications all over it culminating in a burgeoning mushroom cloud of stuff. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, if you think it’s a mess out there, you should see what it’s like in here.

Yoga attracts a lot of people like me. We need it so badly, especially now, because our world is so crazy. Yoga practice is this place where you can just be present, in a room, on a mat, with yourself or with your community, and that’s all you need to know. I don’t do yoga because it gives me a nice bum or because I can impress my friends at parties with my Cirque du Soleil talents. I do yoga because it’s alive, because it tames the mushroom clouds of stuff in my tired mind, and because it’s home.

I’ve recently been reading a book called Yoga 2.0 by Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie. It’s a slim little volume about yoga in the 21st century and how it has evolved from East to West, then to now. This quotation, I think, explains how yoga is this safe place away from the rapid-fire images on our TV and computer screens, and why so many of us choose to call yoga home:

Asana [yoga postures] practice has the potential to constitute the recovery of the unseen, simply by shifting us away from visual focus. The unseen we seek need not be confused with a metaphysical force, but rather what is most literally felt, tasted, etc. While the whole world looks for atman [soul] in HD, the yogi can enter absorption by feeling the warmth of his own hand, laying upon his own thigh.

What a thought: my hand on my own thigh. In here, on my mat, that’s all I need to know. The only problem I need to solve is this; place my own hand on my own thigh. That’s it.

Photo: Jaako

Unless, of course, I’m practicing with a mirror. We spend so much time in this world looking; often we override what we feel to be true with what we can see. Even within this sanctuary of yoga practice, we have set up images for ourselves as if to maintain the anxiety we have become so intimate with. We avoid the unknown possibilities of inside by looking outside.

Yoga, for many, is actually defined now by these images of beautiful smiling women tying themselves up in knots on the cover of Yoga Journal. It is something we can do on a playstation, with a virtual teacher who can’t actually see us. When we are looking at something to see what we should be doing (including a mirror) we become self-conscious, we start scanning for imperfections, for the ways in which we are not what we see. We are in another zone of anxiety, and we lose our sense of ourselves without our senses.

When I sit down on my mat, with a teacher and fellow students encouraging me to focus and breathe, I can actually, miraculously, do it. I remember…something. Something I don’t need to put into words here. Something I don’t want to intellectualize, but just want to feel. My brain works hard enough in the world, and I’m starting to want my gut to throw in its two cents now and then.

I am simply unable to watch a DVD of one of my favourite teachers, Shiva Rea, and do what she is asking me to do. I can’t follow through with it. I have tried five times. I love her teaching because it’s brought me something living through her students who have become my teachers, something beautiful and flowing and very much alive, and when I see her as this recorded image on a screen my body rebels, stops listening to her, and starts going with my own flow, and hearing her voice as an irritating distraction. How can she feed me any nourishment from this yoga if we are not even in the same room?

I’m not saying images of yoga are always bad–when not on the mat they can be very useful, especially for teaching purposes. But when I am tired and scared and haunted and I want to go home, I’d rather just be in a room with my students, those beautiful women and men high on the full moon who want to play, and I’d rather play. And if they are not around, well then I’d rather be alone, eyes closed, blasting John Lee Hooker and BB King and letting the blues teach me what my body can do. I’d rather be alive, animal, human, me, with the photographic evidence in another place, another time.

The world is trying hard enough to kill me with general anxiety. On my mat, I’m gonna close my eyes, and breathe myself alive. And this is something I’d rather we do together.


Julie (JC) Peters has been practising yoga on and off from the tender age of 12, and it has gotten her through everything from the horrors of teenagedom to a Master’s degree in Canadian Poetry. She teaches creative and dynamic vinyasa flow, calm and fluid Hatha, meditative Yin yoga, and fiery core strength classes. Julie owns East Side Yoga Studio in Vancouver with Coco Finaldi, and is also a freelance writer and spoken word poet.

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