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Elephant Journal anxiety

Elephant Journal: Healing Anxiety or a Broken Heart, the Tools are the Same

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Elephant Journal anxiety

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We are lying in savasana—corpse pose—legs splayed wide, arms flopped down, palms facing the sky, and I close my eyes.

My friend is beside me; my yoga teacher has come to crouch at my head.

“Do something for me,” Pete says, pausing with his hands on my shoulders, “do this for yourself,” and I nod, eyes still closed.

“Bring one hand to your heart and one to your belly,“ and I do, slipping my left hand onto my chest and resting the thumb of my right hand in the hollow of my belly button.

I take a deep breath and feel my stomach rise, willing my body to relax.

The thing about anxiety attacks, I’ve come to learn in the last couple days, is that you can’t reason through them. And they can leave you, out of nowhere, fainting out of mountain pose or crawling across your floor.

You tell yourself it’s all in your head, but then you put your head down on the pillow alone in your apartment, and feel this tingling sensation spread out across your skin and every siren in your body goes off, telling you that there is a problem, an actual physical problem requiring god-knows-what emergency-care.

And then you laugh and cry all at once, seeing the absurdity, scared shitless of trusting your body, even your breath.

And so, it took a lot to get me to come back to class. Even as I rolled out my mat, I feared passing out, had vivid images of blackouts in my head, but my friend, who is also a nurse, promised to practice beside me, and when I told my teacher what was going on before class, Pete gave me a rolled up yoga mat to place under my belly.

I spent most of the class in the corner lying on my stomach while everyone rose up and down in warrior poses around me, feeling the rolled up mat push into my body every time I exhaled a breath, comforted to be held in community.

Now in this final pose, the one where we practice for our ultimate surrender, Pete is holding my head.
“Whether healing anxiety or a broken heart,” he says quietly, running his thumb and forefinger from my third eye down to my temple, “the tools are the same.”

I open my eyes just long enough to catch his eyes, full of compassion, and there is that moment of feeling really, truly seen: All of me acknowledged, accepted, okay.

“We hold our anxiety between our stomach and our chest,” Pete says, “and I’ve often found that we have some shame wrapped up there, a sense of not being enough. Breathe into that.”

And then the tears come, warm and sort of glorious, like sweat running down my cheeks while Pete rubs the back of my neck, and laughs. It’s the kind of laugh that comes out when you’re holding a baby and they curl their tiny fingers around your pinky. It’s the moment I knew, because I had gotten myself here to this mat and this teacher and this community, that I would be alright.

It’s also the moment I truly understood the power of a healer. There is yoga, yes; there is meditation, yes; but there is something profound and deeply human in seeking wise counsel in the overlap there between, in matters of the heart and soul.

After almost a year of practicing with Pete, of accepting his invitations to shine light into our dark places, of feeling awe at his capacity for love that seems to grow exponentially with each hug he gives his students, I have come to recognize how important it is to find teachers we connect with—those special people genuinely invested in helping others heal, the ones who can hold that kind of sacred space.

As the great Sufi poet Hafiz once wrote, “That is what greatness does: kindly leaves a shelter for us to gather under, where more nourishment can be offered to all things.”

And so, in just over a month, I’ve accepted yet another invitation from my teacher, and will be heading out on a new journey, one that takes this place of love and light and suffering—the heart center—as a starting point, and charts the course of movement, breath, and awareness into a realm of unknowing.

Most people call this “Teacher Training,” but Pete calls it “Lighting the Path,” and I can think of no better words…except perhaps those, again, of Hafiz, who writes,

“Strange the way my shadow began to fall. I
was standing in a field helping the dawn

appear, and when its body, the sun, was fully
lifted into the sky

I was amazed to see my shadow in front of
me as I faced that luminous candle we all know.”