Turmoil and uncertainty fill the air these days. Seemingly irreparable divides fracture our politics. Folks on both sides of the aisle experience aversion to those they disagree with and inner peace is easily lost.
Many of us are experiencing increased anxiety, insomnia and often times a boiling anger. Others are plagued with dread. Healthy habits and inner peace are disturbed. What refuge can the ancient wisdom of the east offer you in times like these?
Good health in mind, body and spirit are functions of maintaining your inner peace through good habits and good conduct, towards oneself and others. This is because how we behave affects the health of our society which in turn affects us.
Maintaining inner peace can be difficult when times are challenging. But it is essential to our well-being, so that we can interact with current events in ways that support our communities and ourselves. Controlling our mind is an essential part of maintaining our health and refraining from harmful behaviors.
The ancient Ayurvedic texts of India recognize the practice of yoga as a superb way to manage the mind and cultivate inner peace. So I asked four of my favorite teachers — Sankari Chaitanya, Joy Ravelli, Chase Bossart and Susan Arnesen — to give guidance on how to maintain inner peace in these turbulent times. They generously responded with a wide variety of suggestions and perspectives.
Chase Bossart, MA, ERYT-500, C-IAYT is the Director of YogaWellInstitute.com. Sankari Chaitanya is the Director of Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center in San Francisco, CA.Susan Arnesen is a Meditation Instructor in the tradition of Shambhala and in the certification process in Tri Yoga and Joy Ravelli is the founder and co-owner of PurushaYoga.org and PurushaSevaProject.org.
What are your favorite yoga or meditation practices for a fearful mind?
Susan: Yoga practices that focus on being ‘earthy’ would be my recommendation. These would be postures that focus on the hips and legs. One of the most essential components is to establish a connection with the breath and having the breath initiate the movement. Do no harm.
I would recommend shamatha (calm or peaceful abiding) meditation. This is best understood by receiving instruction from a meditation instructor. In addition, if you feel very fearful taking a walk with the attention on your feet can be helpful.
Joy: When fear arises it is helpful for me to connect to nature, both by my own nature through calm breathing and the natural world that is available outside. Getting my feet moving on the earth is a practical way to connect and feel the rhythm of life. I enjoy meditating with a tree, a flower, a bird, or even a blade of grass. The opposite of fear is love, not a romantic love, but the kind of love that recognizes the truth in all that is born, breathes and dies.
Sankari: Constant fear makes you powerless. A positive thinking technique that works well—but is not so easy—is cultivating the opposite quality of your negative thought. In this case, you would assert that you are courageous. Trust that what is happening is happening for a reason or it wouldn’t have happened. Projecting into the future has us fearing in advance. Remain calm and muster the strength to face what needs to be faced, calmly and fearlessly. Slow, deep breathing goes a long way in this regard. Meditate on your oneness with your highest ideal of Truth. Managing your reactions in no way means being passive; stick to your principles and convictions and grow stronger. Swami Sivananda says, “Adversity is a blessing in disguise” and even calls it a “virtue” which “strengthens your nerves and sharpens your skill.”
Chase: In the first chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he has a section (sutras 1:23 and 1:32 through 1:39) where he gives nine solutions for bringing ourselves back to balance and, of these nine, two are mandatory—found in sutras 1:32 and 1:33. In Sutra 1:33, he has a concept that many Buddhists are familiar with–it’s called the Brahma Vihāras (sublime attitudes, the “abodes of brahma”).
Patanjali says that when you are interacting with events in the world, there are four ways in which you should try to interact.
- The first is that when we see somebody who is happy then we should try to be friendly to them. We shouldn’t be jealous or try to get in on their good thing or try to knock them down a peg or two, because if we do those things it will just increase our own agitation. Be friendly because this will reduce agitation—it will bring us back to balance.
- The second is when we see somebody who is suffering, we should have compassion. We shouldn’t think, “Oh, it’s about time—they deserved it”, or “Haha, what did you think was going to happen,” or “Well thank God that’s not me!” We should have compassion because any other result is going to add to our own agitation and bring us out of balance.
- The third one is when we see people who are doing positive things, we should support them. We shouldn’t think, “Well, why didn’t I think of that?” We shouldn’t try to cut them off and or put them down, or put up obstacles. When we see somebody doing good work, we should support them.
- Patanjali says the fourth one is upeksha which means equanimity. When we see somebody who is doing bad things, adharmic things (called apunya—not appropriate, not righteous, not correct things) then we have to maintain equanimity. Now maintaining equanimity might mean disconnecting for some period of time. So, what Patanjali is saying is that when we are dealing with a situation in which we’re not able to be friendly, compassionate or supportive, we have to disconnect until we can be. Get away from it a little bit. Re-engage only if we’re able to maintain equanimity.
How about anxiety, especially if it manifests as behaviors like obsessive interaction with media or over/under-eating?
Joy: To lessen the risk of anxiety I suggest the practice of creating healthy balance in relationships and choices. There are many aspects of life that we do have control over such as the foods we choose, the people we choose to spend time with and where we put our energy. Create safe, happy and creative experiences wherever we are able.
Overeating is a habit that I have personally experienced to some degree throughout my life. It arises when I am exhausted and feel the need to ‘ground’ and rest deeply. I find it is healthful to watch media that is not violent or disturbing in nature but is instead uplifting to the heart and mind. While watching an interesting show it feels great to stretch out and practice long held asanas.
Susan: Taking regular breaks and remembering that part of how we lose our vital energy is by overly extending our will power. It is essential to take time away to replenish yourself so that you are able to engage in a creative, inspired way.
Become familiar with recognizing when you have overextended. Are you more irritable? Do you find yourself arguing with people more – even if it’s not pressing issues? Do you notice that you trivialize the connections you have with people because it just doesn’t feel important enough? Do you obsess over keeping up with things to the degree that you aren’t able to be present?
Pay attention to when you are overdone and when you recognize that you are, have a list of things that you know nourish you – taking a walk, watching some comedy, spending time with friends, gardening, etc.
Chase: So, yoga, like Ayurveda, is a game of conscious linking. What you connect to has an impact on the way that your system functions. When you observe, “I’m feeling anxious, etc.,” it’s important to have some reflection about what is making you anxious. What am I connecting to that might be having some impact on me? For many people, their past time is Facebook so they can see pictures of their friend’s kids; however, if you’re going to Facebook and all you’re seeing is protest this and oh my god we got screwed that, etc. etc.–we might want to disconnect from Facebook.
Disconnecting is not easy in a vacuum. What yoga says about letting go is called vairagyam (Yoga Sutra 1:12). Vairagyam means relinquishing. Relinquishing happens as a result of efforts in a different direction. So what’s really important is that it’s not enough to simply relinquish. You have to do something else instead. So when you feel like going on Facebook, go for a walk. Do some pranayama. Do a couple of asanas. Call a friend. Don’t talk politics. It is not enough to say, I’m not going to. No, it’s much better to say, instead of doing this, I’m going to do that. Instead of reading the New York Times in the morning, I’m going to go for a walk. I’ll be connected to nature, I’ll probably see some dogs! I’ll be happy. If you don’t give yourself a concrete alternative action that you’re going to take, you’ll very likely be stuck in the old habits.
Sankari: We say we want peace, but peace is boring. We secretly eat up the drama and remain restless and alone. Connection is key–with like-minded, hopeful, positive forces around us. We’re looking for love and acknowledgment and we reach for something that can never satisfy us. Reach out to community. Attend a group meditation or kirtan session. Seek out a yoga class where the vibe is calm and nurturing. Balance your energy in constructive ways. Take time to see beyond the habits of your mind. This could be a commitment to yourself for a daily sitting in silent meditation, detaching from whatever comes up. Even 10 minutes will make a difference. Or take time to journal or keep a gratitude list daily.
And what about anxiety that manifests as insomnia or difficulty sleeping?
Chase: There are some different things here. One is that where you put your attention matters. So if you’re thinking of all kind of problems and how this bad thing is going to happen and how that outcome is incredibly awful, this will make sleeping worse. So whatever you can do to put your attention in a positive frame before bed is so important. Read a book that’s enjoyable and calming and spend some time looking at photo albums of friends that you love and have no issues with. The point is to put your attention somewhere where you are not continually reconnecting to the things that are aggravating you. That’s one aspect.
The second aspect is there are some really simple breathing techniques. Probably the easiest breathing technique for non-practitioners, is that you breathe in through your mouth and then close one nostril and you breathe out the other nostril. You breathe out all the way so there’s that contraction of the lower abdomen and try to pause for a moment or two after you’ve finished exhaling. If you’re really having difficulty sleeping because of anxiety, the long exhale and the pause after that exhale, might be a little panicky. That’s ok. Stay with it. So, inhale through the mouth, exhale through one nostril. It’s best to alternate the nostrils. Pause after the exhale, just a moment or two, and as you go, over say 3 to 4 minutes, pause maybe a little longer, pause 2, maybe 3 counts afterwards. This is a very simple breathing technique but it’s very effective for changing the state.
From a yoga perspective, the behavior of the mind and the emotions is symptomatic of the state we’re in. Same thing for Ayurveda. So if you want your body or your mind to behave in a different way, i.e. fall asleep, then you have to give it a different kind of functioning. Extending your exhale is very effective at changing the functioning of the system.
Sankari: Swami Sivananda says, ”Give up the worrying habit. He who worries cannot sleep. Be regular in your prayer and meditation. The worrying habit will vanish.” Surrender. We are not in charge. Keep the mind in the present and be happy. A nighttime routine can help, conscious wind-down time. Here are some practical tips: practice cheerfulness; don’t use too many blankets; don’t take sleeping pills; let your last meal be light and not late.
Joy: A yoga practice before bedtime that works wonders to relax the mind is to gaze with a relaxed focus into a candle for several minutes before bed. Other ‘end of the day’ rituals that prepare for sleep are baths, restorative poses and reading.
Susan: This is a big question. I find that working with this can entail a process that can involve diet, inner reflection, possible medical attention.
In the immediate – working with the breath can help. Focusing on the breath – not trying to push away what’s bothering you but touching in with the breath and feeling into your body.
People are experiencing anger, outrage and loathing. What practices have you found work best with these kinds of mind states?
Joy: We are all a small part of a larger story. Each of us in our own way have a role to play. I am not sure what that larger story is about or how each of us fit into it exactly. I have no idea how it started, when it began, or how it will end. Perhaps we have made some other contracts before this life and time that we are now unaware of. Neutrality comes for this knowledge that we simply do not know. We have no idea what another human being has been through. We have to continue to live out the dharma that we are aware of. Dharma is the ‘truth’ that guides us. It is living a life that is true to our gifts. If you are a writer, write. If you are singer, sing. If you are a leader, lead. Every practice, no matter how small moves us all forward. The foundation of all yoga practices are non-harm, truth, non stealing, non greed, preserving vital energy, practicing contentment, purity, strong work, self study, and surrender.
We have to continue to live out the dharma that we are aware of. Dharma is the ‘truth’ that guides us. It is living a life that is true to our gifts. If you are a writer, write. If you are singer, sing. If you are a leader, lead.
Chase: You know, I think it comes back to the question of hetu (cause). Ayurveda is so clear about this. You have shodhana (cleansing and eradicating) and shamana (pacifying) and until you have a clear cause you’re likely unable to do shodhana. There are so many reasons why people might be angry at what’s happening that we’re really talking about a shamana situation. So something that is helpful for this is, do some asana, then do some pranayama, at least 5 minutes of each, preferably 10. Then be seated and imagine you have a flower in your left hand. As you inhale pick a petal from the flower. And as you exhale offer the petal and say whatever you have to say and it might be, “You !#@&1 politician!” And offer the flower petal. Then inhale, you pick another flower petal, exhale, you might say the same thing, or you might say something different, offer the flower petal. So you do this. You inhale, you pick a flower petal, as you exhale you offer the petal and you say whatever it is that you have to say. So if you’re angry it likely will start off with expressions of anger and slowly it will move to expressing how you feel: “ I feel very …, this is very…. You know, I’m having a hard time with it because I …” Some clarification of things will happen.
The main piece here is that we want to blame external circumstances but it’s really not about the external circumstances. It’s really about what’s happening for us internally.
Sankari: Practice acceptance and tolerance. Negative thoughts harm the person thinking them. You are the most powerful when you keep your peaceful center. Take positive actions for the good of all, rather than fighting against negativity directly. Marvel at the beauty of so many people coming together peacefully in solidarity for the sake of righteousness.
Susan: Pause and take 3 conscious breaths. The optimal word here is conscious. For good instructions of these experiences I’d recommend reading Pema Chodron’s “Practicing Peace in Time of War” and “Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change”.
“In ‘My Stroke of Insight’, the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylors’ book about her recovery form a massive stroke, she explains the physiological mechanism behind emotion: an emotion like anger that’s an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.
The fact of the shifting, changing nature of our emotions is something we could take advantage of. But do we? No. Instead, when an emotion comes up, we fuel it with our thoughts, and what should last one and a half minutes may be drawn out for ten or twenty years. We just keep recycling the story line. We keep strengthening our old habits.” – Pema Chodron, “Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change”.
Do you have any advice for people who are active politically in addition to leading busy lives? How do you sustain increased engagement without burning out?
Sankari: Be mindful of your prana level. Prana is life force energy. Eat healthy food, keep up an exercise routine, spend time in nature, or at least look at a tree or the sky from time to time. Same as airplane safety instructions. You have to take care of yourself first. If you are in prana debt, you have no reserves to resist with. Be steady, patient and persevere. The karma yoga attitude is to do your best and give up the results. There is a higher wisdom in charge. Remember to smile and laugh. Enjoy the new talents that are being drawn out of you. (Beware of fanaticism; it is not good for your health or the cause.)
Joy: I suggest that people be careful to do exactly what they are able to do authentically. Self study is a vital part of a yogic lifestyle. Many of us have a tendency to feel the pressure to do more than what we are able to do healthfully. The Bhagavad Gita states, “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.”
The Bhagavad Gita states, “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.”
Susan: The main thing is to know yourself , recognize your limits and set boundaries that support you.
Pay attention to your inner experience and get to know how much you can extend yourself. If you have a big project that you’re working on and need to over extend then make sure to take a gap after to replenish.
The way that the geese do it is that when they are flying in a pack the lead goose steps back and another steps forward to lead the pack while the other replenishes. So make sure you are working with a supportive group that includes well-being in the process.
Establishing a regular meditation practice can be very helpful! It provides a place to pause and have space for inner reflection, inner nourishment. It teaches us how to work with our minds when we are engaged in conflict. It teaches us how to be present with what we are doing so that we don’t become overly exhausted from being pulled in too many directions. A regular practice could begin with 10 minutes a day and as you strengthen that muscle it can expand. Taking time to add in a few simple yoga postures that ground you in embodied experience could also be very helpful. Shorter periods are always recommended in the beginning so as to not overly discourage us. Makes it doable.
Chase: It’s the same thing we say to caretakers. If you don’t take care of the caretaker, who will take care of the people who need the care, right? If you don’t take care of the protester, then how is the protest going to happen?
So for me you know sustained anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, these things are expressions of a system out of balance. The important key is that we spend some time bringing ourselves back toward balance. And as we come back towards balance the external circumstances will impact us less and not only will they impact us less but we’ll be more strongly connected to our own intuition so we’ll be better able to make better decisions about, “Do I need to go, is this my fight, etc.” So it’s important that people take daily time to maintain some semblance of balance.
The important key is that we spend some time bringing ourselves back toward balance.
Ayurveda is so powerful in this way, in terms of lifestyle and diet support. I would say yoga is very powerful in terms of movements and breathing. There’s a model in the U.S. where people think a yoga class is an hour, hour and a half and they go once a week. It’s a wonderful model, but traditionally, it’s more important that you do something every day. And you do the same thing regularly every day. So this means that you do 20 minutes of asana at your house every day. You might not have time for that weekly class, that’s okay. Every day you have to do something to maintain your balance, breathing, movement, and meditation, whatever it is. You know, in the model of viniyoga, the key piece is that everybody has a mentor, a guide, a teacher. I’ve been in this 25 years, and I’m not creating my own practices. I’m doing the practices that my mentor, my teacher, is giving. And I do the same thing for my students. I mentor others and I design practices for them. So my ultimate answer to this question is find a teacher, get a personal practice developed that you can do every day.
Every day you have to do something to maintain your balance—breathing, movement, and meditation—whatever it is.