I freelanced for nearly two decades as a television host, producer, writer, and voice-over talent, even as an actor on occasion. Sometimes, I was crazy busy, juggling a number of projects; sometimes, everything would wrap up at once and I wouldn’t know how I’d support myself next. It was quite a roller coaster ride, never knowing where the next job was coming from.
That uncertainty and stress is largely behind me now, as I work full-time at a documentary film company as a producer and writer. I still do talent work, too, but I don’t rely on it to support me. Curiously, freed from financial stress, I then spent about a decade of my life in relationship stress–a roller coaster in its own right.
Professionally or personally, I realize I’ve historically had difficulty living amid a lot of unknowns. I haven’t been the type to say to myself, “Don’t fret, Portland. Everything’s going to be all right. There’s no need to worry.” On the contrary, worry can overwhelm me. After years of giving into it, though, I can resolutely say that I’m sick and tired of the toll it takes on my body and mind.
After my Kripalu Perspectives interview with yoga teacher Rolf Gates, a former social worker trained in addictions, I was reminded that one of the best ways to treat my inner worrywart—an addict in her own right, it seems to me—is just to breathe, consciously.
And so I did. I sat upright, as Rolf suggested, and slowed my breath way down, inhaling on four counts and exhaling on five. The practice is one of the hundreds of breath-awareness techniques collectively known as pranayama—one of the eight limbs of yoga.
“When we slow and regulate the breath,” Rolf says, “we move out of the fight-or-flight response governed by the sympathetic nervous system and into the relaxation response governed by the parasympathetic nervous system. We shift into a calmer state of mind that’s better suited to handle whatever difficulty we’re facing.”
You’d think it would require a Herculean effort to unwind the worry waves that ripple through me like a tornado, but in the 10 minutes that I devoted to conscious breathing (Rolf recommends five to 10 minutes of pranayama every morning), I had the blissful experience of my inner chatterbox shutting up. How I love it when my mental wheels stop spinning and my witness takes center stage! Calmed by a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate, my witness doesn’t imagine herself in frightening future scenarios. Such a feat would be impossible for her, for she’s anchored in the present, trusting in whatever is happening in this moment, knowing that her voids are always filled in time.
“There’s a quote I love: ‘Zen is not making things worse,’” Rolf says. “The long-term practice of pranayama trains us out of our habitual stress responses and teaches us that, although life offers up many experiences, we don’t have to make things worse.”
I get what he’s saying. Life is chock full of inevitable ups and downs, but I don’t have to respond to them with the same anxiety-ridden, fight-or-flight energy that gets my heart racing and twists my stomach in knots. I can inhale on four counts, exhale on five, and train my central nervous system to choose trust and ease over panic and fear. It’s a choice. And I choose to breathe.
Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health