Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Power of Negative Thinking

"Worrying is praying for what you don't want."
-Yogi Bhajan- 

The inspiration for today is, as you may have guessed, derived from the quote at the top.  My beautiful friend Laura Frye shared that with me as we had a fun Thai Yoga Massage date on Monday night and she was sharing with me her adventures in Radiant Child Yoga teacher training with Shakta Kaur Khalsa.  The training is based strongly in the traditions of Kundalini yoga and she learned an amazing amount in just one weekend - including some of the wisdom of Yogi Bhajan, the spiritual leader who introduced Kundalini Yoga to the US in the late 1960's.

I tend to be a worrier by nature.  It's probably partly related to being a compulsive planner.  Both of worrying and planning are greatly derived by a need to control, and worry basically arises when we're thinking of something that is either beyond our control completely or not yet in our control for whatever reason.  Worrying if we locked the door behind us, if we did well on a job interview, worrying about our health and the health and well being of friends and family - nine times out of ten, the things we worry about are completely out of our control.  Which means they require faith - something not everyone possesses or even necessarily wants to possess.

When I started yoga teacher training at Sonic back in September of '09, one of the many, many profound lessons I took away from it was this idea that was completely foreign to me at the time:  "Worry is futile."  It's simple, and it might seem obvious to more level-headed people, but it kind of blew my mind.  I try to remember this phrase when I'm stressed and worried about something, but it doesn't always stick in my head.

I feel like Yogi Bhajan's pearl of wisdom is one step beyond the simple truth of, "Worry is futile." The basic idea is this:  Let's say you're worried you're going to be laid off from your job.  If your mind is constantly occupied by the negative chatter of, "I'm going to lose my job, I'm going to lose my job, What happens if I lose my job?, How do I tell people I lost my job?" and so on and so forth day in and day out, you're not just introducing stress into your mind and body.  Stress, by the way, that is coming from something that hasn't even happened and could possibly not happen at all, and so therefore just took a strain on yourself from nothing.  It's not only doing that, but by making this fraught, worried negativity your mantra, essentially, you're filling your body and mind with that negativity.  You're using your energy which we can choose to direct in any positive way we choose (and it is a choice, believe it or not) to hook into a loop of thought that all but assumes disaster is imminent.

It takes a lot to accept that we have total control over a vast majority of our thoughts and mind-chatter.  How often do you feel like you're a slave to your brain?  Maybe a song that you hate is seemingly stuck in your head with no relief or you're feeling irritable and can't stop internally cursing out whatever it is that's got you frustrated.  Once again, for probably the millionth time in this blog, I feel compelled to recommend Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's phenomenal book, My Stroke of Insight, to help yourself understand the science behind our thoughts and neuroses.

Luckily, there's a shortcut to quieting the worry and the chatter of the mind.  There are many shortcuts, in fact, all to be found in a yoga practice.  Here are two particular practices that help me find a shortcut to quieting the brain:

Asana (Pose)
For me, vinyasa asana practice is the key to getting my thoughts to take a backseat.  The link of breath to movement requires a level of focus and concentration that can shift your focus very quickly.  Try performing a set number of sun salutations, surya namaskar - either Series A, Series B, a combination - or make up your own sequence. 

Here are basic building blocks of a sun salutation:
1. Tadasana, Mountain Pose.
2. Urdva Hastasana, Arms Reach Up (inhale)
3. Uttanasana, Standing Forward Fold (exhale)
4. Ardha Uttanasana, Lift halfway with a flat back (inhale)
5. Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward Facing Dog (exhale)

From there you can add in a vinyasa flow including plank pose, chaturanga, cobra pose, any combination of low lunges, high lunges, Warriors 1, 2, and 3...the sky is the limit!  The important thing is the precision of linking the breath with the movement as well as the quality of the breath.  See if you can, with each movement, keep the breath slow, deep, and complete.  The breath comes and completes first - the movement follows.

Pranayama (Control of the life force - the breath)
There are so many different pranayama techniques to choose from that I could write a whole series of posts on pranayama alone.  Here are a just few techniques that I think are most effective for clearing the mind:

1. Samvritti - Equal Breathing
In a comfortable seat or laying on your back, begin to focus on your inhale and exhale and count to yourself how long each inhale and each exhale is.  Begin to equalize your breath so the inhale and exhale are the same length - 6 counts, for example.  Sometimes keeping a hand on the belly helps with this exercise and helps encourage you to allow the breath to originate at the belly and lead up to the chest instead of starting with the chest.

2. Langhana with Bahir Kumbhaka - Lengthen exhale and hold the breath out
Begin the same as above, only this time your exhale will be longer than your inhale.  The ratio can be whatever you're comfortable with - perhaps inhaling for 3 and exhaling for 6, inhaling for 6 and exhaling for 10 - there are no rules and no yoga police to tell you you're doing it wrong!  When you've reached a comfortable ratio, begin to pause at the bottom of your exhale for a few beats before taking your next inhale.  Don't hold your breath just to see how long you can do it or to make yourself turn blue!  You should be able to retain your level of calm and peace and eventually, this practice should increase it by activating your parasympathetic nervous system.  If anything feels too strenuous, back off and find a new comfortable breathing and holding ratio.

3. Kapalbhati with Kumbhaka - Skull Shining Breath with breath retention
My personal favorite, kapalbhati can take a little time to get the hang of.  Sit up tall in a chair or comfortably on the floor.  This is another technique where sometimes putting a hand or two on your belly is helpful.  The focus with kapalbhati will be on the exhalation, and your breath will be short and quick instead of long and extended like with the last exercise.  

Imagine you're pressing your navel back into your spine with each strong, forceful exhalation through your nose.  The inhale will happen naturally and doesn't need any exaggeration.  As you begin to get the hang of it, increase the speed your breath.  Keep your focus on your navel and your nose (sometimes flaring my nostrils helps me) and not at your chest to avoid feeling like you're hyperventilating.  After 25 breaths, you have an option to take a huge inhale and hold your breath in (antar kumbhaka) or exhale all the air out and hold the breath out (bahir kumbhaka).  As soon as your body tells you it needs fresh air, very gently take a few normal breaths.

Changing our breath can literally change our mind.  Next time you find yourself consumed with worry, take a few minutes out for the sake of your own inner peace and breathe.

"Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?"
-Jesus Christ-


  1. Great post, Annie! I'm a hard-core worrier, too. Yoga class is the one place where I give myself permission to release all the worries, big and small. Nice to have some ideas of how to bring that home and practice letting worry go outside of class. -Cristin

  2. Ditto to everything! I hope you find the practices useful at home :)


Resurrection of a blog (and a hip)

One year ago today - on a much cloudier, much colder, and quite frankly very hungover morning - I went out to run.  My goal was either 4 mil...