Yoga for Anxiety – Interview with Tama Soble

Melissa West: Tama, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to yoga?

Tama Soble: I first came to yoga when I was dancing. I was rehearsing and touring and my body was under quite a bit of stress. I was also under psychological stress from being on the road and from the pressures of performing. One of my co-dancers in the company had found Esther Myers’ yoga classes and she felt that taking yoga would be good for everyone in the company. I went to check it out and from the first class I really felt a deep benefit. I felt my nervous system and my emotions responding. I felt that I had access to ease in my body in ways I hadn’t had access to in a very long time. I was sold right from the beginning. I continued to study with Esther Myers and also with Monica Voss during the time that I was dancing and I also studied with them through two of my three pregnancies. Yoga has been a great support for me throughout my adult life.

MW: I would imagine that as a dancer, which is a competitive field, that there would have been a lot of stress and anxiety and yoga would have been really helpful for you at that time.

TS: Absolutely. When you’re performing you are competing with yourself, you are competing with others and you are under pressure all the time to be at your best even at times when you don’t feel your best. It was lovely to practise yoga and to feel the pleasure of moving my body for it’s own sake; to feel the pleasure of integrating the body and healing it.

MW: How did you go from being a dancer to getting involved in yoga teacher training?

TS: I moved overseas for a number of years. I lived in New Zealand with my family where I continued to dance and teach. When we returned to Toronto I felt very strongly that it was time for some kind of change and I had always had in the back of my mind that yoga might be a very good transition for me, a good second career. At that point, I hadn’t been to Esther Myers Yoga Studio in a couple of years. I went back to take a few classes and again from the moment I walked in I felt like this was home, this was the right place for me and I applied for the Teacher Training Programmme. I went through the programme while Esther was still alive so I had the benefit of training directly with her and also with Monica Voss and Paola di Paola. They were a dynamic team. After graduating from the programme, I became a teacher at the Studio. After a few years I joined the Teacher Training faculty. This was, and continues to be both an honour and a wonderful challenge. When Esther passed away in 2004, Monica and I took over the Studio. It has been an amazing experience to develop all of the classes, workshops and programmes that we offer. The community has been tremendously responsive and supportive.

I know in my experience, because I study and take classes at Esther Myers Yoga Studio, that I had the same experience. I had a yoga teacher once who said that when I find the right place I’ll just know and it was like that when I walked into Esther Myers Yoga Studio. When I did my first class with you, I thought this is the person I really want to study with.

TS: Thank you.

MW: You are so welcome. Tell us about the yoga at Esther Myers Yoga Studio because it is so unique.

TS: In a way it’s quite simple in that we work with three basic principles all of the time; breathing, grounding and elongating. For example, as I exhale my body relaxes, that relaxation assists me in giving the weight of my body to the ground or to the earth. Then the third principle comes into play. After the relaxation, movement, ease and mobility can actually spontaneously occur in the body. We work with breath, gravity and release, and the way in which the relationship between these three principles plays out in each asana. How does it feel when I breathe? How does it feel to relax the body into the ground? Can I feel contact with the ground? The contact might be through my feet, it might be through my hands, my shoulders, the whole back of my body; whatever is in contact with the ground draws the attention. And then how can those two elements, breathing and relaxing, help me to get rid of tension so I can be more mobile? Initially we make these connections in the yoga postures, and then down the road in other aspects of our lives. We don’t do yoga just so that we can be mobile on the mat; we do yoga so that we can be physically, emotionally and psychologically at ease throughout our day, throughout our lives.

MW: I heard Donna Farhi speaking not too long ago. People were asking her how she uses her yoga in her day-to-day life now. She made this really interesting comment about how in her thirties, she had spent a lot of time trying to be able to get her foot behind her head and now she finds that kind of thing really almost ridiculous because it’s not very functional. She focuses on things that help her get through her day, to help her run her farm, help her with her horses.

TS: I think the question is why am I doing my yoga? How does this integrate with who I am as a human being? How can it help me?

MW: Exactly. When people are in a pose, they’ll always ask me should I be doing this or should I be doing this and I always say to them well what is your intention here? It always comes back to being really clear about what it is we’re doing with our yoga.

TS: Absolutely, and in that questioning, in that intelligent asking of why and that curiosity, we are getting to know ourselves and we are honing the body-mind connection.

MW: This leads perfectly to my next question. This radio show Returning to the Body-Mind is really about tuning in to the wisdom of our bodies. I came up with the name for the radio show in one of your classes in savasana. We are talking about tuning into the wisdom of our bodies for personal growth, for spiritual growth. Can you explain how you see yoga as a way to unite body, mind and spirit?

TS: One answer is that they already are connected. In fact, the way we practise, with the attention on the breath, acts as a bridge between the mind and the body. This way of practising simply guides us back to the natural state of integration that we were born with. Acknowledging the natural integration of the mind and body helps us to be the best that we can be. If we come back to that natural connection, we can begin to know ourselves more fully, and then we can reach out into the world and make choices about how we interact with others, the kind of work that we want to do, how we want to parent and what kind of partnerships we want to have with other people. To my mind, this is the soulful, spiritual aspect of our practice. Attending to the body-mind connection brings us back to the best in ourselves and from that place of quiet awareness we make choices about who we are and how we relate to the world.

MW: How do you define anxiety?

TS: The responses in the body when we are anxious are very similar to the responses in the body when we are afraid. The distinction is that when we are afraid, we often understand the object of our fear. When we are having an anxiety response it can be one of two things: either we don’t really know why we are anxious or the response is completely disproportionate to the situation at hand. Anxiety lives in the muscles, it lives in the bones, in the nervous system. It is a full body-mind experience.

MW: Anxiety can be very detrimental to our health and our well being.

TS: Yes, it can be very detrimental. There is also the flipside in which anxiety can actually be helpful to us. A little bit of anxiety heightens our awareness and helps us to focus. For instance when we are driving and a car swerves into our lane there is an anxiety response that pulls us into focus and allows us to avoid a collision. Then the relaxation response, which is another gorgeous full body-mind response, kicks in and basically says ‘ok that’s over, calm down’. We return to normal. The nervous system quiets and the breathing levels out. Anxiety can also help us to focus when we are preparing for exams in university or preparing a project for a presentation at work, when we are trying to meet any kind of deadline. We need a little bit of anxiety to get us through certain kinds of situations and we can say anxiety is a normal part of being a human being. We want it to be available, but we also want the balance of the relaxation response to kick in and help us level out again. We step over into it being negative or being a disorder when the anxiety starts to make us dysfunctional, unable to get through our day, unable to interact, to go to school, to go to work. When anxiety becomes pervasive and effects the quality of our lives, it’s a problem.

MW: What would be an example of that?

TS: There are individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders that are unable to leave their own homes. There are individuals who are afraid of giving presentations. People who limit their careers because they cannot give a public speech; people who are afraid of interacting with new people so then don’t go into new situations. Then there are anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which the individual suffering with the disorder engages in specific behaviors or rituals. In the end, anxiety is defined as a disorder when day to day life is strongly effected.

MW: People talk a lot about stress and you focus on anxiety and I’m curious about your reasoning.

TS: We have a lot of stress or stressors in our culture, particularly in our urban culture. I see stress as a short lived or specific moment in time where there is discomfort. We could call it low-level anxiety. My boss is stressing me out, but then that moment passes, and I come back to being able to function in a calm, normalized way. Or I have a stressful situation with one of my children, it feels like pressure in the moment but it’s contained. I recover and move on with my day. If we have a number of stressful situations that accumulate and we are not able to come back to a calmer feeling, a calmer state of body-mind, then those stresses create a situation where we’re feeling anxious for much of the time, but there is no particular stress occurring. At this point we are not responding to a specific situation or a specific person. We just may have this agitated, unsettled, feeling of foreboding. The reason I’m interested in this point is because, that’s when one needs to step in and say ‘I need to change something, I am not managing this very well’. That’s the point at which it’s affecting the quality of our lives.

MW: You believe anxiety comes from the disembodiment of living in stressful times. Can you explain to us a little bit about that?

TS: When we encounter a situation that triggers the startle-reflex, what is sometimes called the flight or fight response, there is a response in a portion of the brain called the amygdala. Our adrenal glands go off, our hormone levels change and the whole body goes on high alert. We are ready to fight or flee. Then there’s another centre in the brain, the hypo campus, that assesses this, and says, “Is this really a situation in which I need to be in this heightened state? Is this necessary?” If the analysis is no, then the relaxation response kicks in and the hormone levels in the body change, the breathing changes and the whole body settles. The problem is we sometimes come to a point in our stressful urban lives where the scales are constantly tipped. The fight-flight response has been triggered so often and the adrenal glands have gone off so many times that they are on a hair-trigger response. The relaxation response becomes repressed. The body’s natural healing or natural balance is not resurfacing appropriately. If this occurs, we are constantly being pushed back into a state of anxiety.

MW: The body becomes so accustomed to this response it craves it. It can become like an addiction in a sort of way.

TS: You could say it becomes attached to it, or familiar with it. The other thing that occurs is because we are in an urban setting, even though I might want to flee I may not be able to. If I’m in an office setting and someone is making me very anxious, even if the response to flee or fight is appropriate given the interaction, I may not be able to do either. I end up containing all of that adrenaline and all the other chemical changes in the body and there’s nowhere for them to go. This exacerbates the hair trigger anxiety response.

MW: Interesting.

TS: When I was reading about this idea in a number of psychology texts and studies I thought, that rings so true to me. This is an animal response but we are in a very contained, socialized setting which limits our ability to respond.

MW: If we cannot run, what could we do in that situation or setting, in an office building?

TS: There are a number of breathing techniques that might help. In an office setting I could certainly try one of these breathing techniques without anyone else knowing what I was doing. It’s interesting to note that the breath is not only the bridge between the body and mind, it’s also the bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind. It’s a link between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. I can intentionally calm my nervous system down through breathing practices. The opposite happens all of the time. When I’m calm and my nervous system is quiet my breath is slow and steady. When I am agitated, my breathing becomes high, short and rapid. The respiratory system and the nervous system are deeply connected.

MW: What would be one technique you could describe that they could use in that situation, one breathing technique?

TS: Do what your mother always told you. Take ten deep breaths. Not ten gulping deep breaths, but deep, meaning deep in the body. If we can relax the abdominals and breathe in so that the stomach actually rounds and moves, it can be quite calming. The belly moves outward as we breathe in and relaxes towards the back of the body as we breathe out, this massages a hub of nerves that is low in the body and it basically tells the nervous system to calm down. As soon as the nervous system starts to quiet this will loop back and support the breath and quiet the breath further. With the mind, we intentionally deepen the breathing, by dropping the focus into the belly. The nervous system quiets, and the quiet nervous system then signals the breathing to stay deep, slow and quiet.

MW: That’s great, and a lot of people can apply that right away.
Tell us how yoga and meditation have a positive impact on our minds, on our bodies and on our emotional state.

TS: There are many ways in which they can have a positive effect. The first and simplest concept for me is doing yoga that connects the mind and body through the breath. This brings us back into ourselves. What we are really doing is noticing how the body and mind are responding to the experience. We might notice that the posture feels very gentle or very strong right now. In four breaths that strong feeling passes. We might notice a sense of relaxation or that the jaw is tensing for no good reason. We start to notice positive and negative patterns that arise in our bodies and then we can decide if we want to do anything about those patterns. We are trying to get to know ourselves through a practical experience of doing something and paying attention to it.

MW: I love that description. How does yoga affect the way we deal with stress?

TS: I think it gives us the tools to trust ourselves. I would be very disingenuous if I said if someone has an anxiety disorder and they practice yoga and meditation their anxiety disorder will disappear. What I think yoga can do for someone who struggles with anxiety or an anxiety disorder is give that person the trust in themselves to wait the anxiety out, to understand that they can ride through this difficult point or moment in their lives. It gives them the ability to be in the moment. Although that phrase can be quite overused, in this context it means when an anxiety response begins to rise up in someone who has experienced anxiety for a long time often the anxiety becomes worse because the individual is anticipating that what happened last time, which may have been a very negative experience, may happen again. It might get that bad. Another common response is to project forward and be concerned with how it’s going to effect the rest of the day. Projecting backwards or projecting forwards can actually heighten the response. Sitting with the response and breathing with the knowledge that this physical and emotional experience will pass can be very helpful. Practising being in the moment in our asana practice, in our breathing practices, in our meditation practice helps us to develop a skill set that separates the anxiety from who we are and gives us the confidence that it will pass through us.

MW: An interesting point. We are told to sit with very uncomfortable emotions and when I feel anxious the last thing I want to do is sit with it. So why is it so important to be with it? How do you teach people to become more comfortable, to practise mindfulness and being with these uncomfortable emotions?

TS: Start to consider the notion that the uncomfortable emotion is something that is temporal. It will pass. Consider that you have gone through this before and you will go through it again. There can be a benefit in sitting with something uncomfortable, acknowledging it, breathing through it, because then there is a possibility that it will pass through and out of the body. If we block an uncomfortable emotion or an uncomfortable sensation, in the blocking we are holding it. We are holding it for a future moment where it will come up again. If we practice regularly we become familiar with an integrated state of body-mind. Once we are familiar with this integrated state, we can reference it. It’s like a room that we can enter and sit in. We can sit with whatever arises, allow the physical and emotional difficulties to swirl and play out, and eventually pass through. We can learn to trust ourselves to be with not only positive but negative experiences. We can allow the negative sensations to ride through us. Trying to push them away may only heighten them.

MW: Pushing experiences away just heightens them?

TS: I would argue it heightens them. It’s like throwing a spotlight on them.

MW: How can we re-pattern that postural anxiety that we have embedded in our bodies with yoga or with meditation?

TS: Postural anxiety refers to habitual patterns of muscular contraction that actually occur quite naturally when the fight-flight response occurs. When we become very afraid there are muscles that tense around the groin area, around the hip sockets and also at the back of the neck. These are physical survival responses. We protect the soft parts of the body. There are very basic yoga postures that can counter the postural anxiety in these areas of the body. Over time we can come back into balance. It’s all about balance…so that the contraction can occur when it’s appropriate but also the release and the elongation of the musculature is available as well. We are bringing the body back to its natural balance so that the strength of contraction becomes the strength of contraction, and not the debilitating repetitive action of contraction caused by anxiety. If each muscle in the body is able to release and stretch as well as contract, then we have a strong, balanced and stable structure.

MW: What is the most important piece of advice you want to leave with people who are experiencing anxiety?

TS: You have all of the tools that you need to begin to help yourself. You carry all of those tools with you. You have your breath, you have the body’s response to gravity, the ability to relax. You have a body-mind connection that already exists, all you need to do is begin to hone it and strengthen it. There are many ways in which we can do this but we don’t need to have all kinds of fancy props and special machinery. We own everything we need to begin this journey of healing.

by Dr. Melissa West
Contact Talk Radio, July, 2008

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