During my Yoga Teacher Training, I was assigned a lot of reading. One of the books was, Start Where You Are, by Pema Chodron. Don’t tell my teachers, but I never finished reading it. Not because I didn’t try, but because I could not get past the first chapter.
Pema explained that when you feel stressed, anxious, sad, or any other emotion you don’t like, breathe into the part of your body where you feel the emotion: breathe into the tightness in your chest, breathe into the lump in your throat, breathe into the pit in your stomach.
I read and re-read these few pages and thought that there must be a typo. I thought, “She couldn’t mean breathe into the negative feeling. She has to mean breathe out the negative feeling.”
Years later, I saw her on a show and I finally got it.
Our basic instinct is to want to push away what doesn’t feel good. We want it out of our bodies, out of our minds. The crushing sense of anxiety in my chest isn’t something I want to make space for, I want to get rid of it. And I want to get rid of it now!
But that isn’t how it works. The harder you push it away either by getting mad at yourself for being stressed or just denying the sensation, the more it persists. Yes, you can go for a run, you can take an anti-anxiety.
But what if you only had to commit one minute of full attention to the sensation to make it leave for real?
The method is called Tonglen and here’s how it works:
- Bring your attention to the sensation that you want to go away.
- Don’t try to change it.
- Become really aware of how it feels.
- Locate the spot that it resides.
- Now, breathe into that spot.
- The idea is to create as much space as possible for the emotion.
- Imagine the space as restricted and your breath allows it to open up, move, and then slowly over several breaths dissipate.
Say you have tightness in your chest – locate the exact spot where the tightness exists. Now, take a slow, deep breath right into that space. Create as much room as possible for the stress that has taken root in your chest. Repeat that a few times. Each time allow the emotion to exist, do not attempt to get rid of it, only breathe into that spot more and more.
While you breathe 5-10 times, focus your mind on the objects around you: your chair, the table you are sitting at, or the floor. This will help you stay in the present moment.
Anxiety in your stomach? Again, locate the exact area that feels nervous. Now, breathe into your stomach. Watch your belly grow with each breath. Over the next few breaths allow the emotional to dissipate.
Now here is the kicker. Not only does she say we should breathe into negative emotions, she suggests that on each exhale we send positive thoughts to anyone who is experiencing a similar feeling. Breathe out compassion to everyone who is grieving, anxious, sad, or angry.
Why? Because emotional stress tells us that we are alone in our suffering. This practice reminds of of our humanity – our connection to the world. We are not alone because our basic emotional states are the same. Yes, we may each have unique circumstances, but all of us feel the same feelings.
I waited over 3 years to give this a try. Had I only known this is the easiest, fastest, and most effective solution, I would have done it right away. Set a timer on your phone for 1 minute and give it a try.