ANGER MANAGEMENT AND PRANAYAMA
Let’s talk about anger. You might be surprised to hear that I have a lot of respect for it. Admittedly, it has had a double-edged effect on my life. We are not quite friends yet, but I have learned to both see its value and to tame it.
I feel that my aggression helps me protect my boundaries when other people, consciously or not, try to cross them. I also sometimes feel it points out to me areas where my dreams have not yet come true, areas that need my attention. It motivates me to go forward and even gives me strength and power to be persistent in the pursuit of my goals. It helps me deal with various obstacles, internal and external.
Unfortunately, there is another side to my aggression, a destructive one. It sends me depressing thoughts about how bad my situation is, supposedly, and makes me agonize about why I keep making mistakes and wasting my time. It makes me feel hopeless and miserable, at least it used to. This aspect of my aggression used to have more power over me but I’ve managed to make it into a kind of an ally. And I’d like to tell you how.
Let’s start with a bit of background. In the Western world we rarely manage to establish a healthy relationship with our aggression. This is especially tough on girls. “Good girls don’t behave like that,” mothers and grandmothers have said over and over for generations. As a result, more often than not, we do become “good,” learn to hide our real feelings, strip away our anger, and pretend it isn’t there at all. Somewhere along the line, we lose our natural assertiveness, our ability to stand up for ourselves and what we value because such behavior in girls and women tends to be stigmatized as “bossy” or “hysterical” or “bitchy.” So we learn to be “good” and “feminine” and, as a result, we become more anxious and dependent.
Look at traditional Easterners: the Chinese, the Balinese have a place for the bad in their cultures. You can see dragons and demons are always present in statues and parades. Anger is celebrated as part of life! Which provides a healthy and safely confined outlet for it. It reminds me of my own lesson that recognizing and finding place for anger – or other bad feelings – helps you utilize them to your benefit. Whereas if you try to sweep them under the rug, they’ll come back at you in an uglier form, such as self-hatred, depression or aggression towards others.
In Russia we are rather used to hearing parents and teachers shouting at children. My heart breaks every time I witness this. Sadly, I too sometimes find myself being rude to strangers. These are all manifestations of an aggression that lives inside of us which we have failed to see. Having no other way out, the anger expresses itself in such unfortunate and regrettable ways. The more we recognize aggression in ourselves the less we fall prey to its destructive side. As they say – knowing is half the battle.
I’ve always thought of myself as a kind and gentle person who makes those around her feel good. Yet at times I have regretted that I could not defend myself and my interests as a result, which often made me depressed.
Thanks to therapy and other healing practices I began to come to terms with my aggression. I finally was ready to discover it inside myself, and at first it seemed a chaotic force that would make me suffer. I then learned to feel it in my body and step by step started taming it. My yoga practice and especially pranayama, the breathing exercises, provided me with self-awareness and ways of self-regulation.
Breath is what helps me get in touch with my body and my feelings in the moment. When something nasty and unnerving happens I tended to start rushing around either “solving a problem” or panicking. But it’s never really helped me! Instead I re-taught myself to focus on my breath, then my body, my feelings, my big and small sensations. As I watch anger arising in me I can feel my abdominal muscles and diaphragm tightening. It’s crucial to stay with those sensations, not to turn my attention away from them. That’s hard as they aren’t pleasant nor easy to tolerate. Then I try to relax and to let them go with the breath. I continue to observe my inhalations and exhalations and stay with whatever bodily sensations run through me. Step by step stress and anxiety give way to peace and quiet.
My pranayama practice has helped me get prepared for situations when self-control is much needed. Rishis, old Indian wise men, observed nature for long periods of time and concluded that the less breaths we take the longer we live. Cats and dogs, for example, breathe twice as fast as man (20-40 breaths a minute vs 12-16 breaths) and live shorter lives. These sages then developed breathing methods that let you elongate your inhalations and exhalations taking conscious control of your breath. As soon as you master them, you have a new tool for self-regulation! If this is something you want to try, here are a few simple beginner exercises.
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position or on a chair with your back straight (like the statues of Ancient Egypt). Breathe in normally and start breathing out: first let the air from the lower part of your lungs out at the level of your lower ribs, then observe it leaving your mid-lungs and finally, your upper lungs almost under your collar bones. Breathe normally for a few rounds. Then repeat. Extending exhalation has a calming, cooling effect on your nervous system. This exercise is great in the evening. It also helps deal with the agitation that often accompanies anger.
Here is another exercise you can learn to get in sync with your breathing that you can do with no special preparation. When you walk implement the following scheme: breathe in for 4 steps, hold your breath for 4 steps, breathe out for 6 steps and hold your breath for another 2. Repeat the cycle immediately and keep on doing it for 3-5 minutes. When you get used to it, try elongating your breath proportionately (6 steps to inhale, 6 to hold, 9 to exhale, don’t breathe for 3, etc.). You might want to try it on a relaxed walk, and then start doing it while running your errands to stay relaxed all day long.