“You could worry the hind legs off a donkey” my Mother used to say to me when I was a teenager. She was right, and my tendency to be anxious and to worry about things, remained almost constant until I reached my forties. Then I remember marvelling at how much more pleasant life was without the relentless sensations and consequences of anxiety – the dry mouth, racing heart, painfully protesting guts and nauseous stomach.
I began learning yoga when I was nineteen and throughout the tumultuous years of my youth, yoga gave me some respite from chronic anxiety. But even now, and after teaching yoga for fifteen years, the worry bug comes back and bites me on the bum from time to time. When people hear about this, they are often surprised, perhaps expecting a teacher of yoga to be some sort of ‘super being’ magically endowed with a problem-free life. But a part of me has had unrealistic expectations for myself, feeling a lesser yoga teacher for being an anxious one – that if only I practised asana enough/meditated enough/practised pranayama enough/ate vata-settling food enough etc. etc. then maybe I could become that ‘magical super being’! There is no doubt that the regular practice of yoga and meditation does increase resilience to life’s difficulties but what it doesn’t do is change true nature.
I felt pleased and vindicated when I read Elaine Aron’s book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’. She says research has found that 20% of the population and animal kingdom are highly sensitive – in other words, they are more responsive to their environment. According to Aron, HSPs (Highly Sensitive Persons) have survived in their cultures because they serve a vital evolutionary function: more sensitive to the needs of others, they are particularly good at taking care of relationships within the group; HSPs are also the more cautious members of society – sensitive to the nuances of a situation and therefore more likely to spot potential pitfalls. A sprinkling of HSPs amongst our politicians and investment bankers might even have helped avert the current banking crises. So, instead of dismissing HSPs as weak because of their tendency to worry, society needs to value their role in considering all eventualities, tempering the risk-takers, and fostering positive relationships.
A recent post by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes made me smile. She described the tendency to worry, or as she preferred to put it – ‘to have concern’ – as being a 7th sense. She said, “Some have tried to tell me that worry is’ wrong’, that worry is resisting ‘what is’, that worry is not being in the moment. For myself, I disagree. I am right here in worry. I am right here if not in worry. I am in this moment, at center… but also with a vision that is 360 degrees on most days, not all, but many, many.”
She also said “Though there is much to be said for transforming one’s concerns for people and matters into something easier on the psyche and body, I prefer for myself, to suffer some of what I sense and see about self, others, the world, and beyond, and to understand why it comes to my door, and for what reason. Some worry guests are turned away for they are petty and outside of my means and below or above my abilities, but many others are turned into fierce and/or gentle prayer.”
When Dr Clarissa makes her posts on Facebook she addresses her fans – ‘Dear Brave Souls’. I am emboldened by her words and by the words of Elaine Aron. Instead of feeling a little bit ashamed about my propensity for worry (which from now on I will call ‘having concern’), I am viewing it as a gift. Sensitivity and the ability to have true concern, whilst not necessarily making for a comfortable life, are valuable qualities that I wish to cultivate in my roles as mother, daughter, friend, lover, and as yoga teacher.