‘The eastern warriors say that when a lion hears a gunshot, it lifts its head and looks around to discover where the shot came from. But when a monkey hears a gunshot, it shrieks in fear and anxiously begins to check its body to see if it’s been wounded.’ Andy Caponigro, The Miracle of Breath.
Let’s not beat around the bush. I’d like to say I’m the lion but truth is… I’m pure monkey. Yep, <sigh> I’m a shrieker.
Monkeys are creatures of anxiety. It’s not their fault. They’re genetically programmed to be hyper-vigilant. Otherwise, if they just sat around relaxing all the time and not paying attention, they’d get eaten up by stronger things. Human beings are a 96% genetic match with chimpanzees, so it makes sense that we’d be walking around (minus dragging of knuckles) with some echoes of that anxious drive for survival within us. We’re more monkey than lion, put it that way. And like monkeys, our survival is very much dependent on others of our kind, so our anxieties are not only linked to subconscious predatory dangers but also to social and emotional factors such as social acceptance.
I digress. What are we talking about? Ah, yes, anxiety. I suppose it doesn’t really matter why it exists in excessive doses in many of us. The fact is, living with a little bit of monkey can be adaptive but living in pure monkey mode can be an exhausting. It can affect the health and balance of the body on all levels. The mind and the senses are always on high alert, waiting for the next conflict, or rejection, or judgement, or criticism. The emotional switch is turned on to REACT rather than to RESPOND; we can become hyper-sensitive to others, easily offended, paranoid, defensive; we swing from enormous, joyous highs to torturous, dark lows. The muscles of the body are excessively tensed and ready to fight or flee so we develop pains and tensions, headaches, stomach aches, back ache, neck pain. The internal chemistry of the body is flooded with stress hormones that if prolonged, can mess with our physiology, putting the heart under pressure, switching off our capacity to digest properly and disturbing the endocrine system which very much governs the health of the entire human body. Above all this, anxiety like this hurts. It hurts the heart. It turns living into a matter of endurance rather than enjoyment.
The question is: what can we do about it? (Apart from drink more wine, gobble more drugs, eat more chocolate biscuits, buy more things, clean more surfaces, mentally enact violent fantasies on complete strangers, climb under the doona and curl up in the foetal position…).
My answer is simple: borrow from the lion. If he’s so cool, calm and collected and unaffected by gunshots and all other manner of frightening stimuli then why not steal from his bag of tricks? Lions are courageous (a luxury afforded to those at the top of the food chain); they are stately; they move slowly, switching on the adrenaline only when necessary. While monkeys swing erratically about up in the trees, the lion is confident and grounded. The stability of the lion is unshakeable.
Traditional yoga recognised the strength of the lion and embodied it in a posture known in Sanskrit as Simhasana – ‘lion pose’. I hereby prescribe Simhasana for any person like me, who finds they have the monkey on their back more often than not. Practise this pose daily for three to five minutes, or in moments of heightened anxiety. See if it brings some calmness back to your being.
Kneel with the buttocks resting on the heels of both feet. Ensure the big toes are touching each other. Then separate the knees about 45 cm apart. Lean forward and place the palms of the hands face down on the floor between the knees with the fingers pointing in towards the body (if this is painful on the wrists then just keep the fingers pointing forward or even keep the hands resting the knees). Straighten the arms and slightly arch the back (no strain!), resting the weight of the body mostly on the arms. Tilt the head back slightly to create a little tension in the muscles along the front of the neck (don’t tilt if you have a neck injury or if it causes pain). Close the eyes and if it feels comfortable, rest the internal gaze on the eyebrow centre (you can move in and out of this gaze position if the eyes feel strained by it at any time). The mouth is closed. Breathe slowly and deeply through the nose. Relax the whole body and mind.
And ok, maybe you’ll never completely be a lion and the monkey will always be lurking there within but one thing we do know about monkeys is that they’re really good at learning so… train the monkey. The more you train it, the better it learns, until one day the learning becomes the natural response. I truly believe you can teach the monkey to be a lion. A lion with a penchant for bananas.
©The Yoga Experiment