THE BLOG
01/21/2015 05:39 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

A Workout to Wrestle Away Anxiety and Make You Smile

Sasha Bell via Getty Images

"I would only believe in a god who knew how to dance." -- Friedrich Nietzche

It is New Year's day and I am dripping sweat on my yoga mat in a big room amongst the redwoods. My 69-year-old godmother is practicing beside me. We've come on my teacher Pete Guinosso's yoga retreat to ring out the old and welcome in the new. At this moment we are literally doing just that: a three-part twisting abs sequence with a rolled up yoga mat squeezed between our thighs. My belly burns. For each inhale that Pete leads us in, I'm taking two.

"Most of us check out," Pete says as he walks the room, adjusting feet suspended at hip height, "especially during abs."

But he's not just talking about abs. We spend much of our daily lives checked out: on deadline, on task, too busy to let our emotions "get in the way." Feeling, after all, can be pretty uncomfortable and counter-productive in the Western sense of just needing to get things done.

There are a million ways we numb out: hyper-busyness, food, alcohol and drugs, watching all the Game of Thrones series three in one sitting... But as researcher Brene Brown writes, "We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions... Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions."

In other words, our however-conscious decisions to ignore the way those words your partner, co-worker or mom made you feel result in us not getting to experience the flip side of that pain: the joy we might feel a few moments later, or while watching the sunset behind the bridge.

Brene continues, "To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn't come with guarantees--these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy."

Reflecting back on 2014, it's been an incredible year -- for sure one of the most transformative of my life. The highest highs and the lowest lows, all wrapped together in a web of vulnerability, pain, and joy: I experienced a loving long-term relationship and its dissolution. Memories of that still bring me moments of quiet joy and others of very real sadness. I weathered my first anxiety attack and the terrifying grip my mind could take on my body...

Then I changed the way I was living: I cut caffeine, made a point to be early to everything, started saying no to what didn't serve me and yes to self care. I signed up for a yoga teacher training with my mentor as a way of bringing healthy structure into my life and deepening my practice. I went back to work in a job that challenged me to be my best everyday. I bought my own guitar and started singing.

But mostly, above everything else, I learned how to put the stories I run in my head aside. I learned (and am still learning) how to listen to the way my body actually feels, and then to move from that place. When you do this, I was shocked to discover, you find that your body and your mind have some very different opinions.

What really feels good and nurturing in your body may be an activity you've told yourself you hated for most of your life. Like who would know that Excel spreadsheets can occasionally bring me serenity? Certainly not the person I've known for 99.9 percent of my life.

"We come back to our mats to come alive," Pete is saying now, standing in the middle of the room, fifty-some-odd yogis grimacing at the ceiling. He's wedged a whiteboard in between the mats up front. He stops to bring our attention to a quote he's written there. It's one of my favorites, by Harold Thurman:

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

And sometimes all that takes is a serious three-part twisting abs series. Other times it's doing that thing that brings the laughter bubbling up inexplicably through your chest, or visiting with that person who brings that deep sense of comfort and connection into your belly. For me, watching my dog run across a mountain meadow with wild abandon...then running with her. What the world needs now is a whole bunch of us humans waking up to being human beings.


For more from Jenine, check out Even the Sun on Facebook.

She's currently part of Pete Guinosso's Lighting the Path Yoga Teacher Training at Yoga Tree in the San Francisco Bay Area.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.