It’s said that to be happy, we need someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. Since March 2020, many of us might struggle to easily tick all three boxes, whatever our circumstances were before. When it comes to loved ones, working from home and lockdown means that while we’re forcibly apart from some of our nearest and dearest, we may be with others 24/7, like it or not. Something to do? We work, walk, clean the house, eat, take care of (at times even educate) the kids, but we’re living in a universal Groundhog Day. And as for looking forward to anything, well, even a summer holiday is uncertain. Re-opening plans are announced along with warnings about what could go wrong. Thinking ahead can lead to even more anxiety.
Yoga, if you’re doing it properly, is all about learning not to get caught up in your thoughts and the stories you construct around them. I’ll admit that’s not something that resonated with me early on. As a teacher guided me into Shavasana in my very first yoga class, far from using the time to “feel the residue of the practice” and “draw the mind gently back to the breath“, I let the mind run riot, thinking “, What’s this all about? We’re just lying here doing nothing! We could be doing more yoga! The class doesn’t finish for another 10 minutes!”
There are, of course, twenty-somethings who are drawn to yoga for what it can do for the mind from Day One. I know this to be true because they rock up (to my delight) in class once in a while. But I wasn’t one of them. I came to yoga, like a lot of people, looking for physical health and fitness. Nothing wrong with that, but yoga has so much more to offer.
Thankfully, over time, and with the guidance of some outstanding teachers, the practice worked its magic. I began to understand that connecting to your breath and working your way through the Ashtanga Vinyasa series is really just a long and winding road to disconnecting from your thoughts and seeing things more clearly. I don’t know about you, but right now, that’s something I need more than ever. No one has any news. No one’s been to the cinema, a restaurant, a birthday party, a yoga class, the gym, or a gig. The element of surprise, anticipation or the unexpected is missing from our daily lives. Conversations peter out easily. I barely recognise my own clothes hanging in the wardrobe; it’s been so long since I wore anything other than yoga leggings.
Left so unstimulated, the mind has more time to wander. And there are plenty of scary places for it to go. Yoga master Alan Finger said that the chatter that fills our mind daily is like being in a ten-screen cinema, simultaneously watching all of the movies, on all of the screens, all of the time. Right now, it’s as though suspense thrillers and horror movies are showing on all ten screens.
Every day we wake to the long, slow burn of Coronavirus figures, horrifying images from India, vaccination updates and terminology we’d never heard of just a year ago “South African Variant”, “PCR” tests”, “Vaccine Passports”. It’s all too easy to go down the rabbit hole of thinking things have never been so bad.
For all the doom and gloom in the air, a book I’m enjoying right now reassures me that we’re by no means the first generation to live through a period of intense anxiety.
“Ninth Street Women”* explores the lives of five women artists who “dared to enter the male-dominated world of twentieth-century abstract painting” in post-war New York. It’s a fabulous read for art lovers, but it’s also a vibrant history of the era. It tells how artists responded to the reality of the second world war, and in particular, to the extreme horror that brought it to an end.
People woke up on the morning after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945 and thought the world as they knew it was gone. We read that “victims didn’t just die when the bomb dropped; they “vanished”.” Can you imagine waking up and hearing that 80,000 men, women and children had been killed in an instant? Bear in mind that the American people hadn’t understood, until then, that the US had developed the skills to annihilate itself (the government had consistently denied reports that the bomb had been created).
I asked my elderly mother, who was a child in 1945, about this time. She remembers her father running down the lane where she and her friends were playing in the “bomb shelter” they’d dug, shouting “The war is over!” when the Japanese surrendered after Nagasaki. The fact that children (in Limerick!) were digging “bomb shelters” for fun shows the kind of anxiety that must have been prevalent for them, right through the second world war.
Humankind had never seen such destruction. It wasn’t just the atomic bomb. As images began to emerge from the liberated concentration camps, people had to face the horror of what had been happening there. The reality of what man was capable of was proven beyond doubt and terrified people. “Until then, the assumption had been that people of one generation were supposed to protect and improve the planet for the next. The bomb changed that. People had to shift their perspective on life overnight. The next generation’s inheritance would not be hope, but fear of obliteration, and that knowledge would alter the way men lived“, psychologist Rollo May is quoted in the book. He continues: “Anxiety swept over us like a tidal wave when the first atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima, when we sensed our grave danger – sensed, that is, that we might be the last generation. At that moment, the reaction of a great number of people was, strangely enough, a sudden, deep loneliness. As artists and intellectuals discussed this dilemma endlessly, the sense of dread was pervasive. There had been a global trauma, ” a break in the continuity of existence“.
Their fears that they were the last generation were unfounded. But here we are again, 75 years later, experiencing another “global trauma” and “break in the continuity of existence” in the form of a worldwide pandemic that continues to cause terrible pain, anxiety and tragedy worldwide. “A sudden, deep loneliness” probably sounds familiar to many people right now. And we’ve all had to shift our perspective on life, if not overnight, then certainly over months.
It might help to remember that this is all life unfolding. We’ve lived through terrible, anxiety-inducing times before. Despite everything, we are still extremely privileged to be living in a first-world democracy in the West. And sometimes, shifting our perspective on life leads to positive change. That’s what I remind myself of when I find my thoughts trying to divert me into worry about what kind of world my twenty-something children will live through.
I’m just grateful that by the time this particular crisis came around, I had a firmly entrenched yoga habit. I stay centred and optimistic about the future by getting on my mat and connecting to my breath. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been lucky enough to find that tool for life too. All we can do is use it as much as we can to keep ourselves firmly grounded in the present moment. It helps to take one day at a time, remembering that we’re not the first generation to live through terrible trauma, and hopefully, we won’t be the last.
* Ninth Street Women: Five painters and the movement that changed modern art”, by Mary Gabriel, published by Back Bay Books.