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  • Writer's picturebalrāj

The Yoga of Anxiety Relief

The following phenomenological reflections on anxiety in yoga are being updated.


Yoga just is no longer fleeing yourself.

No longer fleeing yourself, the ego becomes transparent.

As the ego becomes transparent, the soul is set free.

This is yoga.

The practices of yoga are just varieties of not fleeing yourself.

‘No longer fleeing yourself' means simply sitting with your anxieties rather than reinforcing the habits you've inherited and developed in order to avoid your anxieties, and to avoid the people and situations that produce your anxiety. Being able to sit with your anxiety means that your life won't be determined by your anxiety. Sitting with your anxiety means being able to sit with your unwanted thoughts, difficult emotions, and the (dizzying) anxiety of your freedom—i.e., the dizzying anxiety of the uncertainty of being essentially undefined.

When we are unable to sit with our anxiety, our lives become narrower and narrower, as the list of things/people/situations that we need to avoid grows. When we are unable to sit with our anxiety, our bodies become more and more rigid, as there are more and more reasons for the body to tense up. And when we are unable to sit with our anxiety, we become more and more frustrated (as our avoidance habits produce and re-produce self-sabotaging behaviours). Feelings of isolation and meaninglessness become more commonplace, and this intensifies our desires/frustrations around acquiring whatever 'next' thing we think will "finally" make us feel "complete”.


No longer fleeing your anxiety is ultimately no longer fleeing the anxiety of inadequacy, fleeing from the feeling that "there's something wrong with me”, from the need to fill the/our ’emptiness’ with stuff (because the silence is simply too loud), to fill up our sense of sense of self with what we think will make it more weighty/“real” (and which—we think—demand the recognition of others). Following our impulse to make ourselves more worthy of recognition—i.e., to fix an inherent sense of inner lack—just further solidifies (what is commonly referred to as) the "ego”, the solidity of which prevents us from pursuing our most meaningful projects without prohibitive levels of doubt and insecurity.

As the ego becomes more transparent, we are able to see—on a personal level—the various manifestations of our grasping for permanent ego security. In other words, we are able to see how the manifestations of my grasping is affecting me and my life. At the same time, however, we are able to see the nature of the ego’s “emptiness” (the very thing we were attempting to avoid): the ego doesn’t self-exist but instead remains irrevocably subject to physiological and social forces and could never be anything like “self-sufficient“. And so even my own personal grasping for ego security is not “mine”, per se: grasping is ”built into” being a functioning member of society, and ways of grasping precede my individual existence—i.e., I learned them as I attuned myself and my impulses to a social-historical context that preceded me. And so in the experience of this ‘emptiness’, we are able to see a kind of fullness on the other side, so to speak, of this emptiness; a wholeness, a network, that ‘always already’ exists prior to my individual existence—that allows me to be a functioning member of society—becomes apparent to the consciousness that is not wrapped up in/by itself.

And as we begin to see the various ways in which we are determined (both personally and structurally), we are able to recognize our freedom: there is something about “you”—as awareness, the “you” reading these words right now—that isn’t reducible to any of the things that determine it—society, culture, language, body, etc., and that could do something other than unthinkingly embody its hitherto habitual self. It is in bearing witness to the ways in which we are determined that we realize the part of ourselves that is essentially undefined. And this freedom, to the ego, is anxiety-producing, because being undefined or un-“real” or even “weightless” is precisely what it was attempting to avoid in the first place. The ego wants to be more substantial. And so, in this sense, anxiety cannot be disposed of because you will always be—essentially and irrevocably—a freedom.

But this freedom is always embedded. Indeed, there is something about “you”—as awareness, the awareness reading these words right now—that isn’t reducible to its determining factors, however “you“—the functioning member of society capable of reading and understanding these words—are precisely a product of determining factors. You—the functioning member of society—are the product of your pre-personal impulses/inclinations being translated into some specific, personal bodily-familial-social-historical-linguisitic context.

And so relief from the anxiety of your freedom just requires developing the capacity to sit with your anxiety (i.e., with your freedom, with yourself-as-subject). But because this freedom is always embedded, this means being able to sit with the terms of your situation (i.e., with your determinacies, your particularities, with yourself-as-subject-to). Our impulse towards becoming independently in-finite prohibits the reconciliation of our particularities/determinacies with the demands of wholeness in a way that re-produces suffering. Reconciliation that minimizes suffering requires ego transparency, and ego transparency requires disposing of our inherent impulse to evade our particularities (in order to self-elevate, to seek (permanent) ego security, to become more substantial, to self [v.]) by sitting with it, by no longer fleeing it, by no longer fleeing yourself.

Trying to reduce stress isn’t enough to reduce our suffering. Stress management techniques don’t address the anxiety of inadequacy. Craving relief from stress is still craving. And fighting with stress typically just results in more stress. And stress/anxiety reduction—if it is the quest of an ego looking to further self-protect/elevate—only re-produces the suffering we were attempting to eliminate in the first place (by attempting to rid ourselves of stress/anxiety).


Yoga is, indeed, a call to detachment, but to a detachment that’s on the inside of attachment, so to speak, and not a detachment that exists instead of attachment, not a detachment that tries to delete its attachment. In other words, yoga is a call to openness. And yoga always begins with being able to sit with yourself. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t or won’t change. Change is not optional. Our resistance to change—that is, our resisting to changing ourselves—is more a source of our problems than is change itself.)

The process of becoming at home with ourselves releases us from the grip of our self-interested motivations. Our experience of the world (including others) becomes less centred around “me” and my personal will. And my motivations are transformed: forms of greed and aversion become less intense—I become more open and generous (often without even knowing it). And as I become less wrapped up in and by myself, I am less hindered by my deluded sense of the world (based on my self-importance), and I become more comfortable opening up to being actualized by the world’s possibilities rather than defending ourselves from a world that seems alien and impenetrable. Instead of keeping myself walled-off in contracted, restless, unpleasant self-isolation, I am more able to become an easy participant in the world, to reconcile myself with the world, and honour my natural inspirations—that is, participate in the world in way that encourages me—and my specific history and preferences/inclinations—to be more open, less determined by self-defence (including defending myself from my own past).

Perhaps paradoxically, our inspirations are most available to us as we learn to sit with our anxieties because our anxieties keep us at bay from our “true” self—the self that doesn’t need to protect because it doesn’t need anything, a self that feels whole (because it recognizes that it is always already a participant in wholeness). But seeking personal wholeness is often no different than seeking personal immortality. The self doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in a world. And so even ”personal” wholeness is a felt sense of wholeness in a world that precedes and exceeds the self. Wholeness demands reconciliation, both of “inner” and “outer” othernessess. Wholeness is a reconciliation and not the result of self-elevation or fixing the terms of one’s situation so that the existing (craving) self feels better. Any ”reconciliation” admits the will of more than one thing (in this case, freedom and determinacies—puruṣa and prakṛti in the language of sāṃkhya yoga); it is not just the world bending to “me” and my personal will.

Action is not optional. Acting on your inspirations is just acting on what makes you—your specific history, the very thing that you’re no longer fleeing—more open, less over-determined by its past. Acting on your inspirations uses your past to free you from your suffering. Your inspirations call you beyond yourself—they call you to curiosity and to agency, despite not having all of the “answers” (i.e., what to do next, how to do it, what others will think, what if it doesn’t work, etc.). Acting on your inspirations develops a mind that is less hindered by habits of self-protection, including doubts and insecurities—the very hinderances at the heart of our quest for personal immortality. And acting on your inspirations produces a self that whose “needs” are inspired by something like wonder where one is, in short, open to being transformed by the terms of the world. This is quite different than a self whose “needs” are defined by dis-ease, possession, and personal defence. Our inspirations open us up beyond our tightly-wound obsessions with our own (assessment of our) lives. Our inspirations grant us access to openness, to self-forgetting, to transparency, to rejuvenation/renewal.

In following our inspirations, we avoid the problem of fixing the (image) of the self rather than the actual, lived self. We’re not, in other words, trying to modify ourselves as we might in a lab: accumulate strengths/skills and (mine for and) correct weaknesses (even though these particular strengths/skills/weaknesses may have nothing to do with the life that calls us to openness). This is the attitude of a person believing they ought to correct/perfect themselves and then enter into the world of action, and then “start living life“. One can never retreat to a place outside of experience. Changes pursued in the spirit of self-perfection all aim to change the image our self, and thus only reinforce the ego (i.e., the source of our suffering and very thing that we are—obliquely—subverting).

Our inspirations, in short, call us beyond our stress/anxiety but aren’t motivated specifically by our stress/anxiety. And this—easy reconciliation in/with the world by way of openness that doesn’t re-produce the suffering of ourselves or others—is only available to the person who can sit with their anxieties rather than run from them.

And so yoga just is no longer fleeing yourself (a process that may or may not include āsana practice). No longer fleeing yourself, the ego becomes transparent. As the ego becomes transparent, the soul is set free. This is yoga.


Related Posts:

The Anxiety of Inner Lack discusses our most fundamental anxiety, and The Yoga of Yoga contains a more complete discussion of how releasing self-interest can connect you to your “true” self. Prakṛti & Puruṣa: Phenomenological Reflections further discusses our (inextricably “entangled”) existential situation, and Self-Awareness & Other People focuses specifically on how we are inextricably entangled with other people. Given our existential situation, Yoga & The Meaning of (Your) Life introduces what it a “meaningful” life might look like from the perspective of classical yoga.

Further Reading:

For those looking to further explore the theme of the anxiety of inadequacy, see the work of philosopher and Zen teacher, David R. Loy. His 2008 book, Money, Sex, War, Karma (Wisdom Publications) offers an accessible introduction to this topic (and to Yoga in general). For a more comprehensive treatment, see his Lack & Transcendence (2018 [1996], Wisdom Publications).

For those looking to further explore how freedom is implicated in determinacy (and what this means for an ethics of openness), see philosopher John Russon' 2017 article, Freedom and Passivity: Attention, Work, and Language, Russon's highly-engaging and accessible philosophy is a rich exploration of existentialism and is highly recommended. His lectures on YouTube are excellent companions (and introductions) to the dense (and rich) works of philosophy with which his work engages (primarily ancient Greek philosophy, German Idealism, and existentialism).

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