“Your business is much larger than mine. How do you deal with the stress?”
“Not well,” I reply. “I don’t sleep for a start.”
“Don’t sleep? What does that look like?” she enquires.
“Well, without medication I’ll wake at about 3.30am with my thoughts racing. It’s like a mild manic experience. Often my brain just keeps going faster and faster. Sometimes it’s thrilling, but usually that’s the end of sleep. At first light, when I give up trying, I get an extra thirty minutes. Typically I’d sleep 4 ½ hours a night.”
“So how have you dealt with this?” I see her wide-eyed exasperation.
“I take sleeping pills once or maybe twice a week. Now my doctor has prescribed Amitriptyline, which is a low-grade tranquiliser. That has given me another hour or sometimes two, but seems less effective than it was.”
“Any side effects of these drugs?”
“Well, Amitriptyline thins membranes, so you get a horrible dry mouth and my ears are dry and itchy too. My dentist says it looks like my gums might have lichen planus. It’s an autoimmune disorder.”
I see in her eyes a well of instinctive frustration rising.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” she barks ferociously. “You’re so stressed you can’t sleep, so you take drugs. The drugs have side effects and now you have an autoimmune disease. Your body is screaming at you and you’re completely ignoring it.”
I’m shocked. People don’t usually speak to me like this, especially ones I don’t know very well. I’m mildly offended, but most troubling of all is the ego-crusher moment. Some audacious woman has just bluntly told me I’m an idiot. And she’s right. Time for some change.
Atma grew up in the yoga world and has been a teacher for 30 years, for the last 12 years running the Ashram Yoga Retreat in the Coromandel. She’s just relocated to Hawke’s Bay and has offered to help me with relaxation and mediation.
“People like yoga for the poses, but meditation is more important and breathing the most important of all,” she says. Advice on deep breathing seems to be everywhere these days and magazines are choc full of wellbeing and mindfulness articles that mention it. “It’s all from yoga,” Atma says, “just repackaged for the modern world. There was a time when yogic meditation was woo-woo, but these days a CEO that doesn’t meditate is probably in the minority. Everyone needs it.”
I’ve always been inclined to the empirical world of science and maths, so sceptical about the ‘woo-woo’. Ancient knowledge should be accorded respect though. Practices that are refined though centuries ought to work. You can only imagine that, over time, they threw out what didn’t work and kept what did.
So Atma and I breathe, deep yogic breaths, each additional one seeking more capacity within. Then she adds box breathing, the 9 count breath and finally the ujjayi or whispering breath. Here you use the glottis to restrict the rate of airflow in and out. At first it sounds baffling but only takes about three seconds to work out.
Atma has that droll, yogic monotone as she instructs with simplest and least intrusive of phrases. “Let your thoughts pass like clouds,” she says. There are many of them, but as a disengaged ‘watcher’, they don’t trouble me unduly. “Bring your concentration back to the breath. Be aware of the rising and falling of your stomach. Use you diaphragm to push out the last of the breath. Suck in your navel.” She brings my attention to how my body feels, to the sound around me and to anything I might see while my eyes are closed.
After only 15 minutes we rise and I feel amazing. I’m filled with a God-like peace; a calmness I’ve never experienced. I’m told my post-meditation face suits me. The physical and mental stress is gone. On subsequent occasions I feel euphoric, giggly excitement as we begin breathing. There is the anticipation of something magical about to happen.
I try to meditate at home and realise that Atma is the master guide and I the bumbling novice. At 4am in a frenzied mental state, I try and fail dismally. “You can’t force it,” Atma advises. In that state you need some physical movement to release the energy and perhaps only to try for relaxation.”
I’ve experienced two incredible benefits from meditation. Firstly it takes out the mental and emotional trash. Afterwards I have the clarity to focus with scalpel-like precision. This emotional reset has been life changing. Secondly, yoga-types talk being centred and listening to your ‘knowing’.
Essentially this is taking some decision making away from the torturous ambivalence of your brain and making calls with your gut. We’ve all experienced our instincts screaming at us when we’re about to make a bad decision. Our brains get it wrong a lot more than our gut. If we can find sufficient mental calmness, it’s surprising what we can discern instinctively.
When you follow these instincts it’s a much less stressful life.
Atma talks regularly about the physical benefits of yoga, particularly the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. “Tell me about the dagobah system,” I ask. Atma looks perplexed. “You mean the endocrine system?”
“Oh yes, I always get confused between yoda and yoga,” I smile. Atma is nonplussed.
“It might be useful to have your back looked at,” she suggests.
I’ve never been to a chiropractor, but the wellness universe is ganging up on me. A week later my wife slips a disk and I find myself waiting at a chiropractor’s reception. The receptionist doesn’t look too busy, so I chat for a moment and book an appointment.
Emma is my chiro. Later she puts me through a barrage of tests and at furious speed, lurching between patient and clipboard like she’s watching tennis. ‘I don’t x-ray everyone, but I think we should x-ray you’ she says. I don’t like the sound of it.
When all of the results are in she takes me though the diagnosis. “You have a lot of issues with your back.” I don’t believe her, but the tests don’t lie and my back groans in agreement.
“You’ve had some impact here and your neck doesn’t turn too well. You’ve got a craned neck, leaning forward more than it should. There is a lot of tension in your upper right neck and shoulder and see here, you’ve had a small facture. Your spine is out of alignment here and you can see your shoulders are not quite level.” She reels off the endless list of functions of the spine, sounding like a nerdy Atma. I agree to let her fix it.
Yoga starts with awareness, in this case awareness of my dysfunction. Then comes acceptance and action. Most of us are somewhat aware but often operating in denial rather than acceptance.
From what I’ve seen, men are particularly guilty of this; clinging on to a delusional ‘warrior archetype’ that can grit its teeth and push on. Denial often comes from a noble place; a dutiful desire to do our jobs and care for our families. But by living in a world of weariness and the pain of physical and mental dysfunction, we’re living half-lives and denying our capacity to give to others.
I’m learning that self-care isn’t a whimsical new age idea. It’s about taking responsibility for our lives and realising our potential. The other night I had the best night’s sleep for ages.
The following day I drank no coffee and all things seemed possible.