Anxiety has a devious ability to gain power over the human mind, particularly when there is nothing to distract it. Today, in these islands of quiet, we find ourselves turning to old practices we may have forgotten, developed to insulate us from fear –practices that give us a chance to see the situation from a different prospective. As the mind never sleeps, instead of exaggerating our anxiety, let us give it something to do.
What follows are a couple of interventions, quick fixes, to stop the downward spiral.
Walking is perhaps the most perfect exercise, completely natural, adaptable to time and place. In these days of lockdown, it is a part of our normal world we can still enjoy. But it is also more, I remembered on a recent morning, as I remembered the group I had met in January, on a cold sunny morning at the Stadtpark.
A group of women were out walking, each a discrete distance apart. They were following their coach, Anna Stermann, of BreathWalk, a Kundalini Yoga technique that combines conscious breathing exercises with easy walking. Curious, I followed along. The women were dressed for outdoors, with their hiking shoes and wind-breaker jackets and trousers, they look as if they have just came down from the mountains. Young and old, they all followed the same pattern of movements. Everyone was quiet and visibly inwardly focused, moving gracefully with small rhythmic steps. Most were smiling, I noticed, their eyes gliding over the scene without paying attention to anything specific, breathing in rhythm with her steps, fingers pressed together in a sequence, one after another.
After a few minutes they gathered in a circle under an old tree with a huge trunk, that seemed to project the wisdom of many generations, a poetic place for a meeting point, as they shared their experiences briefly before receiving further instructions from Stermann. This, she told me later, is what is known as “effective mindfulness”, exercise that brightens your mood and deepens breathing.
“In the middle of the exercise I felt dizziness,” said one young woman who was joining the circle for the first time. Others nodded in confirmation. “Most people are used to shallow breathing, so having more oxygen can make feel dizzy. That will pass if you practice regularly,” Stermann explained, as they began the next sequence.
Walking on my own now, I thought again about Stermann and her group. Though we have to avoid big groups, it does not take much to walk along a street for ten minutes, concentrating on your breathing and changing the feel of the day.
Underneath high ceiling of a Viennese Jugendstil apartment, a tall elegant brunette with long wavy hair is singing a lively text to engaging jazz tons. It is a pleasure to observe her from a comfortable Joseph Hoffmann designed fauteuil in warm beige tons with grey flowery ornament on the walls. The music is coming from white meter long professional boxes in a very clear vibrancy. The voice of the woman is deep and strong; so if she were to open the window, not only neighbors but any random pedestrians would also be able to enjoy a performance of a professional opera singer while she relaxes in the aliable patterns of jazz, far away from her every day thoughts. But these relaxing minutes are just for her, so the windows stay closed.
“For leisure, professional musicians often prefer to experiment with different musical styles,” said Zorjana Kuschpler, a member of the ensemble at Wiener Staatsoper. “I sing jazz to relax and let go of irritating thoughts!” She likes to dress up for these private concerts and just enjoy the time with music without a need to meet professional standards. “It’s just free interpretation and the sound of my voice as a mirror of my heart.”
So for the rest of us mortals? We can sing in the shower, or croon along with our favorite Schlager… We can pick up the instrument we used to play and get to know it again. Or use this chance to start with one we had always loved from afar. Music, at any level, gets under our skin and, always, lies close to the heart. If we let it.
Write it down
A staccato of clattering elegant black high heels starts an old interview of the famed J. K. Rowling as she entered a hotel room in 2012 to talk about writing for grown-ups. “That is what I wanted to write,” she said with her characteristic enthusiasm. “No one knows these characters; they are just in my head. It is so long since I had that private world only for myself. … And I have the freedom that I do not have to publish my work.”
Rowling describes writing as a way to create a private place that exists only for oneself. Anyone can escape into an imaginary world, where the problems from everyday life disappear with just a pen and a piece of paper.
For Winston Churchill writing was an adventure, for Jack London, a philosophy of life and for Virginia Woolf, the creative power can bring the whole universe to order. Though most of us will never be famous writers, the healing effect of the process is accessible to everyone who wants to notice more, to organize thoughts and sort out solutions to problems. Or just describe and capture experience to rediscover a part of yourself you might otherwise have lost to the shadows of time.