DON'T WORRY! (But . . .)

When doctors say, “Hmmmmm, I don’t want to worry you but. . .”  it’s pretty much certain that the next thing they say will be worrisome. And when a surgeon said it to me last month, it was.

“I want you to be checked out by a specialist for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” he said.

I said, “ALS?”

“Yes,” he said.

He didn’t want to WORRY ME? What I said next wasn’t pretty.

For the first time in 61 years, a sense of my mortality slugged me directly and squarely in the gut. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has a definite expiration date. And the process to getting there is pretty gruesome — degeneration of the brain’s motor neurons that slowly rob you of movement and speech and life while leaving your brain aware of everything you’re losing. The news didn’t exactly put me in the holiday spirit.

I went home and told Maren. It took all she could muster not to break down (she saved the tears for a more private time.) As we talked about it, we vowed not to let it spoil all the upcoming Festivus activities. But ALS lurked and sometimes loomed large. I was bummed by the possibility and the “not knowing” was almost as bad.

I wish I had a yogic secret to divulge here, some amazing technique that miraculously dissipated the fear and anxiety. I wish I could tell you that my practices kept my head from running to the darkest of places. What I can report is that immediately after my reactive expletives in the doctors office, I instinctively focused on my breath – inhale 1-2-3-4, hold 4, exhale 1-2-3-4. After a few repetitions, at least my head cleared and my heart rate returned to normal.

Over the next few weeks, I used this breathing technique many times to slow my thoughts and regain equanimity. I also was drawn back to a more conscious meditation practice. I have been meditating since 1972, and it had become a bit like breathing – automatic. Now I used the practice with purpose to calm the physical anxiety and quiet my mind.

I have realized yoga is useful on two fronts. Long-term yoga practices create long-term effects — a quieter mind, a peaceful outlook, and physical strength and flexibility. It also can provide a sort of triage process in life’s circumstantial emergencies, such as dealing with a stressful period or coping with unwanted changes.

Three weeks after hearing “ALS,”  I saw the specialist who could confirm that I did not, in fact, have the disease. I thanked him like he gave me a gift — and in a sense he had. But the real gift of the situation was a reconnection to two important aspects of my yoga practice – controlling my breath and meditation.

Now I can get on with trying to avoid neck surgery by hitting physical therapy hard and working with my physical trainer, which suddenly seems a much more manageable set of circumstances with which to deal.


On the pitcher’s mound, you prepare to hurl a fastball that could change the trajectory of the baseball game. Thousands of fans look on, hoping for a strikeout (or a home run). Millions more are watching on TV. How do you focus in the face of such pressure?

Matt Harvey takes a mindful breath before throwing the ball. 

Matt Harvey takes a mindful breath before throwing the ball. 

Matt Harvey, a rookie pitcher with the NY Mets, takes a mindful breath.  

Harvey is starting for the National League in the July 16 All-Star Game at Citi Field, the Mets home stadium. During every game, before every pitch, he practices pranayama. He describes it to  Kevin Kernan in this New York Post story:

The last thing you want to do is get the ball back and not think about what you are doing and just go. Then you find yourself rushing, you don’t take enough time, your muscles are tense. You breathe, visualize the pitch, then you can let go and execute to the best of your ability….I get the sign and take my breath. When you have that breath you have that time to say, ‘OK, fastball away.’

Such breathing techniques are called pranayama, which is the fourth of eight limbs of yoga. Prana means energy or life force, and ayama means control. Learning to harness your breath mindfully can create focus, calm, and sanity — no matter what your work is.

We will add Matt Harvey to our collection of stories about the power of mindful breathing. In Yoga Wisdom at Work we wrote about Steve, development officer at a major medical university, who uses pranayama to establish deep connections and understanding in his conversations. Steve inhales and exhales deeply before he speaks to anyone and says doing this is “positively disarming.”

A police officer —who also teaches yoga — told us pranayama is a life-saving practice. She means it literally. In one case, her gun jammed during a shoot-out. Panic set in as she watched “my mind running away from me.” She ducked behind a wall for a few seconds of mindful breathing, which gave her time to take control of her mind, fix her weapon and continue the chase.

Developing a pranayama practice is as simple as one, two, three:

  1. Recognize that breathing has four parts: Inhale. The space before exhale. Exhale. The space before inhale.
  2. Attend to all four parts. Inhale for three counts, pause for three counts, exhale for three counts, pause for three counts. (Any count that feels natural to you works. The point is to develop a cadence that can be repeated without interruption.)
  3. Doing this for even a minute or two helps snaps your mind to attention. When your mind wanders, come back to the breathing technique.

By identifying aspects of your work life that are stressful, make you anxious, or take a toll on your sanity, they can become prompts for practicing pranayama. Smiling while silently sayingwords such as “calm” or “peace” or “contentment” is even more powerful — it trains your brain to view the situation differently.

If you try this at work, we’d love to hear what changes for you. If you have a story about breathing at work, please share.