Heal me, Hakomi

Pins and needles: Austin Hakomi practitioner tames anxiety gorilla

Pins and needles: Austin Hakomi practitioner tames anxiety gorilla

Austin Photo Set: News_Clayton Maxwell_Hakomi acupunture_Nov 2011
Courtesy of Hakomi Institute

Trying to explain what happens to me in one hour of Hakomi acupuncture is like trying to explain a dream—the logical, language-forming side of my brain can’t quite grasp the journey it just took, but it knows it was a really important, essential kind of ride. In my few sessions with Rupesh Chhagan of Windhorse Medicine, I was aptly, tenderly guided into an unprecedented awareness of my body, into the murky underworld of my fears and unconscious habits and into the simplest, most relaxed enjoyment of just being. It’s an uncanny, vulnerable sort of adventure—one that I’d only want to take with a capable guide.

I first delved into this mysterious land of Hakomi thanks to a fierce constriction in my chest, like a gorilla squeezing my heart. Its sidekick was a panicky shortness of breath. These mean visitors had invaded such that fundamental things like sleep, ease and laughter were hiding from me like scared strangers. I investigated all options: I visited my general doctor, my allergist, my ENT. Could it be a heart condition?  Asthma? A nasal polyp? Nope. Each doctor told me that I was in fine shape. One did suggest, however, that I might have a bit of anxiety.

Anxiety?  Ha, unlikely. I do yoga every day, meditate and ostensibly don’t have too much to be anxious about. I am a relaxed, balanced person! Still, that gorilla squeezing my heart was trying to tell me something, and I was eager for it to go back to the jungle it came from. So when a friend touted the therapeutic power of Hakomi, I booked an appointment with a Hakomi therapist and Chinese Medicine practitioner, Rupesh Chhagan.

Just walking into Soma Vida, the wellness center where Rupesh offices, I feel a shift, like I could sink into the charm and warmth of this funky east Austin bungalow and linger awhile. Rupesh greets me, offers me tea, leads me back to his office and, whoosh, I already feel awash in something clear and calm; I can tell this is no regular visit to the acupuncturist. Rupesh is so deliberate and self-possessed, his presence both kind and very, um, present, that I feel like not only am I entering his office, I am entering a different state of being, and it’s not just the green tea and sweet smell of incense taking me there.

We sit down face to face in chairs. Despite Rupesh’s easy manner, I’m nervous and get out my writer’s notebook, as if writing about the experience will shield me from any risk of too much connection—which is silly, since I’m there to face my gorilla, not take notes. I put the notebook away.

Rupesh’s warmth is paired with a comforting degree of professionalism. Before we get into the nitty gritty of my ailment, we discuss time limits and confidentiality agreements and I sign papers. This is a relief. I’m a little nervous and have no idea what I’m about to do, so it’s good to feel that this journey has clear structure and professional guidelines.

After the formalities, we dig into the reason I’m there—the vice grip on my heart and lungs. With the calm of a horse whisperer, or perhaps a parent coaxing his kid to sleep, he asks me to turn my attention inward and simply notice what I’m feeling. Sitting in that chair in that quiet, sweet-smelling room, aiding by Rupesh’s prompts, I feel an uncanny sensitivity to what’s happening inside my body: I notice my heart rate (fast), the tension in my shoulders, a spaciousness in my belly. I feel a tad tingly. I’d done body scans in yoga and meditation before, but this felt different. I was surprised by how powerful it was to being guided into this internal awareness by someone who is paying close attention to every move I make, every word I say, and seems remarkably interested in it all. It may be the repressed narcissist in me, but I relish being the center of attention whilst dropping into my present moment experience, especially when the attention feels so genuine and natural.

I didn’t get this at the time, but Rupesh was taking me into “mindfulness.” There are many ways to talk about mindfulness, but in the Hakomi lexicon (as explained on www.hakomiinstitute.com), “mindfulness” is a “a state of consciousness characterized by relaxed volition, a gentle and sustained inward focus of attention, heightened sensitivity, and the ability to notice and name the contents of consciousness.” Yep, that’s what we were doing all right—I was paying attention to those subtle micro-twitches of my body and mind and naming them the best I could. It was very cool.

And what made it so particularly cool was going there with someone else’s help--in the spirit of open curiosity and tenderness we took this little trip together. It’s what the Hakomi lot call “loving presence.” If that sounds a tad too groovy for you, well, it’s really not—it’s just warm and connected. I compare it to feelings I’ve had when hiking a mountain on a clear blue day with a friend: the togetherness feels just right, and far preferable to doing it alone.

And then, at the right moment in this improvised dance, Rupesh has me move over to the acupuncture table. There he complements the Hakomi work with some well-placed needles, working with my flow of energy, or “qi” in Chinese Medicine.

On the table, I keep noticing what’s arising, and Rupesh suggests I direct awareness to that stranglehold in my chest. It seems like in order to make some peace with it, I have to look at it, but it’s actually the last place in the world I want to focus my attention. I’m afraid it will smother me. But, it’s one thing to stare it down by yourself at 3 a.m. or while panicking in traffic, it’s another thing entirely to take a look at it while the right person is walking you through. Just closely following Rupesh’s voice while he took my pulse and placed needles helped me not get flattened by fear.

And one particularly lovely day, the gorilla actually totally let go and I found myself on the acupuncture table, free and utterly happy. I could breathe. The anxiety was vaporized by this virtuosic mix of mindfulness with loving presence, and a little bit of needle pricking.

There are too many details here than befit an online article, but suffice it to say, I was awed by how well this elegant therapy worked. Simple but profound, it reached in and transformed the problem far more effectively than traditional talk therapy could have. And I think I only touched the surface of what it has to offer. Happily, at least for now, the gorilla is gone.