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‘Learning to Breathe’ Book Review + Interview with Priscilla Warner on Finding Relief from Anxiety

in Reviews, YD News

Book Review + Interview below. Stay tuned for the giveaway!

by Nancy Alder

In Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life , Priscilla Warner bravely opens up about her debilitating panic attacks and anxiety disorder.  Her tale is one of raw episodes and glorious successes that are shared with honesty and heart.  Warner eloquently outlines her story with such enthusiasm that one is often looking further towards her sources (i.e. Sharon Salzberg, Belleruth Naparstek,  Ayurvedic oil treatments) to investigate more. Warner’s writing is genuine, lyrical and so unflinchingly from the heart that the reader feels as though she has brought them along with her on this journey.  We cheer when things work and ache when she has downturns.

Learning to Breathe is a memoir but also feels like a terrific guide for anyone who might suffer from panic attacks or anxiety disorder, or even just knows someone who does.  The examples Warner shares of her experiences are beautifully and honestly described so that the reader often feels as if they were having them too.  The real brilliance of Warner’s writing is that she shares her deep struggles with a lightness and truth that makes the book one of the “can’t put it down” kind without it ever feeling like a downer.  It is upbeat, fun and one you want to deep dive into as you cheer for her to come out on top of her struggles.

Nancy: Writing about your anxiety disorder in my estimation takes a lot of courage.  You are opening up about something limiting and private and sharing it with everyone who might read your book.  How did you overcome any anxiety and hesitation you might have had on the subject or were you totally comfortable sharing yourself warts and all?

Priscilla: To be perfectly honest, I wrote the book proposal outlining my mission to heal because I wanted to stop traveling for the last book I’d co-authored. I’d been to more than 60 cities, popping Klonopin to fly and speak publicly. So when the opportunity to write this book presented itself, I jumped at the chance to throw myself into something new and “private.”

Ha! I spent so much time by myself during the course of this book, meditating, meeting teachers, monks and mystics, that I didn’t think of what it would feel like to go “public” with my story. But when I visited the home of Dale Atkins, a therapist appearing with me the following week on The Today Show, I burst into tears. “What have I done?” I asked her. “Why am I exposing myself and my pain like this? And why did I drag my family into this?” She reassured me that my portrait of my family’s troubles was a loving one, and then gave me the most wonderful gift. “There are many people out here, an entire community, who are so grateful to you for telling your story so bravely. We’ve all been waiting for you. And we’re here to support you.” Of course, I burst into tears again!

Without telling too much about what happens in the book, are there alternative heating methods/practices (i.e. meditation, yoga) that you are still using today?  Can you share with us your practice?

I meditate every day for 20 minutes, either sitting in a chair, my minivan, or wherever else I find a quiet moment. Or I wait until the end of the day and meditate lying in bed before I go to sleep.

I practice yoga at home, doing a series of poses I’ve done for years, which I put together for my last book tour. I’ve practiced yoga in Marriot Courtyards from Boise to Boston, pushing aside furniture. Now I’ve also incorporated the restorative poses my teacher in the book, Amy Elias, taught me. She and a wonderful nutritionist named Sheryl Moller also introduced me to quinoa, seaweed and a healthier way of eating, which I try to follow.

I still do some EMDR to clear painful events or emotions as they arise. I am passionate about spreading the word about this wonderful therapy’s benefits.

I still listen to Belleruth Naparstek‘s powerful guided imagery CDs. I love her as a human being and healer. Her voice is so kind.

My primary practice these days is profound gratitude. I start every day with a prayer of thanks.

I also make meditative little videos throughout the day, wherever I am, reminding me to stay in the moment.

Do you still suffer from anxiety disorder and/or panic attacks?

I do not suffer from panic attacks anymore. And I never thought I’d ever say that. I do suffer from anxiety sometimes. But it presents itself differently than it used to, usually not in a dramatic fashion. It might be insomnia, or an unsettled feeling I don’t immediately recognize. I sometimes snap at my husband, or sons, and then I realize I’m actually anxious about something. I’m a human being, and life can be hard, sad, disturbing and uncertain. But mostly I live with profound joy and gratitude.

You also make jewelry which is really lovely.  Do you find the process of creating something artistic (books, jewelry, etc.) really therapeutic or are they just cool activities that you do?

Thank you! I find making jewelry both incredibly therapeutic and meditative. Belleruth Naparstek taught me that any time you focus on something to the exclusion of all else, you’re meditating. When I put the perfect beads side by side on a bracelet. I am transported. I feel so engrossed, happy and complete when I make jewelry.

Writing books, on the other hand, is hard work! Even though my office is often my bed and my laptop.

What is your favorite yoga pose and least favorite pose?

Camel is my favorite pose, because it both scares me and thrills me. I’m slightly nervous before I move into it, slowly. When I’m halfway there, back arched and hands almost touching my heels, I’m afraid and excited at the same time. And on the days when I’m able to reach all the way back, back arched, and hold onto my feet, my chest opens up in a way that is thrilling. I feel so open and alive. And vulnerable. Which is why I often find myself startled.

My least favorite pose is not a pose, but a series – sun salutation. Why? Not because I reach up to the sky and bow down to the earth. Not because of plank, which I can do just fine. It’s that damn chaturanga sequence afterwards that intimidates me and embarrasses me. I just can’t figure it out, no matter how many times I’ve tried to slow everything down, no matter how many teachers have tried to help me find my way through it. I can’t seem to move my body smoothly. I want to slither like a snake, but I belly flop every time. I’ve decided for the time being that I can live a happy life without doing chaturanga. Unless I decide to write a book called “My Yearlong Quest to Get Into Chaturanga!”

What poses help to calm your anxiety?

The most calming pose for me is child’s pose. I imagine that’s the case of everyone, yes? I feel secure, safe, loved and cared for in that pose.

Do you have any writing mentors or heroes/heroines?  How about spiritual mentors or heroes/heroines?

I admire bold, gutsy, honest memoir writers like Lucy Greeley, whose Autobiography of a Face inspired me enormously. I also loved Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and Naming All the Animals, by Alison Smith.

I’m so fortunate to have met the spiritual mentors I met through my book. All of them were so humble, generous, compassionate and wise: Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, Bob Thurman, Bob Sachs, Rabbi Simon Jacobson, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

What is your number one piece of advice for someone tackling an anxiety disorder and wishes to try some of the therapies you did?

My first piece of advice for people suffering from anxiety is to recognize that they are not alone. 6 million Americans suffer from a panic disorder, 40 million from an anxiety disorder. And I imagine that most of those people feel very lonely and scared.

I always suggest that people buy Belleruth Naparstek’s CDs of guided imagery, for panic, anxiety or sleep (she has many more excellent ones as well.) Belleruth’s imagery took me to a place I never imagined I could access on my own, but once she showed me that a peaceful spot existed inside me, I had the confidence to try and access it on my own, again and again.

And I always quote the Dalai Lama, who urged people to start out meditating just 5 minutes a day, and then build up a practice. Meditation is wonderful for anxiety, but you need to build a practice slowly doing what speaks to you personally. There are so many wonderful meditation teachers, and they all have websites and CDs of guided meditation. I send people to dharmaseed.org to see which teachers speak to them.

Here’s the video trailer for Learning to Breath. Read more at Priscilla’s website. Stay tuned for the book giveaway!



6 comments… add one
  • This book sounds beautiful and honest. As a fellow sufferer of anxiety and yogi, I am looking forward to reading this!

    Also – chatarunga still intimidates me too!!

    Thanks for the lovely interview YD!


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