The greatest hindrance to experiencing pleasure is anxiety. By this, I mean anxiety in all its guises, from unresolved trauma to irrational fear to physical injury to performance anxiety. There is a vicious cycle of anxiety that affects all people. It stems from our societal and cultural expectations and values, continues into our own perceptions and decisions, manifests in our actions and in our bodies, and affects our relationships with ourselves as well as the people around us. Unsurprisingly, we find ourselves in a constant state of anxiety, reinforced in all areas of our lives.
Anxiety affects us not only emotionally and mentally, it also impacts our neurology and physiology by adjusting the activation of the cardiovascular, skeletomuscular, neuroendocrine, and autonomic nervous system (ANS). Anxiety, in all its forms, increases muscle tension and is associated with excess sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity as well as failure to reduce this activity. When the SNS is active, it induces what is known as the fight or flight response. This response includes increasing the heart rate, raising the temperature of the body, and inhibiting the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The following diagram is a visual representation of the vicious cycle of anxiety that many people find themselves trapped in. We can see that when anxiety arises, as it inevitably will due to the stressors of daily life or otherwise, physical symptoms such as muscle tension and emotional symptoms such as relationship difficulties ensue.
When the effects of anxiety and stress are not recognized for what they are, and their associated emotions are not processed appropriately, our anxiety is compounded, in turn exacerbating our symptoms. This is why we get tighter and tighter muscles, our health becomes worse and worse, our relationships deteriorate over time, and so many people turn to addictive behaviours to seek some respite from the cycle.
In my work with men especially, I see many of them misinterpret symptoms of anxiety, conflating them with weakness, fragility and inadequacy. Society and culture influences this misinterpretation. Couple this with the fact that men aren't typically taught how to properly process their emotions and it isn't surprising that men develop an attitude of neglect and repression toward anxiety and emotions in general.
Tantra, and by extension Tantric Yoga, incorporates a variety of exercises from several different lineages and disciplines to overcome anxiety in its emotional, physical and energetic forms. Sexuality and sexual health concerns are strongly linked to anxiety, hence the emphasis on these particular aspects of our experience.
A simple exercise to overcome anxiety that you can begin practicing right now is internalizing your awareness. Wherever you are, take a moment to close your eyes and turn your attention inward. Notice if you are holding tension anywhere in your body. Perhaps you need to relax your jaw. Or you may need to soften your chest. Maybe you need to drop your shoulders. Or even let go of the squeezing in your hips and pelvis. I can pretty much guarantee that you’re holding tension somewhere in your body. This tension is both caused by anxiety and causes anxiety. So, simply focus internally, find that point of tension, and see if you can soften it. This is the beginning of overcoming anxiety and ultimately experiencing more pleasure.