Janis Joplin once said,
“You can destroy your now by worrying about tomorrow.”
And it’s true. Worry pulls you out of the present moment and keeps you either dwelling in the past (things you can’t change) or aching for the future (which you cannot predict). As yogis, I think we can all agree that the now is of utmost importance. After all, it’s all that we’re promised. Let’s make the most of it and take a deeper look into anxiety and how yoga might be able to help us stay more present.
I’ll be honest here. I struggle with anxiety. The pit in my stomach wherein lies doubt, fear, and negativity is a dark place that I do not often like to discuss. However, it has become apparent to me that I am not alone in this journey. I came this realization while doing a bit of research. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America states that 40 million people in the U.S. (18% of the population) struggle with anxiety disorders. These disorders are also the most common mental illness in the country. The honest truth is that we all experience anxiety on some level. So it’s important to note that it does not mean that you have a disorder if you worry occasionally. I would just caution you to observe your reactions on a day to day basis. For me, I took a couple of weeks to log any moments of intense anxiety in a journal. Within those two weeks I experienced multiple episodes of higher levels of anxiety than I expected to.
Upon further research, anxiety is most common for individuals that are….
- Type A
- Focused on perfection
- Control-oriented (often, in natural leaders)
- Internal processors
Here are two questions I, myself have wondered about anxiety…
- Is anxiety natural? In a way, yes. You were created with two natural reactions for dealing with stress. WebMD states that this two-fold effect includes both your perception of the challenge at hand and the fight or flight reaction. When anxiety becomes a natural, daily response to life’s roadblocks (small or large) – our ability to observe a situation as is becomes impaired and our body automatically goes into fight or flight mode. This particular response, though natural, is a protective mechanism intended for present and very real dangers to help us physically respond and cope. For example, avoiding a car accident or running from an angry bear might be a great time for that reaction to kick in. When your body enters into this mode – a rush of adrenaline floods the system. Unless you actually need this hormone response on a physical level (say, slamming on the brakes to avoid a rear end collision), it can be difficult to counteract if it is just a mental source of stress causing the reaction. In turn, the adrenaline will take its affects on the only physical thing in the way – your body.
- Is anxiety dangerous? It can be, yes. If you are consistently accessing this fight or flight reaction, your body will be taking on intense amounts of stress. An article on anxietycentre.com states that 94% of all illness is caused or aggravated by stress. It can lead to a myriad of physical and mental illnesses, that could be lessened or avoided by finding better ways to cope.
To answer our original question, can yoga help my anxiety?
The answer is yes. While yoga is certainly not a cure for anxiety on any level, it can serve as a wonderful tool in coping with anxiety and its friends (fear, stress and worry). Of note: I am not a doctor, but I feel it is important to be educated on the science behind it all as well as speak from my own personal journey with anxiety and how yoga has helped me.
Below are the four aspects of the practice that have helped me better manage my anxiety levels. I hope you find them helpful as well.
1. Deep breaths (aka: Pranayama)
Deep breathing in and of itself is a healing practice. It gives all of your organs and internal systems a big surge of nourishing oxygen. This helps you rid yourself of toxins and other chemicals built up that shouldn’t otherwise be there. The systems affected include the nervous and endocrine (hormonal). In moments of high anxiety, your breath becomes rapid. This intensity in the breath one way the fight or flight mechanism is triggered. Practicing 3-part complete breath (belly-ribs-chest) can help calm everything down. Regular practice of deep breathing (for instance, in your yoga practice) will train you to more readily turn to deep breathing in the midst of potentially anxious moments. You can even take this practice of breathing into the more normal moments of your day…as you lay in bed at night, on your morning commute, or even while you work at your desk. I am also a big fan of Brahmari breath (aka: Humming Bee’s Breath). In this style of breathing you take a long inhale and on the exhale you create humming/buzzing sound. It is very calming and often helps me calm an overwhelmed mind. Practicing 7-10 rounds before bed has also been very beneficial in helping me get a restful night sleep.
2. A balanced asana practice (aka: The Poses)
It’s important to note the poses that some poses can be too intense when dealing with anxiety. For me, deep heart openers (say, upward bow pose) are not a great idea when I’m dealing with anxiety. However, more restorative heart openers (reclined on a bolster for instance) can be a great way to gently access and release stress in the heart center. So first, I would recommend in your next practice, you observe how each pose makes you feel or react mentally/emotionally. Don’t ignore the little stuff. It matters! There are also a lot of really great poses to help you if you’re working to prevent episodes or are feeling anxious in the moment. A few poses that might help:
- Childs Pose: Forward folds in general are wonderful ways to calm anxiety. The very nature of folding inward helps you to turn your gaze inward and release external triggers that might cause you more concern. Childs pose and similar poses are also a nice release for the back, neck and shoulders which tend to carry the physical stress of anxiety, which is one common reason why they are so tight.
- Legs up the wall: This one has been super comforting for me personally. The inverted position helps reverse the fight or flight response, calming the nervous system back into resting mode. If keeping your legs straight causes you to go a bit tingly, you can bend your knees and bring your feet together into a butterfly position at the wall as well
- Tree Pose: Any balancing posture can aid in relief. What I like about Vrksasana is the simplicity of it and the imagery associated with the pose. The very idea with connecting back with your roots is therapeutic. In this pose, think about what is stable and strong in your life. Start with your breath. Then expand to your physical surroundings such as the earth beneath your feet. Then to the people in your life and perhaps your faith. All of this comes together to aid in concentration so you are able to stay aware of the moment at hand, rather than what you are worrying about.
If you are headed to a class, keep it a slower-paced one. If restorative is available, start there. Beyond that, slow flow and yin-style classes are also generally a good idea. If you feel comfortable enough with your instructor, it may be wise to let them know that you will be taking it easy or you can mention that you’ve been struggling with anxiety. This may give them insight into how they can best guide you through your practice…which is their job!
3. Time in stillness (aka: Meditation)
In one study, a group of inner-city residents suffering from chronic pain, anxiety, depression, diabetes and hypertension were trained in meditation. From meditation, they experienced a 50% reduction in overall psychiatric symptoms, a 70% decrease in anxiety, and a 44% reduction in medical symptoms.(1)
The simplest way to put it is that when you are worried, you are completely fixated on something past/future-oriented. In contrast, when you are meditating you are solely focused on the present moment. The act of becoming aware of what is rather than what was or what could be helps one to gently calm an overactive brain. A lot of anxiety starts with us buying the story that our momentary thoughts and/or feelings are telling us. Rather than letting them pass so we can stay connected to the truth. Meditation can be simple. It can be a mere 5 minutes in your car before work. You can go the guided route (via podcast, perhaps). Or practice in silence. Start out small and build on it. There are also many group meditations in most cities across the country.
At Inspire Yoga, our Sunday morning “SIT” session with Leila is at 10:30am and open to the public.
4. Application in the real world (aka: Yoga off the mat)
You’ve heard your instructors say it, the real practice of yoga begins when you step off the mat. In one day you will experience intense situations, moments of ease, circumstances that require balance, and so much more! The more you practice with mindfulness (keeping your intention at the forefront), the more you start to understand that how you respond and handle these similar situations on the mat can directly impact how you respond in your life. So, be intentional in building a strong foundation to how you practice in your yoga practice and you might just see that foundation keeping you steady out in the real world.
I hope that you found this article helpful for you. Please feel free to comment below with any additional questions/thoughts that I may help think through with you. If you think that you might struggle with an anxiety disorder, I encourage you to make yourself a priority and ask for help. That help may start as asking a friend for prayers. It may include speaking to a counselor. Or perhaps you seek out medical help. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. YOU matter.
Love to you all,
1 – B. Roth, T. Creaser, “Meditation-based stress reduction: experience with a bilingual inner-city program,” Nurse Practitioner 22(3) (1997): 150-2, 154, 157.