This is definitely the Age of Anxiety. Not only is modern life filled with relentless streams distraction of every variety, we are also actively encouraged at every turn to pursue and consume all manner of stimulating experiences. So, it should come as no surprise that in addition to garden variety generalized anxiety, there are so many different categories and types of anxiety: social anxiety, phobias, panic, obsessive compulsions, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
No matter how anxiety shows up for us, the symptoms are similar and reflect the actual root meaning of the word “anxiety” which translates as “I can’t breathe” or “I’m choking”. Oh, and we feel like we’re going a bit crazy…or a lot.
How Yoga Helps
The very definition of yoga is calming the thought fluctuations of the mind. This ancient practice is the cure for all of the perils of modern day living. It helps us remember to get out of the head and thinking thoughts and into the body, so we can feel and direct the movements of the breath. We anchor our awareness in the breath and the practice helps us process and release excess energy and old emotions.
Yoga helps us anchor our awareness on the breath and we come into the present moment. This is so helpful because in general, anxiety is a result of thinking about something that may or may not happen in the future. According to the wisdom of Yoga’s ancient sister science of life, Ayurveda, anxiety is seen as a Vata/Air imbalance. This translates as an imbalance of the air/ether elements in our body and mind. Typically these imbalances can be prevented and managed with slowing of the breaths, grounding poses and mindfulness. The kind of mindfulness we are working with in our practice is about being fully in the present moment, as an observer who is keenly aware of the activity of the mind as well as sensory experience from moment to moment.
Yoga Tips for Anxiety:
Stay Grounded – If you know you are predisposed to anxiety, be sure to include lots of soft pranayama practice throughout the day. Be gentle as you guide the breath and engage a sense of Ahimsa, or gentleness and loving kindness in all of your poses.
Ujjaiy, the Victorious Breath, is an excellent practice you can engage very discreetly, and it will help you maintain calm throughout any challenging situations.
Viloma 2, the Interrupted Out-Breath, is also an excellent way to manage symptoms.
In all of your breath practices keep a particular focus on the exhalations and the concept of Apana, the downward moving prana or lifeforce.
In our personal asana practice, lots of grounding poses such as Child’s Pose (Balasana), Legs Up The Wall (Viparita Karani), or Standing Forward Fold with Wide Legs (Prasarita Padattonasana), help stabilize our breath and our thought patterns.
Eating more root-based foods or green and grounding foods, and drinking lots of water are very helpful in balancing our nervous system. Long baths scented in calming oils, such as lavender, and self oil massage are very helpful for anxiety. Walking with mindfulness in nature is also a wonderful way to connect within.
Surrender and Acceptance – When we are dealing with triggers that cause anxiety our minds race. That is just how it is, but if we can surrender to this simple fact, instead of trying so hard to change things or stop thoughts, we can make it so much easier for ourselves!
On our mats or in our daily life situations, yoga encourages us to surrender to what is and to accept what is happening without trying to make it different. This principle is described as Santosha in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. To cultivate the ability to be content with how things are and how they will turn out, has the astonishing effect of creating space for calm and peace to arise, even within the eye of the hurricane of an anxiety attack.
Amazing insights come to the surface when we simply observe and notice what is happening without judging or criticizing. Sometimes we can immediately see that familiar wave of thoughts and feel the body’s reactions to those thoughts and we can just allow them to pass through us.
We are giving ourselves the time to really see just how many of the thoughts we are thinking simply aren’t true! So many things we’re thinking about simply are not happening in present time and probably will never come to pass. Then we can really laugh at ourselves! Humour is key in yoga!
We can also journal about the trends and patterns of thoughts we are seeing and uncover a new reserve of resilience seemingly out of thin air!
But I also understand we have 60,000 thoughts a day! So herding all the cats of our thoughts and analyzing all of them could be really exhausting for some people. Then we have to call in the heavy artillery of the 10 commandments of Yoga, Isvara Pranidhana, Sanskrit for a concept we understand to mean “a complete and utter surrender to God”. This could require more time in quiet repose in a Yoga Nidra experience or a longer restorative style Savasana. It could be done sitting quietly in a doctor’s office waiting for test results. What this commandment requires us to do one of the most difficult things in the world… to do absolutely nothing! To be at peace with everything we have done so far, to see that there is nothing more to be done at this moment, and then to let go and hand it over to our higher power right now, in this present moment. Again, a challenging practice but so rewarding, because…
Practice Makes Perfect
What I’ve noticed in my own journey to reduce anxiety, is that the more aware I am that I am in control of my diaphragm and my breath, the less I feel the need to control everything in the outside world.
I’ve noticed that if I keep my yoga practice daily, my symptoms diminish and I feel my home base is peaceful and tranquil. I’ve noticed that when I wander away from the practice, I feel my diaphragm move higher up and my breath get shorter and thoughts race, and, and, and…
So this is my gentle reminder to engage in self-care. It’s my reminder to come back to my breath and my mat day after day. Especially more than a few times on the inevitable bad days!
Have you had experience using your yoga practice to help you through anxiety? I’d love to hear your story!
– Deborah Devine
WATCH: Deborah Shows You Some Gentle Ways to Relieve Anxiety
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