It may seem like all yoga would reduce anxiety--after all, don’t most people go to yoga to lower their stress levels and relax? However, just as there are many types of yoga, there are also varying energetic effects with different yoga practices, and some types of yoga may increase anxious energy. With the right focus, there are ways to lean your practice in ways so that you can reduce anxious symptoms and harness the anxious mind.
General Principles of Yoga for Anxiety
Yogic philosophy often looks at the nature of anxiety as having a rajasic, or sped-up and agitated energetic quality. When the mind and body are already anxious, it is not enough to simply say “relax” and expect the pace to go from intense to calm and serene. To someone prone to anxiety, it can be frustrating to get those instructions to simply “turn off” their anxiety. Instead, it helps for the practices to meet the anxiety where it is and then shift the fast, grasping, and urgent pace to a place with smaller waves and fluctuations. After that, one can then have more space to meditate, interact with family or friends, or focus on work or school. This approach is more like a dimmer switch than an on/off switch, and is a gentler and more compassionate approach for lowering anxiety.
In addition, the breath and the exhale can be among the greatest gifts for flowing with and observing anxiety. Think of each inhale as increasing energy and responsiveness--something the anxious mind may have too much of already--and each exhale as an opportunity to release and slow down. Focusing on the exhale in our asana and pranayama (physical postures or breathing practices, respectively), is an important guiding factor in our yoga practices for anxiety.
Principles for Asana
Lower anxiety with an emphasis on forward bends and twists
Ground through our foundation in poses and through the root chakra.
Start with asana that gives your mind “something to do” in the beginning, then move into longer holds, restorative poses, savasana, breathing, meditation. Move from higher to lower activation.
Practice self-study, by noticing how your anxious mind wants to pull you during holds in poses
As the asana practice winds down, you can move towards the floor and into a few restorative postures. Restorative postures are postures in which one stays for longer periods of time (usually five to fifteen minutes) and is supported in the pose by the floor, wall, or props. Some common restorative poses include legs up the wall, supported two-legged desk, supported supine twist, or a supported savasana.
Three Pranayama Techniques
Start with noticing your breath, coming in and out of your nose. After a few rounds of noticing the breath, segment your exhale by exhaling half way, pausing one count, and then exhaling the rest of the way. Inhale again normally. You can repeat this three to four times to start, and then add repetitions as desired.
Inhale through both nostrils. Exhale with lips closed, making a humming sound like a swarm of bees. Repeat three to four times, and then you can pause to observe the effect of the breath. You can use “mask mudra”, by placing your middle fingers gently across your eyes, ring fingers at the outside edges of the nostrils, pinky fingers at the outer edges of the lips, and thumbs gently pressing in at the ears.
Inhale Left, Exhale Right:
Valve off the right nostril with your pointer finger and inhale through the left nostril. Pause for one to two counts. Switch the valve to valve off the left nostril and exhale through the right. Start with repeating for a minute and then build up your repetitions as you feel capacity to do so. Repeat for no longer than 11 minutes.
While your asana and pranayama practices may have provided some ease to the fluctuations of the mind, you may still want to do meditation that gives an object or pattern as a focal point. For instance, you can meditate on the breath and count the breath, saying to yourself “I am inhaling one, exhaling one; inhaling 2, exhaling 2; and so on). You can meditate on a mantra or use a guided meditation such as yoga nidra so that the mind has something on which to focus.
Most of all, know that coming to your mat or cushion is a way to be with and neither judge nor endorse your anxious patterns. Using some of the tips above can help you to get into a place of curiosity and observation of your anxiety instead of reacting to it.