Most of us have probably experienced feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed out, worried and fearful. Whether you experience these emotions situationally, or are dealing with the symptoms of clinical anxiety, yoga can be a quiet retreat from the constant barrage of negative thoughts, somatic symptoms and overwhelming emotions that accompany any level of stress.
One of the primary symptoms of anxiety is automatic negative thoughts. Triggered by past experiences, they eventually turn into intense beliefs about yourself and begin to form your identity through repetition. By becoming aware of the origins of these stories (no matter how far back they may go), the hold they have on your current life will start to lessen.
But instead of pushing away the anxious thoughts and feelings (which is our tendency to do) you can embrace them and come to an understanding of your story. By embracing the following three limbs of yoga, you can learn to honor your thoughts and feelings for what they truly are.
1. Pranayama (Mindful Breathing)
Breathing intentionally changes how you breathe. When you experience anxiety, your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. It activates the body's fight-or-flight response, triggering rapid and shallow breaths. However, practicing mindful breathing helps the body go from fight-or-flight response to the relaxed response of the parasympathetic nervous system.
When you practice pranayama, you are accessing the life force that feeds your mind, body and spirit. By slowing the breath, you also slow the mind which in turn, allows you to realize the true story of your identity. You will have a greater understanding of the origins of your negative beliefs so that you can identify what it is you need to heal.
To practice pranayama, you can start with breath counting. Breathe in for a count of 3 or 4 — breathing in from the base of the diaphragm, filling the belly and the lungs. Then breathe out for a count of 3 or 4 — emptying the lungs, the belly and the diaphragm. Breathe in and out in this manner for 10 breaths. If you lose track of the number of breaths, just start over at one.
2. Asana (Postures)
Anxiety disrupts the flow of energy in the body and causes somatic symptoms, such as tension in the shoulders, back pain, headaches, and even GI issues. The practice of expanding and warming asanas can help to release trapped tension in the body, while alternatively, the practice of purifying and cooling asanas can help to cool the body and slow down the breath.
Sometimes when we are experiencing high levels of anxiety and nervous energy is trapped in the body, it is impossible to settle into those cooling, restorative yoga poses. Therefore, slowly practicing Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar A or B) is highly beneficial, loosing up some of that trapped energy. Practicing Wheel Pose — aka Upward Bow — (Urdhva Dhanurasana) or Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) invigorates and energizes, while simultaneously thawing the tension in the body.
Since anxiety amps up the body and the mind, asanas for anxiety focus on cooling the body and slowing down the breath upon the release of excess energy. Restorative poses like Child's Pose (Balasana), seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana) and a supported Bridge Pose with props or blankets, are far more cooling for the body.
While practicing these postures, focus on lengthening on the outward breath and increasing the length of the pause between the inhale and exhale to help slow the breathing. Seated and supine twists can release stored tension in the core while soothing the stomach, all of which will have a positive effect on your anxiety and stress.
3. Dhyana (Meditation)
Meditation allows you to take some quiet time for yourself to focus your attention on your breath, a mantra or some other point of focus, and witness your thoughts and emotions as an observer. Practicing meditation will train your mind and body to be conscious of the present moment, so that you can increase your awareness to the thoughts and feelings contributing to your anxiety.
Using mindful breathing in meditation helps you to be in the present, instead of dwelling on the past or future. Using a mantra will allow you to change your focus from the thoughts of anxiety, to those of peacefulness and relaxation. Focus on the word relax with each inhale and each exhale. Focus on the word thankful as you breathe in and breathe out, to use gratitude as your mantra. This will alter negative thought patterns, allowing you to witness each small wonder in your life.