How To Take The Anxiety-Busting Powers Of Yoga To The Next Level

Photo: Lacy Catto

Anxiety disorders affect 18.1 percent of adults in the United States—that's approximately 40 million people between the ages of 18 and 54.

Studies show that many college students today report feeling isolated, misconstrued, and emotionally fragile or unstable. As a college student myself, I can say that the majority of my friends have told me that they struggle with anxiety (or anxious tendencies), and I often experience the intensity and consuming nature of these feelings, as well.

This could be due to our increased social media use and unrealistic standards set by this—we're constantly checking how many Instagram likes we're receiving to define our self-worth. Social media can be an amazing, unifying thing, but when it becomes too consuming, anxiety levels spike.

"Anxiety is essentially worrying about the future, about bad things that haven't happened yet and probably won't," Jenny Taitz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City, explains. "Because anxiety is future-focused, anything that keeps you in the moment is helpful."

So, how do we help clear our cluttered and perpetually racing minds and find those moments of tranquility, confidence, and self-compassion? A daily yoga practice is a wonderful start.

Think about it: When we're on our phones, we are hunched over and our chests are closed off, which leads to tight shoulders and poor posture. Furthermore, when we are stressed out, negative emotions cause tension in the hips, leading to a buildup of tightness. Overuse of social media outlets and overall anxiety due to day-to-day events lead to a generally tense body throughout.

What are you doing right now? Check in with yourself. Become aware of your breathing. Inhale through your nose, and slowly let that exhale out through your mouth. Straighten your spine, relax your shoulders, release the tension in your jaw, and close your eyes. Allow yourself to be present, and let go of anything that doesn't serve you.

The things I just told you to do probably felt really good. So, incorporating them into your daily yoga practice will only increase your feelings of self-worth, reducing anxiety.

My favorite part of the day is turning my phone off for an hour (or more) and putting time aside for my yoga practice and body. I have never had a time where I stepped on the mat and regretted it afterward. I don't have a set time when I practice every day—but when I realize that I am overanalyzing trivial things or I can feel the tension in my body and know my anxiety levels are high, I stop, breathe, turn off my phone, and immerse myself in an hour of yoga.

Yoga has made me realize that we have total control over our bodies and our perspective. It all begins and ends in your mind, and if we slowly learn how to conquer our own thoughts and manifest them into positivity and love, we can reach that blissful area of peace and self-love that we all seek.

Here are six ways you can ease anxiety through your yoga practice:

1. Set an intention for your practice.

Your intention can be anything that pops into your mind that you'd like to dedicate your practice to. Something you'd like to let go of, someone you love, or a mantra that you may repeat over and over. If you're having trouble thinking of an intention, try the phrase "I am enough." Revisit it throughout your practice. You are enough. You are so enough. It is unbelievable how enough you are.

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2. Incorporate pranayamas (breathing exercises developed by the ancient yogis) into your practice.

Prana means "life force energy" and yama means "control or mastery of." Think about how we charge our cellphones every night before we go to bed. This is the same concept, except we're recharging our minds. Being aware and conscious of our breathing can release stress and improve mental clarity.

I used to roll my eyes whenever my yoga teacher would tell us to do a pranayama, and I would continue to breathe normally. I didn't believe that simply changing my breathing and becoming aware of my inhales and exhales could change my entire mood. But during one class I was really stressed out, and we were instructed to do a cooling breath so I decided to really give it a try. Now I use this breath all the time in times of stress—and I learned a lesson about keeping an open mind. Try using cooling breaths such as Sitali or Sitkari to soothe feelings of anxiety.

3. Practice sun salutations (Surya Namaskar) at the beginning of each practice to warm up your body and clear your mind.

Link your breath with your movement, dedicating each movement to an inhalation or exhalation. This is my favorite time to let go of any negativity I've been holding onto and simply let my body move and be present on my mat. Suryas are also a bit of a workout, so flowing through them combined with breath consciousness leaves little room for my mind to wander and keeps me in the now.

4. Reverse your hunched "texting" or "sitting at an office desk" posture with heart-opening poses such as bow pose, camel pose, or wheel pose.

Vulnerability and softness are a beautiful thing, and yoga reminds us to stay soft through the hardships such as heartbreak. I always had trouble with coming into full wheel (urdhva danurasana), feeling like there was tension and strain in my lower back, until I started thinking of it as a heart opener. We've all had our hearts broken by life, romance, and relationships. Yoga helps us keep our hearts open when all we want to do is close them off. Let your heart be wide open.

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5. Soothe your hip tension through hip-opening poses.

We don't usually think about our hips, but they are the place where old emotions can get stuck. These stretches may feel intense at first, but with a steady practice they will become second nature. Breathe into the unfamiliar uncomfortableness of these asanas and breathe out as you settle deeper into the postures.

My favorite hip opener is pigeon pose, as it is a deep hip opener with benefits such as improving posture, relieving sciatic pain, and lengthening the hip flexor. Pay attention to how your body feels in this posture or any of the hip-opening asanas. Monitor your breathing and become aware of your inhales and exhales. This will keep you anchored to the present moment.

6. Allow five minutes or more at the end of your practice for savasana (corpse pose).

Many people skip savasana if they're crunched for time, but it may be the most important and most difficult asana of them all. Really? Lying down on my back and meditating is more difficult than a headstand?! But it's true. Conquering the mind is a task more difficult than any of the physically demanding yoga poses.

No matter how much we may want to, it's a quite a challenge to automatically make our bodies and minds relax on demand. However, with time and practice we will be able to relax the body muscle by muscle and thought by thought. While you're lying on your back with your eyes closed, release any tension in any spaces of your body. Your face, jaw, shoulders, fingertips, and lower back. Simply "be." Just you and your breath. Cherish this time of relaxation and thank your body for all the physical work it has done throughout your practice.

Incorporating any or all of these things into your daily practice can flip your whole day around, squash those voices of doubt, and calm an overactive brain. We have so much that is asked of us from work, school, and society's standards that life can be a crazy whirlwind of emotions, good and bad.

Honor yourself for your total amazingness and radical light by shutting off that phone, silencing those voices of doubt, and making time for you each day. Roll out your mat and repeat after me: "I am enough. I am enough. I am enough." You've got this.

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