Worry No More: Yoga for Anxiety

Mainstream experts are catching on to what yogis have always known: yoga is one of the best ways to ease an anxious mind. By Melanie Haiken

Yoga for Anxiety

The attack started, as they almost always do, late at night. While my two daughters slept, I paced the darkened kitchen, mentally ticking off an unending list of things that felt like they needed to be done right that minute. My breathing was rapid, my stomach queasy. Then I tried the trick a therapist taught me long ago and carefully jotted down my “worry list”.

The next day, hoping to assuage my anxiety with action, I raced around trying to take care of everything on the list. But my thoughts swarmed in a vibrating hum and I couldn’t concentrate on anything long enough to be effective. I returned an important call, and then couldn’t remember what I’d meant to talk to the caller about. I went food shopping, but left a bag of shopping in the trolley. The absurdity of the situation hit me when my 12-year-old daughter picked up the list and read out loud, “pay overdue mortgage”certainly a legitimate concern, followed by “change lightbulb in laundry”surely not worth losing sleep over.

Although I’ve sought countless therapeutic remedies for my anxiety, the eventual breakthrough occurred in a single moment in a yoga class, when I finally managed to get into Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and stay in it for a full five minutes. Something happened: My back arched, my chest expanded, I breathed more deeply than I would have thought possible. And my mind cleared. All that constant, overwhelming clatter was just gone, blessedly gone.

As I discovered later, my yoga breakthrough wasn’t unique. More and more medical experts are recommending yogaalong with meditation and other mindfulness techniquesas part of an effective strategy for bringing a worried mind under control.

“Across the board, yoga is seen by GPs as one of the most effective and safest of all complementary therapies,” says Marc Cohen, a professor of complementary medicine at RMIT University in Melbourne and a registered medical practitioner. Cohen points out that while yoga is still misunderstood by GPs to be a purely physical activity, and meditation is considered separate from it, both are seen as “very supportive in reducing anxiety”. This is good news, considering that around 10 per cent of all Australians will experience an anxiety disorder in their life, according to a recent goverment report.

Yoga For Anxiety

The yogic practice of noticing thoughts as they come into your mind but detaching from them is perfect training to keep worries in perspective.

“When you practise yoga, you’re able to be more aware of thoughts as they come and go. You can see them in your mind but not chase them,” says Lizabeth Roemer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Roemer is at the forefront of what she calls a “pretty substantial movement” to harness the power of mindfulness strategies such as yoga and meditation to supplement traditional anxiety therapy. Along with collaborator Susan Orsillo, Roemer recently published Mindfulness- and Acceptance-Based Behavioural Therapies in Practice, outlining a treatment protocol that blends traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy with the mindfulness program of yoga, meditation and breathing techniques .

Nowadays, experts are suggesting tactics for dealing with worry that are similar to what you might hear in a yoga class. “Think of worry as a heckler,” says David Carbonell, creator of the Anxiety Coach website (www.anxietycoach.com). “What you don’t want to do is duke it out with him.” The yogic practice of noticing thoughts as they come into your mind but detaching from them is perfect training to keep worries in perspective.

Jack Kornfield, author and Buddhist monk, has a particularly useful meditation technique. As you sit, you bring attention to, and name, the many ways your chattering mind intrudes on your concentration. When you notice that your thoughts have once again turned to tomorrow’s to-do list, Kornfield suggests you make the gentle observation, “oh, planning mind.” So when I notice my thoughts spinning into hyperdrive, I say to myself, “oh, worrying mind.” By acknowledging what’s happeningand how ridiculous it isI take away some of the anxiety’s power.

Learn To Let Go

None of this comes as a surprise to yogis. According to a recent RMIT survey of almost 4000 practitioners in Australia, more than 50 per cent take up yoga to combat stress or anxiety, and more than three quarters cite stress/anxiety  relief as the reason they continue to practise.

Yoga’s benefits come in two forms: concentrating on poses clears the mind, while focusing on the breath helps the body shift out of fight-or-flight mode. “When you have a lot of anxiety, you’re always on orange alert,” says Baxter Bell, author of Yoga Rx for Stress. Because you never fully let go, it’s almost as if your body has forgotten how. Yoga essentially re-teaches you what a relaxed state feels like. Although I first turned to yoga for back pain, I come back because it reminds me what it feels like not to be tense.

 Show up, do your best, and let go of the consequences.

Of course, for us worrywarts, yoga has a paradoxical downside: we can even get anxious about doing it properly. I’ve spent too many classes feeling my tension ratchet up rather than down as I strain to copy my teacher’s elegant Halasana (Plow Pose) without falling over.

The solution is to keep it simple. “I tell my students that when they’re anxious, that’s the time to go back to basics,” Bell says. Limiting your practice to 15 minutes or three poses might be plenty when you’re feeling overwhelmed. And feel free to pick and choose, skipping anything that starts the wheels spinning again.

That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m applying the same approach to yoga that I’m trying to use in other parts of my life: Show up, do your best, and let go of the consequences. If it’s a good day and I can manage a one-legged Vrksasana (Tree Pose) without toppling, I’m happy. If not, I just stretch, breathe, and cultivate awareness: “Oh, worrying mind in yoga class.”

The Poses

So many poses, so little time: it’s easy to get overwhelmed just trying to figure out which asanas might calm you down. Here’s help:

Breathe Easy.  If you suffer from acute anxiety, try a gentle restorative yoga class with plenty of focus on breathing, suggests Baxter Bell. Viniyoga, in which poses are synchronised with the breath, is a good option; even better would be to find a teacher of pranayama, the science of yogic breathing. One breath pattern that Bell recommends calls for adding one second to each exhalation. As you progress, your exhalations grow increasingly longer than your inhalations. “This is a quieting, calming breath pattern that combats stress,” Bell says.

Open Up. My favourite poses are backbends and chest openers such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), simply because they make me feel free and open. And these are among the poses yoga teachers most often recommend.

Go Upside Down.  Other favourites are supported inversions because they give you the relaxation benefits of going upside down without the hard work and stress of a challenging pose such as Handstand. “When the blood rushes to your head, your body interprets it as a rise in blood pressure and reacts to calm you down,” Bell says. Your heart rate and breathing slow and your blood vessels dilate. If inversions scare you, practise Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) or Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) as a compromise. If you can comfortably practise Silarna Sirsasana (Headstand), still follow it up with Salamba Sarvangasana to minimise stimulation to the nervous system. Lastly, Bell recommends sitting and standing twists to release emotional tension.

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