Anxiety is a normal reaction to the threat of impending danger. But when your muscles are tensed, your heart is racing and your endocrine glands are pumping out stress hormones, these feelings can become a source of anxiety themselves, creating a vicious, and potentially chronic, cycle of hypersensitivity and increasing states of alarm.
You can turn alarm signals down by using your breath. But in anxious moments you may find it difficult to practice the kind of slow, even breathing that sends a message to your brain and autonomic nervous system that you are not in danger.
Anxiety leads to rapid, strained breathing and a tendency to tense the abdominal muscles that support the diaphragm and to overwork the intercostal muscles in the rib cage—all of which prevents deep breathing. Yoga can help you relax these muscles so that you can ease into deeper breathing.
If you are anxious, you may subconsciously tense your abdomen as if to defend yourself against an anticipated blow. Learning to soften the abdomen and deepen the breath can send a comforting message to your nervous system that your fears are manageable and your body and mind are safe.
Soften and Let Go
Try these four simple poses to manage anxiety. Practice them anytime you feel the need to reconnect with your breath.
Place a bolster under your rib cage and a block under your forehead. Let your legs and arms relax completely. Soften your abdomen; allow it to expand against the floor as you inhale and to contract as you exhale. Hold for 6–8 minutes.
Lie in Savasana with a sandbag on your mid-abdomen. Inhale slowly against the sandbag’s weight. As you exhale, the weight will help contract the abdomen. Slow your breathing. After a few minutes, remove the sandbag and notice the difference in how you feel.
Keep both feet firmly planted as you stretch to one side. Hold on each side for several breaths, expanding the rib cage with each breath.
With your chest facing the sky, lower your knees to one side. Relax into the twist. Let your abdomen expand as you inhale; soften resistance as you exhale. Stay for several breaths on each side.
Rolf Sovik, co-author of the award-winning Yoga: Mastering the Basics, is a clinical psychologist with a special interest in applying yoga for treatment. He has been teaching and training teachers in the Himalayan tradition since 1972. He holds a doctorate in psychology, a master’s degree in Eastern studies, and an undergraduate degree with majors in philosophy and history.