The Benefits of Yoga Series: Anxiety
There is no one who doesn’t know the feeling of anxiety. Every single person is familiar with it because, essentially (in small doses) it serves a function. Namely, if there is genuine danger then thinking about how you might respond to it, or what course of action you might take, could very well save your life.
It is a helpful emotion (again in small doses) because it offers an opportunity to make choices, perhaps better choices, on how to live. However, when anxiety isn’t present in small doses it leads to obsessive thinking, going over the same issue without accessing insight; and in this state it serves no purpose and makes you feel rubbish. When anxiety spirals and becomes more than “a little nervousness” it can cause debilitating symptoms, such as insomnia, migraines, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, obsessive thinking, digestive problems, heart palpitations and panic attacks.
Fortunately there are many benefits of yoga for anxiety. In fact, yoga can help with anxiety in myriad ways.
“ Why become terrified when a little nervousness will do?”
- Rolf Sovik
What Are the Benefits of Yoga for Anxiety?
Yoga offers particular techniques that reduce anxiety symptoms in both the short and long term. Its focus on directing awareness inwards, with compassion, to our inner state (where ever we might find ourselves) can help you get under the anxious stories of the mind, to what might be triggering it - such as habitual thought patterns or unresolved trauma.
One of the elemental practices of yoga is breath. In Sanskrit the word from breath work is pranayama.
Prana comes from the word meaning blessings. So every time you inhale you receive blessings (and the yogi way is then to exhale gratitude). We see this in the English word for inhalation: inspire. By the very act of breathing in you in-spirit, that is to say you are breathing in a vital, energetic connection with Life, the Universe, which in turn, fills you with life. It is therefore, a connecting force.
The breath connects us to life, not only to your own life and aliveness, but also to all of Life, Source, the Universe (and whatever that means for you). This connection to life-force through the breath is why, without breath, yoga is not yoga.
The root of the word yoga means to yoke, to unite. The breath is that which unites mind with body, body with spirit, outer with inner, self and Life. Therefore if we are not breathing consciously as we flow through our asana, we are not yoga. (Notice then yoga is a state of being, not a thing of doing.)
Anxious Breath or Calm Breath?
In a state of anxiety or fear the breath becomes rapid and shallow (from the chest, rather than the abdomen) and usually disturbed, being choppy or constricted. This kind of “chest breathing” doesn’t engage the diaphragm, and causes muscle restriction of the abdominal and intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs), meaning that the belly and ribs can’t move freely, which further impairs the breath.
The practices of yoga, such as bringing awareness to the breath in pranayama and asana, the opening movements offered by asana and the mindful approach that typifies the whole practice (the Being-ness of yoga if you will) all serve to release and enjoy the benefits of fuller breath.
From a yogic perspective, optimal breath is smooth, deep and even, without significant pauses, with the inhalation and exhalation being through the nose. Physiologically, controlling the breath is key to calming down an over active stress response. Breathing through the nose for a longer exhale serves to calm the body and mind by activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) - the “rest and digest” response which is the antidote to the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) which is the “flight or flight” response.
One of the benefits of a sustained yoga practice is a spontaneous, habitual, reduction in breathing rate at an unconscious level. Twelve to twenty breaths per minute is the norm. Yet experienced yoga practitioners breathe at half that rate. The more you practice, the more ingrained your calm, yogic-breathing becomes, and the calmer your body and mind.
Yoga and the Mind
A further benefit of yoga for anxiety is that its practice teaches awareness of the mind, of thought patterns. With awareness you might realise, for example, the first signs of anxiety when they come up, and because of this early detection it empowers you to take steps (say intervening with a relaxing breathing technique) to prevent it developing into a panic attack.
Another technique taught by traditional yogis, expanded by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, is simply to observe the monkey mind (the mind that unconsciously jumps from tree to tree, thought to thought, in a never ending and random way). It invites us to compassionately observe what the thoughts are and from a distance look how how we might be contributing to our own suffering; to look honestly and understand habitual thought patterns and the resulting feelings and behaviours.
In Buddhist teachings (with which yogic philosophy shares its roots) it is said that the root of all suffering is attachment. So when we suffer (with anxiety, or anything) this suffering offers us the question: “to what I am attached here?” - Maybe it’s a person, an object, an expectation (of self and/or other)?
When we recognise the attachment and choose to observe it and release it by simply being aware of it (and not acting it out), our suffering is released with the attachment.
In slowing the rush of thoughts through breath work, asana and mindful awareness, yoga facilitates detaching from those anxious thoughts for long enough to be able to see them clearly.
The Holistic Benefits of Yoga
The practice of yoga gives rise to spontaneous feelings of gratitude. Gratitude has an immensely calming effect on the body, stimulating the PNS.
“Gratitude, a quality that tends to arise spontaneously with the regular practice of yoga, helps diminish anxiety.”
- Rolf Sovik
A calm body is a body that heals quicker (and clearly feels better). Research on psoriasis patients for example showed that those who were in an anxious state that had UV treatment took twice as long to heal as those who listened to guided meditation recordings while they had the same treatment. (Source: Yoga As Medicine).
The yogic principle of giving up the illusion of control and surrendering to the universe, Ishvara Pranidhana also has a calming effect on the mind and consequently the nervous system, the PNS again. The trust, gratitude and hope created by your yoga practice grows over time.
Just as anxious thoughts create samskaras (grooves) in patterns of thinking and feeling, and samskaras in posture, in patterns of movements such as being slumped or constricted in response to the anxiety for example). A consistent practice and change in attitude chan change the samsara, the groove. The new, positive changes, the new grooves that accompany it deepen with repetition.
The ancient yogic understanding of samskaras finds recognition in current neuroscience: neurons that fire together, wire together, creating neural pathways (grooves) of thinking/behaving/feeling - be they negative or positive.
With the phenomenon of neuroplasticity we have a choice - change our thoughts, change our wiring, change our mind (change our life!).
Pranayama (Breath) Support for Anxiety
Many of the breathing practices taught in yogic traditions can help calm the mind. This is one of the most easy to use: the 1:2 breath ratio, inhalation to exhalation.
For example, breath in for three counts, then breath out (slowly) for six counts.
With all yogic practice you shouldn’t feel any sort of discomfort or shortness of breath. If this happens return to your normal breathing or a ratio that works for you (say 2:3) immediately.
Yoga To Support Anxiety
PLEASE NOTE: If you have been in a prolonged state of anxiety you can reach a state of vital exhaustion. Taking on strenuous yoga-asana at this time can lead to yet more depletion. Poses with long holds, or vigorous sun-salutations for example, or working in a hot/humid room may all be, initially, inappropriate. First recharge your batteries, and only then increase the intensity of your practice (if it feels authentically good).
When coming into inversions check out how it feels - often the pressure in the head is not pleasant for those with anxiety. Opt for more gentle inversions such as Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani).
Likewise the very stimulating effect on the nervous system that backbends have, may not be pleasant and may even increase a feeling of anxiety, so go gently and choose poses such as Bridge (Setu Bhandasana) over Wheel (Urdva Danurasana) for example.
Sandbag Breathing in Savasana, Relaxation Pose
Benefits: This is very beneficial in creating breath awareness and gently opening the chest and intercostal muscles, which encourages the release of stress and tension.
How To: Lie down and place a folded blanket under your head to support your head and neck. Close your eyes and establish a smooth, steady breathing rhythm. When this is established place a 1kg sandbag, or bag of rice on your upper abdomen. As you breathe in lift the bag with your breath (not your abdominal muscles). As you exhale consciously slow down the rate at which you exhale, the bag will more quickly push the air out of your lungs. Try to keep the breath steady and even, with the exhalation being the same, or slightly longer than your inhalation.
After completing this practice, remove the bag and remain lying - observe any differences in your breathing.
Build up from five to ten minutes over time.
Rolf Sovik recommends doing this for three days on and one day off, for a month - and then stop for good. The strength you have gained during this practice in a month can be maintained by incorporating twists and mild inversions into your practice on a regular basis.
Crocodile Breathing, Makrasana
Benefits: It is very beneficial in creating breath awareness and strengthening the diaphragm.
How To: Lie on your front with your legs a comfortable distance apart, toes turned either in or out, whichever is more comfortable for you. Fold your arms out in front of you, placing your hands on your elbows, rest your forehead and your forearms.
Bring your awareness to you beat as it flows in and out. How the exhalation bring emptiness, cleanse and releases tension. Notice how your breath fills you and restores fresh energy.
Soften your navel region, allow your abdomen to relax. Notice on your inhale how your belly expands, and how on the exhale it contracts.
Let each breath flow smoothly into the next - at the end of your inhalation simply relax and exhale. On the end of your exhalation simply relax and inhale.
Observe the smooth flow of your breath, a witness to your own breathing.
Stay for six to ten minutes.