A little bit of anxiety is normal, we've all had it at some point in life, exams, job interviews, speeches etc. However, some people suffer from persistent constant worry. In this situation the anxiety becomes overwhelming, sometimes even crippling, affecting everyday life. An Anxiety disorder is a serious mental illness, there are many types e.g. Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, or Generalised Anxiety Disorder. When someone suffers chronic anxiety it takes a physical and mental toll on the body. It activates the sympathetic nervous system and keeps the body in a constant state of stress by speeding up the heart rate, increasing blood sugar, suppressing the immune system, reducing blood supply to the digestive organs and pumping out stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. All this, as many scientific studies have found, contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, stomach ulcers, autoimmune diseases, anxiety, cancer, insomnia, chronic fatigue, obesity, depression, and accelerated aging. This is not good news! Never fear though because yoga can help relieve anxiety. As yoga teacher Elena Brower says: "Yoga helps our entire system slow down. Our bodies are programmed to heal naturally, and what stops that healing are all the stressors of daily life. Yoga dissolves those stressors for the time during practice and usually the effects last for hours after."
This blog will talk about how 3 of the 8 Limbs of yoga can help reduce anxiety
Yoga Asana (Poses)
Transferring your focus and attention to the body and the breath can relieve physical tension and the symptoms of anxiety. Focus on maintaining a slow and steady Ujjayi breath whilst practicing asana to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system responsible for the rest and relax response in the body (the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight response). It will reduce the heart rate and increase blood supply to nourish the organs; in short it is responsible for calming the body and mind during times of stress. Yoga poses can help achieve a happy and healthy mind and body, and release tension and negativity from the system. The poses that are best for anxiety are forward bends and inversions (inversions of the cooling type e.g. shoulder stand and legs up the wall (viparita karani). This is because they work to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and help produce feelings of balance and calm. Forward bends also by their nature make us turn in on ourselves; this can promote feelings of introspection and make us feel safe. Check out this great sequence of poses for anxiety that we found on the Byron Yoga website.
Pranayama is the 4th limb of yoga; it’s the art and science of yogic breathing techniques. These techniques have many benefits such as; improving blood circulation and the functioning of organs (due to increase in oxygen) they also strengthen the immune system and improve sleep. Taking your awareness to the breath can help free the mind of the myriad of thoughts that can trigger an anxiety attack. There are many different types of pranayama and the techniques are easy to do whilst sitting, standing, lying down, or at anytime an anxiety attack is occurring. You may already be familiar with the ujjayi breath that we use during yoga class, but there are others such as:
- Bhramari - Instantly calms the mind down. It’s one of the best techniques to release the mind of agitation, frustration or anxiety.
- Shitali – Helps you calm down and cool the body.
- Nadi Shodhana - Effective in releasing stress from the system when the exhalation is longer than the inhalation.
- Bhastrika – Refreshes body and mind.
Click here to learn how to perform the above techniques.
Once you have a regular asana and pranayama practice you may notice your inner awareness become more sensitive, so much so that you can easily read the subtle shifts and changes in the body/breath to detect the signs of an anxiety attack earlier. Pranayama also helps to control the fluctuations of mind preparing it for meditation.
Meditation helps you to build stronger concentration and focus, which can help you identify the source of your fears and anxiety. In time this knowledge can eventually help lead you away from your fears. We recommend doing some physical practice (asana) or pranayama before meditating to help to flush all parts of the body and brain with fresh blood, oxygen, and other nutrients and relax the body. You don’t have to start with an hour of meditation or even half an hour, a few minutes each day can make a difference. Daily practice in focusing the mind on stillness will give you the skills to consciously quiet your mind whenever you feel overwhelmed. The deep relaxation brought on by meditation triggers the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and oxytocin (amongst others). These neurotransmitters are linked to happiness. Serotonin has a calming effect, it eases tension and helps us feel less stressed and more relaxed and focused. Oxytocin creates feelings of calm, contentment, and security, while reducing fear and anxiety. Scientific research has also shown that a regular meditation practice can help significantly reduce the level of the levels of stress hormones in the body. Check out our blog that gives you tips on how to start a meditation practice.
Anxiety is a complex issue and we not suggesting that you abandon standard therapy. Rather that you practice these aspects of yoga as a complementary therapy. The physical practice and breathing will give you tools to help handle an anxiety attack if and when it happens. Meditation will give you the space and focus you need to quiet the mind.
Western Wellness Team
(Your friendly neighbourhood yogis)