Yogic Ways to Curb Anxiety

Author: Catherine Wright

Catherine Wright

Many definitions of the word “anxiety” exist and an array of physical, cognitive, and emotional effects are present in each case. “Anxiety” stems from the Latin verb “angere” –meaning to press tightly or choke. The cause can be from anything between “un-dealt with” past stress, past occurrences, or unconscious conflict. The most common symptoms of anxiety are accelerated heart rate, feeling of pressure in the chest, rapid breathing, nausea, heartburn, diarrhea, shakiness, restlessness, sleeplessness, frequency of urination, and many others. Those suffering from anxiety commonly describe their emotions as common feelings of apprehension, dread, anticipating the worst, constant restlessness, or watching and waiting for signs or occurrences of danger or “that trapped in your mind feeling like everything is scary” feeling.  The American Psychiatric Association claims that anxiety disorders, stemming from excessive anxiety over a period of time, are different from normal nerves; including overwhelming feelings of panic and fear, uncontrollable obsessive thoughts, painful and intrusive memories, recurring nightmares, being easily startled, and muscle tension.

Anxiety is often confused with stress. I make the distinction that anxiety is different than stress in that stress is usually a reaction to a particular event or situation while anxiety often has neither a specific nor rational cause. For the sake of brevity, the best definition “feelings of worry, fear, and tension accompanied by dread for often no apparent reason”.

It is estimated that 1 out of every 10 people currently suffer from anxiety. According to the National Institute of Health, ‘40 million Americans over the age of 18 are afflicted with anxiety disorders in a given year’.  Recent studies are showing that practice of yogasanas, meditation and pranayama are effective at relieving anxiety. Guruji says that “With yoga, abnormalities like anxiety improve, without it they grow more intense”. Yoga Journal makes the point that anxiety causes a “disconnect between the mind, body, and spirit and the outside world”. In this situation, relaxation, an essential aspect of yoga, is much more difficult. 

Asanas and pranayama with effects of slowing heart rate, dropping blood pressure, and releasing muscle tension are the best for those suffering from anxiety.  Dr. Timothy McCall, author of Yoga as Medicine and medical editor of Yoga Journal, explains that anxiety stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. Yoga calms the breath through relaxation in Asanas and with pranayama. Calming the breath calms the nervous system which calms the mind. A tense mind yields tense muscles. Yoga can actually stimulate the sympathetic nervous system through fast Asanas. Thus, more slow and relaxing poses are recommended for anxiety sufferers to drop the heart rate and blood pressure and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system rather than the sympathetic nervous system which is revved by anxiety.  Yoga induces its relaxation effect through stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Some Asanas that calm include inversions, forward bends, child’s pose, shavasana and crocodile. Aside from Asanas, someone with an anxious mind can practice pranayama. Psychic breath helps reduce blood pressure and relax after Asanas. Deep breathing calms the mind and body and even though deep breathing is not pranayama, it will activate the parasympathetic by lowering blood pressure and ‘has been proven helpful in stress related ailments like anxiety’. Sitkari and Shitkari pranic breathes lower high blood pressure and decrease excess heat in the body which can have calming effect. Moorcha or swooning breath also lowers blood pressure. 

There are some exceptions to the idea that stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system through yoga is the key to curbing anxiety. While ancient texts emphasize forward bends and other calming poses for the anxious mind, Iyengar Senior yoga teacher Patricia Walden makes the point that “quiet poses can turn into a stressful chore for some anxious students” (from the UCLA Yoga and Anxiety study headed by David Shapiro in 2007). So, this brings up the point that it is important to know your student and recognize when parasympathetic stimulation is not best for them.  It is important for instructors to look at students’ faces. The best indicators for anxiety include tense looking frontal forehead region, tense or forward shoulders and tight neck, eyes projecting forward, and tense expressions that make students look frightened, concentrated and pulled forward.  If this is the case, instructors can calmly ask students to take up a more active practice-something to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system like warrior pose, sun salutations, or triangle pose.  Often times, when someone has a busy mind and they expend physical energy (sympathetic stimulation), they feel more easily calmed afterwards-thus allowing parasympathetic stimulation. The anxious person could also practice Ida (left nostril) or type 2 fast breathing to calm and focus the mind after more active asanas followed by Shavasana. 

Yoga Nidra practice can curb anxiety through positive resolves about altering the previous thought process that leads to anxiety, convincing students they have control, and creative visualizations. This practice is calming and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system; therefore, it is best for those students whose anxiety decreases with parasympathetic stimulation.  Many expecting women experience anxiety during pregnancy. Yoga Nidra, modified Asanas, and omkar chanting have proven successful in alleviating anxiety associated with pregnancy.  It is worthy to note that a large amount of Asanas are not safe for pregnant women to practice, but the vibrations caused by omkar chanting soothe not only all anxious people but also babies of pregnant women. 

The Niamey (or self disciplined principle of) Swadhyaya or the yogic notion of self study is very important for those suffering for anxiety. It is important for those who suffer from anxiety to be in tune to their mental, physical and emotional states when anxiety starts to hit so that they can pause before reacting and note where the tension in their body goes, what thoughts they have, etc. Asana class is very good for training anxious minds to pause before reacting because students are taught to assume a pose and then pay attention to shoulders, or neck or relaxing face muscles. This brings general mind-body awareness enabling students to recognize tension in the body and mind and cease it.  It allows other options and pathways to automatically panicking when things get difficult. With self study and recognition of reactions one can significantly change the default panic mind setting.  Self study could also involve doing research on the sufferer’s particular type of anxiety and getting to know their case and what sorts of resources are available. Research could be part of the self study. Swadhyaya should be practiced by anxious persons inside and outside the asana class.    

Often times we trap toxins in our bodies just like obsessive thought patterns become trapped in our minds. There are an array of cleansing techniques proven helpful in releasing trapped emotions and toxins. In yoga, toxins are an imbalance between the actions, mind and body, anxiety involves this very imbalance. Thus, cleansing techniques would be a good addition to Asanas, pranayama, yoga nidra, omkar chanting, and swadhyaya in alleviating anxiety.  These five yogic principles in addition to a yoga instructor who can assess and assist in whether parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system stimulation is necessary are best ways for yoga to curb one’s anxiety. 

“The views expressed above are solely those of the author. may or may not agree with all views presented.”

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