Whether it is mild or severe, anxiety can interfere with day-to-day activities and social interaction. According to the ADAA, physical symptoms of anxiety include trouble sleeping, irritability, muscle tension, edginess, restlessness, and fatigue. Yoga and meditation can be valuable tools for helping to relieve emotional disturbances and lower overall stress levels.
I have suffered from anxiety during certain periods of my life and I can say that yoga and meditation are some of the best ways for me to find relief. Each time I step on the mat, I am able to stop the monkey chatter of my brain and truly be in the present. When we are in the present moment we are mindful of our movements and not thinking about the past or worrying about the future. During yoga practice is the only time I can stop my over analytical mind from running ramped. If you know me, you know that is truly a miracle! In all seriousness, yoga is about being one with the moment and training us to practice that awareness in our everyday lives. If you don’t want to take my word for it, there have been many studies that yoga and meditation benefits those with mood disorders and lowers our stress response in our everyday life. See my reference list below for some great studies to explore this further.
The same is true for meditation. I actually like to call yoga “active meditation” as it elicits the same response as seated or resting meditation. Meditation is calming your mind and body by reducing your nervous system activity through awareness of breath. I find the use of meditation extremely helpful when trying to fall asleep at night. Many people, including myself, find that anxiety occurs at a large percentage of the time when we are trying to fall asleep. This is a time when our minds are free from distraction and are ready to run wild. Every single stress and worry of that day or of the next day comes rushing into your mind and then…insomnia! Sometimes we even begin to fear going to bed, as this can become a habitual pattern leading to very sleepy and unhappy people. Instead of reaching for a sleeping aid, try mediation. I like to start with a guided meditation, as it is the best way for beginners to quiet the mind and truly find that calm state. Again, don’t just take my word for it…see my reference list!
Below is an example of a few yoga poses and a guided meditation that I like to use when my mind begins to run ramped and anxiety starts to rear it’s ugly head.
1. Child’s Pose (Balasana): Child's Pose helps to release tension in the back, neck and shoulders, which are areas where most people hold a lot of their stress. This pose also helps to promote relaxation by encouraging steady conscious breathing, which is particularly great for anxiety sufferers due to a calming of the nervous system.
Begin on your hands and knees with your big toes touching. Your hands should be directly under your arms and your legs hips distance apart. Exhale as you bow forward allowing your torso to rest on or between your thighs with your forehead on the mat. Keeping your arms long and extended, press into your hands keeping your sit bones on your heels. Hold this pose for as long as you need to. When finished, slowly use your hands to walk your torso upright and sit back on your heels.
2. Tree Pose (Vrikasana): Tree Pose is fundamental in easing anxiety. By implementing basic standing balances, you promote concentration, focus and awareness, with the intention of taking your mind away from anxiety and placing your attention on your physical self. When not in a yoga class, I often practice Tree Pose whenever I find myself standing for an extended period of time.
Standing tall with your feet hips-width distance apart, shift your weight to your right leg. Bend your left knee, and place the sole of your left foot into your inner right thigh or just below the knee, with your toes pointing toward the floor. Center your pelvis so that it is directly over your right foot. Press the sole of the left foot into your inner right thigh, while resisting with your outer right thigh. Place your hands into prayer with your thumbs at your heart center. Your gaze can be facing facing forward with focus on a spot or object. Hold for 2-3 breaths, and then repeat on the other side.
3. Headstand (Sirsasana): Headstand is one of my favorite poses to practice, especially during my most anxious times. It reverses the blood flow in your body, causing you to focus more attention on your breath, rather than your anxiety or discomfort. By focusing your awareness on your body's place in space, you begin to evoke calmness and contentment.
When we increase and stimulate blood flow to our head, one main benefit is the detoxification of our adrenals, which is known to contribute to a decrease in depression as well (look it up)!
Start on your hands and knees, with your forearms shoulder-width apart. Keeping your elbows there, interlace your fingers so that your pinkies touch the ground. Place the crown of your head onto the ground and cradle it in your hands. Tuck your toes and lift your hips high, walking your feet in as closer to your elbows. Engage your abdominal muscles, press your forearms onto the mat lifting out of your shoulders and slowly lifting one leg off the ground. You can practice lifting one leg and then the other until you feel steady.
To enter full headstand, lift your feet straight up over your shoulders and hips until your legs are completely straight overhead. You can practice with a wall to support you if you're new to headstand. Keep your gaze fixed and old for 5-6 breaths (or longer if you desire). When you're ready, lower your feet down one at a time and bring your knees to the mat. Rest in Child's Pose for a few breaths.
4. Legs Up The Wall Pose (Viparita Karani): Legs Up The Wall is great for relieving lower back pain and easing anxiety symptoms, in addition to relieving arthritis discomfort, menstrual cramping, reducing insomnia and lowering high blood pressure.
This pose can be performed anywhere a wall is present, however I strongly recommend finding a place of comfort, silence and serenity to really enjoy the full benefits. You can place a pillow or blanket under your lumbar spine to relieve any lower back pressure as well.
Roll up your yoga mat about halfway and rest it directly at the wall. Sit with your left or right side resting as close to the wall as possible, just outside your mat. In one steady movement, swing your legs up onto the wall and rest your shoulders and head onto your mat. Slowly ease yourself forward until your buttocks and hamstring area touch the wall. Allow yourself to close your eyes and relax. Stay in this pose for 5-10 minutes or longer if needed. When you're ready to come out, swing your legs to the left or right of your body.
Guided Meditation for Anxiety: I recommend recording yourself guiding you through this meditation and listen to it whenever needed.
To begin with make sure the body is in as comfortable a position as possible, either sitting in a chair or lying down on the bed or the floor. Allow the weight of the body to settle down towards the earth, taking a few deeper breaths and letting go a little bit more on each out breath.
Now allow the breath to settle and to find its own natural rhythm, letting the breath breathe itself. Try not to interfere with this process, and notice how the body moves in response to the breath: the chest expanding and relaxing, the belly rising and falling. If your breath is affected in any way by your illness or pain, then just noting this with a kindly, gentle awareness. Try to let go of any ideas about how you think it ought to be, and just rest with an awareness of how things actually are for you in each moment.
Sometimes it can help to include an image with a sense of the breath: you can imagine a wave flowing up the beach, turning, and flowing back out to sea again, noticing how the movement of the breath has a rhythm very like this. Or you might have another image that you find evocative and calming. Use your imagination in your own way to help the mind and the body settle around the breath.
Notice how each breath is unique, how no two breaths are the same. Notice the texture, the quality, and the duration of each breath. If you notice the body or the mind tensing up around your experience, in the noticing you can gently let go again without judgment. Do this over and over again if necessary with a kindly, gentle awareness.
Include any pain or discomfort in the body within your broad field of awareness. Very often we resist feelings of pain or discomfort, and this just leads to more tension, more pain and more discomfort. Use the breath to help soften the hard edges around the pain and allow a tender, gentle awareness to permeate the in- and the out-breaths. As you use the breath to soften resistance to the pain or discomfort, you may notice how the experience of pain is in fact a constantly changing mass of different sensations. Experience how it comes into being and passes away moment by moment.
Now you can broaden out your experience even more to invite in the pleasurable dimensions of your field of awareness. They might be very subtle, such as tingling in the fingers, some sort of pleasure around the breath, or maybe the sun is shining through the window onto the skin. In your own way scanning through your whole experience and noticing little moments of pleasure, no matter how fleeting – arising and falling with each moment.
You may notice that each moment of life contains elements that are painful and elements that are pleasurable. This is the way things are in this world for everyone. Notice the tendency to harden against pain and to grasp after pleasure, and in the noticing relax back into the broad field of awareness.
Now broaden out your awareness still more to include an awareness of others. Become aware that all humanity experiences a mixture of pain and pleasure moment by moment in much the way that you do. The stories of our lives are unique, but the range of basic human experience and emotions will be very similar. We all have hopes and dreams, fears and regrets, no matter where we live, our age, color or wealth. In this way we can allow our own experience of pain and illness to become a moment of empathy for others who are in pain, or who are ill, rather than a moment of isolation. All life suffers in one way or another. All life experiences pleasure in one way or another.
In the same way that you imbued the breath with a kindly awareness towards your own experience, you can now allow a kindly awareness to permeate the in- and the out-breaths as you think of others. Maybe you can get a sense of the whole world breathing – all life breathing like waves on the ocean. Rising and falling. Allow a sense of the hard edges of separation to soften, letting go into a sense of all that we share and a feeling of connection with all life as you sit or lie here resting quietly with the breath moment by moment.
Rest with this quality of awareness for as long as feels appropriate for you at this time.
Now in your own time bring the meditation to a close. Come back to a full awareness of the body lying on the bed or sitting on the chair. Feel in firm contact with the earth. Tune into the movements of the breath in the body and gradually externalize your awareness. When you’re ready gently open the eyes, take in your surroundings, and re-engage with the day. See if you can take this quality of awareness with you on into your life as it unfolds moment by moment.
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