When my day is chaotic, I typically wonder "how can I get to a yoga class?" Well, truth be told my first thought might actually be "where can I get a glass of wine?" But I know I'll be happier if I get myself to the mat. As a psychotherapist, both in private practice and for a mental health hospital, I work with a lot of people who suffer from high levels of anxiety, including military servicemembers and first responders. My job can be a stressful one, and that coupled with my own life stressors has made yoga my number one go-to intervention to turn my day around.
I try to make it a rule to only suggest to my clients things I find helpful for myself. For this reason, I often "prescribe" yoga to my clients in addition to the other work we do together. Most of them report some interest but don't always follow through. I started to notice that people seem to be intimidated by yoga if they have never been to a class before. Even some of my highly active fitness friends are turned off by the idea. But my experience with yoga is that it's always helpful and relaxing. I have started to realize that yoga has become so mainstream that the actual essence of yoga has been compromised a bit. For people with anxiety, though, yoga can be an essential tool in a treatment "toolbox."
Yoga as I Know It
So, what is yoga exactly? If you look within western society you might answer that yoga is:
- A good workout
- A way to get that great yoga butt
- An excuse to buy cute LuLulemon yoga pants
- Mastering that challenging pose so you can post a picture of it on Instagram
I'm partially joking here, but you have likely seen these versions of yoga out there. Yoga is a multi-million dollar industry and it's growing in popularity every day. It can be all of these things, but it's also so much more.
There is more to yoga than the physical poses (also called asanas). Yoga is mastery of controlling the breath, a way of living, an opportunity to increase your connection with the divine and oftentimes a "cure" for what ails you in mind, body, and spirit. So, if anxiety is what ails you, can yoga be helpful? I say yes, yes, and YES!
Yoga Calms the Mind
Why yoga for anxiety? Well, the reason most folks feel anxious has to do with the bodies fight or flight response. You have most likely heard of this and, while this instinct can be helpful in life or death situations (think ancestors running from wild animals), excessive anxiety is not helpful when moving through your day-to-day life.
What we see in our current society are people who are constantly in this fight or flight mode. Our body is recognizing everything as a potential threat, which makes it so that we are always on high alert. This leads to stress responses such as body tension, anxiety, and physical illness.
What's amazing is that our body can heal itself if we give it the opportunity. The only way we can kick these self-healing mechanisms into action though, is if we can calm the stress response. Yoga is a useful tool to do this. Practicing yoga helps us relax on the mat. And as yoga becomes more routine, it starts to expand beyond the borders of your yoga mat and into every facet of your daily life. Incorporating yoga into your life will help you easily reach a state of calm off the mat.
Where to Start?
If you already have a yoga practice, you may have experienced the benefits. Perhaps that's why you keep returning to your mat. But what if you are a yoga novice? Where should you start?
Given that many of the original yogis from India may never have done a pose other than a seated meditation pose, I'd say that's the perfect place to begin. Try a cross-legged seated position with your hands on your knees and palms facing up. Imagine the sensation of being rooted into the ground like the roots of a tree. Keep your spine straight with the crown of the head lifted and the chin parallel to the floor. Take a nice, deep inhale through the nose, filling up your belly and slowly exhale out the nose, making the exhale slightly longer than your inhale. Do this for three to four rounds and then pause to feel the effects. Congratulations you have just done yoga!
Try taking 5 to 10 minutes of your day to pause and enjoy some deep breaths for one week and see how you feel. The asana practice of yoga has great benefits as well, but don't think you're not doing yoga just because you can't touch your toes.
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Date of original publication: August 13, 2014
Updated: September 20, 2016