Feature Yoga

Do you have anxiety? Discover how to use yoga to nurture your nervous system

A racing heart, shallow breath and flutter in the tummy are just a few of the signs our body gives us when we feel nervous, stressed or on edge. And in today’s fast-paced, high-pressure digital world we are often facing a deadline or drama or both.

Thankfully those feelings usually subside once we have dealt with the issue at hand, but what if those sensations don’t go away? What are normal signs of stress and when does everyday stress become anxiety? And can yoga practices help to target anxiety?

“Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed; the key difference is that we all get stressed or anxious at times, but this dissipates when the issue that we are worrying about is resolved or we move past it,” explains psychologist Susan Nicholson.

Science and statistics back up the power of yoga to help calm an anxious mind. Researchers at Western Washington University discovered that just one week of mindfulness helped people monitor and modify coping strategies during times of stress.

“Anxiety is when we overthink and have an exaggerated response to ordinary life issues,” she continues. “For example, we all might feel a little concerned if we said the wrong thing to someone in a social setting and this might cause us some angst. However, the person who suffers anxiety will think and re-think it, perhaps thinking, ‘I’m a bad person, the other person won’t like me, my children will be affected …’ to an extent that it causes them ongoing distress.

“Anxiety can feel quite physical, such as sweating, a racing heart, nervous stomach, or it can be a mental type [of] torture with thoughts going round and round, unable to shake them, which lead to pervasive negative and fearful feelings.”

Anxiety is very common; around one in eight women and one in 10 men in Australia suffer from an anxiety-related condition*. Beyond Blue** reports that one-quarter of Australians will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives.

The good news is that more people are seeking support, with many of those living with an anxiety-related condition receiving treatment such as yoga, mindfulness and meditation.

From panic to calm

Nicholson explains that women are particularly vulnerable at times when there is a physiological change and hormonal shift in their body such as throughout pregnancy and childbirth, as well as during menopause.

Kate Dyer, aged 40, had her first panic attack following the death of her unborn baby at 20 weeks into her pregnancy. “I had just had a psychology appointment and I was standing in a newsagency. The world felt like it was spinning. I thought I was going to black out and I had this intense urge to run away. My entire body felt on edge. I didn’t realise what was happening, or that this was a panic attack brought on by anxiety,” Dyer reflects.

“For months following the initial panic attack, I experienced constant butterflies in my stomach and would be triggered by the smallest stressors. My stomach was in knots and I couldn’t eat, so I lost a lot of weight.”

It was after reading an article about how yoga can help with anxiety that Dyer went along to her first class. “I was so incredibly anxious. All I wanted to do was run out of the hall. It didn’t take long though before I started feeling the benefits from the practice. Learning relaxation breathing, mindfulness, getting a good stretch and workout in a room filled with supportive women — it was just what I needed. I would walk into class on edge, and leave relaxed and ready to face the world again,” Dyer shares.

A slower, restorative yoga practice using props to support the body can also help you unravel tension and soothe the mind.

Dyer no longer suffers from the anxiety disorder. “Yoga has become my safe place, away from the hustle and bustle of life and it gave me the calm I needed,” she reveals.

It can be tempting to try to distract yourself or avoid tackling anxiety, but as Nicholson explains, it is a circular disorder in the sense that it takes on a life of its own and grows bigger if you don’t learn ways to ‘tame’ it.

There are different types of anxiety such as generalised anxiety disorder (excessive worrying about ordinary events) or specific anxieties such as social phobia, fear of flying or panic attacks. Anxiety can also be a symptom of a deeper issue such as post-traumatic stress disorder, where something triggers an anxiety that links with past traumas. And it is often linked with depression.

Science and statistics back up the power of meditation, mindfulness and increasingly yoga to help calm an anxious mind. Researchers at Western Washington University*** recently discovered that just one week of mindfulness helped people monitor and modify coping strategies during times of stress.

Nicholson adds that practices such as breathing and yoga can help tackle the cascade of anxiety. “Particularly deep, rhythmic yoga breathing helps quell anxious feelings and distract the mind,” she explains.

Yogic practices to ease anxiety

Pranayama (breath control) is key in helping to quiet the mind and shift awareness into the body. By lengthening your exhalation you can feel an immediate release and shift in your energy, from being on high alert and reacting from your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight response) to a sense of letting go, which helps you to access your parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as your “rest and digest” system.

Breathing practices (pranayama)

Nadi shodhana — alternate nostril breathing

Sit comfortably with your spine upright, shoulders relaxed and place the right thumb over the right nostril, your index and middle fingers resting between your eyebrows and your ring finger beside the left nostril. You might like to support your right elbow in the palm of your left hand.

Close the right nostril and breathe in through the left nostril for a count of four, close the left nostril and release the breath via the right nostril for a count of four. Then breathe in through the right nostril for four, place the thumb over the nostril to close and then open the left nostril and breathe out for four. This is one round. Repeat as needed.

Bhramari — buzzing bee breath

Sit comfortably with the spine straight; place the index fingers over the ears to close, keeping lips lightly together, teeth apart and eyes closed. Take an inhalation through the nose and then, as you exhale, make a humming noise — like a buzzing bee. Repeat as needed.

Yoga poses (asanas)

We all tend to feel calmer and more relaxed after a yoga class, so it makes sense that yoga is good for helping to ease anxiety.

But there are certain poses and practices that are targeted to specifically calming the stress response, such as postures that soothe the central nervous system (CNS). This includes movements and asanas that release the spine, which is where the CNS is located. Gentle inversions are also calming as well as forward folds with the forehead supported.

A slower, restorative yoga practice using props to support the body can also help you unravel tension and soothe the mind.

Marjariasana — cat/cow

Begin on all fours, with the knees below the hips and hands under the shoulders. Begin by curling the tailbone up and moving one vertebra at a time until you are looking forward or up towards the sky. Stay for a few sips of air, feeling a gentle compression in the kidneys before slowly drawing the tailbone under and exhaling until the chin rests towards the chest and the back is arched. Stay here for a few sips of air, feeling the space created along the spine and in the lower back. Now continue at your own pace — inhaling as you come into cow and exhaling into cat.

Supported paschimottanasana — forward stretch

Sit on the edge of a blanket, bend the knees and place the belly over the thighs. Slowly push the heels away, but keep your belly on your thighs, resting your forehead just below your knees. You may wish to place a bolster or pillow under your knees for support. This is a restorative version of the posture, so is not meant to be a strong forward fold.

Kurmasana — turtle

Sit upright and take the feet out to mat-width with the knees bent. Then hinging forward from the hips, relax the arms on the ground or slide the hands under the knees and rest the hands on the outside of the ankles. Relax the head or if you have neck issues, rest your forehead on a bolster.

 Balasana — child’s pose

From kneeling, inhale and lengthen the spine and then fold forward, relaxing the belly to the thighs. If more comfortable, take the knees out to the side and rest the body onto the mat or on a bolster with the head turned to one side. If the head is turned then halfway through holding the pose, turn the head to the other side. As you relax into the pose, observe the natural rhythm of the breath and have a sense of the weight of your body being supported by the earth.

Supta baddha konasana — reclined bound angle

You will need a bolster, eye pillow, blanket and blocks. Rest a bolster or rolled-up blanket on your mat lengthways (you may wish to place a block under the bolster to create a gentle incline). Place the soles of the feet together and support around the feet and the outside edges of your thighs with a rolled-up blanket. Then, sit against the edge of the bolster, slowly easing yourself onto the support; rest an eye pillow over the eyes and allow the hands to rest on a block or two books. The aim of this posture is to feel completely supported by the earth and the props beneath and around you. The pose should feel effortless as you remain in it for at least five minutes. Focus on riding the waves of your breath — following the inhalation in your mind and then the exhalation. Notice the pauses between the breaths and any subtle differences between each breath.

Supported savasana — corpse pose

Savasana is one of the most challenging asanas because you need to remain motionless (and try not to fall asleep!). Ideally aim for a still yet alert mind and a completely relaxed body.

Lie on the back, with the legs about hip distance apart and feet turned out. Place your arms out to the side, palms facing up. Allow the head to rest on the ground (or a blanket), with the back of the neck long and relaxed. You may wish to place a bolster under the knees. Close the eyes. Try to remain in savasana for at least five minutes. You may wish to listen to a guided meditation or simply observe the breath.

Meditation, mindfulness, mantras and mudras

Try to create a regular practice, preferably in the morning, and use an app such as Headspace or Insight Timer if you have trouble concentrating. And remember, you can also do a walking meditation or just a five-minute meditation — and you don’t need to get up at dawn. Make your practice achievable.

Nicholson recommends meditation to retrain the brain to use different circuitry systems and break the circular self-feeding frenzy of anxiety. If you use practices such as meditation to shift thoughts and beliefs, then you can start to develop other more calm pathways.

Mindfulness is about being in the present and taking time to focus on the five senses: what you can see, what you can hear, what you can taste, smell and touch. These sensations help to keep you in the present moment rather than worrying about the past or future.

Mantras are the practice of saying words or phrases that help you to feel calm, such as breathing in the word “peace”, or inhaling “let” and exhaling the word “go”.

Mudras are gestures made with the hands and figures believed to direct the flow of energy or prana in the body. This mudra (pictured) is gyan or chin mudra, with the index finger curled towards the base or tip of the thumb. This mudra is believed to evoke a sense of confidence and empowerment.

If you are concerned about your level of anxiety or the anxiety experienced by a loved one, please contact a registered psychologist or see your GP.

  • Beyond Blue — 1300 224 636; beyondblue.org.au
  • Lifeline — 13 11 14; lifeline.org.au

Veronica Joseph

Veronica Joseph

Veronica Joseph is an accredited yoga teacher who loves to share her yogic journey from travels in India, cleansing techniques, her favourite poses and their benefits and tips to remember when practising.

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