Empowering Practices For Anxiety

by Tama Soble

We live in stressful times, and we literally embody the experience of our lives. This embodiment often manifests itself through habituated patterns of tension. These patterns become hardwired into our nervous systems after years of repetitive triggering of the startle reflex, also called the fight or flight response.  When the startle reflex is triggered our systems are flooded with adrenalin.  If this occurs too frequently, we can get into a cycle of over reacting physically, emotionally and psychologically to stressful situations.

There are many therapies available to manage chronic stress and anxiety.  Yoga and meditation can act as supportive partners to these therapies.  Yoga and meditation can assist us in becoming more aware of our patterns of reactivity and give us a practical, positive and concrete means of responding mentally to stress and anxiety.  Yoga and meditation can reenergize the body’s natural relaxation response, moving us toward homeostasis. Once learned, these practices are tools that we carry with us wherever we go.

The word anxiety comes from the Latin “anxius”, which means a condition of agitation and distress. Anxiety is a feeling that many of us have experienced.  In its most moderate forms, anxiety can actually be useful.  For example, the heightened awareness that comes with anxiety can help us instantly refocus our attention on driving following an avoided collision.  Anxiety can enhance productivity and performance, as it can sharpen our awareness and keep our attention exclusively on the task at hand. In other words, there are situations in which the startle reflex is positive, useful and even welcome.  Problems arise when anxiety becomes elevated, chronic and habituated and begins to impact on the quality of our daily lives.

Anxiety and fear evoke similar experiences in the body.  Both trigger similar feelings of dread and/or foreboding.  The physical responses in the body are also similar.  Both fear and anxiety cause elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate and sweating, among other symptoms. The essential difference between anxiety and fear is that when we are frightened, we understand what we are responding to.  We can identify the danger or threat.  When the danger or threat is not clearly identifiable, this is anxiety.  The inability to identify clearly what we are anxious about is a hallmark of anxiety.  A disproportionate stress response to a given situation is another indicator of anxiety.

At present, research on both anxiety and fear note a potential interplay between biology, cognitive-emotional influences and stress.  There is a growing body of research that yoga and meditation can have a positive impact on all of these systems, and therefore an effect on the way in which we deal with stress.  In order to experience the potential positive effects of yoga on our bodies and minds, and to re-pattern the postural anxiety that we have embedded in our bodies, we must practise regularly.  With regular, intentional practice, we can begin to teach the body/mind new, more positive patterns and remind ourselves of a time when stress and anxiety were not so deeply embedded. The unifying theme in all of these practices is that we remain focused on what we are experiencing moment by moment.  That experience will at various times be physical, emotional, intellectual and/or some combination of the three.  The primary questions are: What is happening at this moment?  What am I responding to and how? What is my experience at this moment?  Trust your answers.  They are accurate.  You are engaging in an inquiry in which you are the expert.  The attitude of inquiry itself can act to ground and steady the mind and the body.

By practising remaining with each moment as it reveals itself, we recapture a relationship with and an understanding of our own bodies and minds.  We begin to trust our own experiences, and may begin, over time, to note our habituated physical, emotional and psychological patterns in response to stress and anxiety. We sit with what arises.  We watch the experience unfold, and we can also observe it changing.  When anxiety arises, it is not us, it is merely anxiety.  Again, over time, we may be able to observe our responses to anxiety and simply be with them, trusting ourselves to meet and observe the experience; knowing that the stressful time will pass.  The experience of anxiety arrives and it also leaves. Not being in the past with previous experiences of the sensations that arise with anxiety and equally, not being in the future (anticipating what may occur), leaves us with sitting in the present moment.  But first, we begin with simple practices or inquiries that allow us to connect to ourselves and to the changing landscape of our bodies and minds moment by moment.

  • We begin with three basic constructs for practice:
  • Asana (postural practice)
  • Pranayama (breath practice)
  • Meditation (focusing the mind)

The approach to asana that we teach at Esther Myers Yoga Studio is deeply integrated with pranayama practice, and has been called moving meditation. Ultimately, we can practise these three branches of yoga (asana, pranayama and meditation) separately, or we can integrate them.  Practising yoga in this integrated manner can:

  • assist with neural/muscular re-patterning
  • heighten our ability to be aware of the experience of being in our own bodies
  • assist with developing the skill of staying with each moment as it occurs
  • free up the breath so that it can support the body efficiently
  • guide us to an experience of the relaxation response, therefore encouragingthe body to access this response more readily
  • empower the practitioner to sit with negative sensations and notice them change

When practising asana (postures) with the intention to release a stressed body and mind, there are two basic groups of postures that we can begin with: those that help relieve postural anxiety and those that free up the respiratory system.  Postures such as Bridge, Half Bow, Square Lunge and Dancer release and lengthen the hip flexors.  This is an area that holds a great amount of postural anxiety.  Little Boat, Child’s Pose and Squatting are examples of postures that release and lengthen the lower back.  Twisting while supported on the ground as well as basic arm and shoulder girdle postures such as Eagle and Cow’s Head free tension from the shoulder girdle, neck and head.  As postural anxiety seats itself in the hip flexors, the low back and the shoulders and neck, choose postures that bring ease and mobility to these areas.

Side bending postures such as Standing Side Bend and Gate Pose stretch the musculature between the ribs allowing for the possibility of freer and fuller respiration.  Simply paying attention to the breath and allowing oneself to breathe without interference can also help to ease respiration.  Supine twists are also effective.

Pranayama practices that encourage the relaxation response work well for those living with excessive stress and anxiety.  Timed Belly Breathing, Ujjayi Breathing  and Alternate Side Breathing  (without using the hands) are examples of pranayama or breathing practices that help many individuals and can be practiced anytime, anywhere.

Meditation practices that help to calm mental chatter and distraction, such as counting backwards and various mudra (hand position) sets assist in settling the mind and stimulating the relaxation response.

Give yourself time to feel and experience each of the practices.  The simple knowledge that you have access to asana, pranayama and meditation practices can be empowering. Remember that the most important question is: what is happening at this moment as I practice?  Stay with the feeling of your breath moving your body and the relationship of your body to the earth. Note physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise.  Note them, but do not hold onto them or push them away.  Notice how you feel in the moment(s) when you have completed your practice.  Stay with the experience; stay with yourself.

Consider that staying with your body and mind in each moment can be practiced throughout your day, not just during yoga practice.  Over time, these practices may become an anchor for you when you are experiencing anxiety.  Potentially, other aspects of your life may be affected.  Enjoy the experience of observing with curiosity and persistent, gentle focus.

Bibliography: Calming Your Anxious Mind, second edition, Jeffrey Brantley, MDWherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Living, Well With Anxiety, Carolyn Chambers Clark, ARNP, EDD, The Instinct To Heal, David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PHD
Why Yoga Works, Peter Blackaby

by Tama Soble
January 2011

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