Yoga for Anxiety

Five Practices to Calm Body and Mind
By Mary NurrieStearns

Anxiety affects many people and causes a lot of suffering. According to R Kessler, 18.4 percent of the US population, in any given year, has diagnosable anxiety. If you suffer from anxiety, you are not alone. No one plans on having anxiety. Many impinging forces, such as trauma, stress, family history, personal biology and environmental forces contribute to anxiety. So while you may not be responsible for being anxious it is up to you to find healing and relief. Fortunately there is much you can do to help free yourself from the grip of anxiety. In addition to counseling and anti-anxiety medications, yoga practices are effective in reducing anxiety.

Anxiety is a body/mind experience. Our bodies and minds are inextricably connected and always communicating. Worry and reminders of past trauma activate our physiological stress response which in turn reinforces and escalates anxiety. In the same way, when our bodies relax our thinking minds become quiet.

Utilizing yoga practices to treat anxiety simply makes good sense. It works and it is a way you can help yourself. The practices that follow are designed for you to do on your own once you have learned how to do them.

Let's look at five yoga practices and how to put them to work for yourself.

Mantra, sacred words or sounds that we say to ourselves, not only develop our capacity to concentrate, but they fill our minds with life enhancing messages. Mantras have expanded to include secular words such as "thank you" "relax" "trust" and "breathe". However, an interesting study by Ken Pargament found that people reciting sacred words such as "Abba" "beloved" and "shalom" were able to tolerate the discomfort of having their hands in cold water twice as long as those reciting secular words, suggesting sacred mantras are more powerful.

Select a mantra to practice with. Write your mantra on five sticky notes. Place one on your bathroom mirror, one beside your bed, one in your kitchen, one in your car and one close to your computer so you will see your mantra several times daily. When you see your sticky note reminder, pause, breathe and recite your mantra silently to yourself. Doing so implants the word in your mind. Gradually the words will take root and become a positive life force in your mind.

Since worrisome and negative thoughts closely correlate to anxiety, mantra recitation is a great way to substitute affirming thoughts for wounding words. When you hear a doubting thought such as "I could never do that", begin to recite your mantra. Repeat it a hundred times if needed. Better to fill your mind with your mantra than continue to repeat the same old anxiety producing thoughts you have said a thousand times.

Calming breath, an intentional breathing exercise, focuses our attention away from stress and on a particular form of breathing that engages the relaxation response. This technique, a way to slow down breathing, helps to alleviate panic. This is very helpful when you are highly anxious because it is so soothing.

Take a nice breath in. Purse your lips and breathe out through your mouth like you are blowing out a candle. Close your mouth, breathe in through your nose and out through your nose.

Repeat this one more time only. Then resume normal breathing. Sit quietly for a few minutes and focus on breathing. Be aware of breath coming in and breath going out. When your attention wanders, gently bring it back to your breath.

This breathing exercise is wonderful medicine. Like a mantra, you are more apt to remember to do this when you are stressed if you practice daily. It takes only a minute and is a great way to start the day. Do it when you are having your morning beverage and it will become as natural as brushing your teeth.

Comfort pose, a way to sooth yourself, is a simple yoga pose that feels reassuring. When we are anxious and upset, we need support and while it is wonderful to receive it from someone else, it is transformational to receive it from ourselves. This easy pose communicates "I am here for me" and connects us to our own compassionate heart.

Lie or sit comfortably. Place one hand over your heart, with a touch that feels soothing. Place your other hand on your belly. Pat and rub gently to let your belly know you are there for it. Breathe into your belly or into your heart, which ever feels better to you. Some people prefer to just touch their heart and some prefer to just touch their belly. Adapt the pose to best suit you. Remain in this comforting pose and focus on your breathing for as long as you need to.

This tender pose is a way to be kind to yourself. Many people, when taught this pose, have said, "I never knew how to be loving to myself, this feels wonderful." Remember, you deserve support.

Transform your limiting beliefs, an inquiry into negative, disempowering ideas about who you are and also into who you truly are, is a way to release the grip of self limiting beliefs that hold you back. Any thought of being "not okay, not enough, somehow flawed" is a limiting belief about who you are. Not challenging the idea that you are insufficient perpetuates anxiety. When you hear yourself say, "I've always been this way" or "this is just the way I am", you may be under the influence of unexamined beliefs.

To identify your limiting beliefs, complete the following sentences in a journal or notebook.

I limit myself by believing that I_________

I don't believe that I can_________

It doesn't seem possible that I could actually_________

I always thought I was_________

To identify who you are deep inside, complete the following sentences.

What really matters to me is_________

My deepest heart's desire is to_________

Now you can take two transformational steps. First, when you hear the old beliefs, stop, breathe and whisper, "Limiting belief." Second, whisper "What really matters to me is_________." Breathe and repeat again what it is you truly want. What you hold to be dear and true reflects who you are deep inside. Rather than being stopped by self limiting beliefs, focus on what really matters to you and put your energy into fulfilling your deepest desires.

Meditation, taking time to sit and be with yourself, is a profound practice. Meditation concentrates your mind, teaches you to witness your thoughts and shows you the peace that is found in silence. These benefits are calming balm for anxiety.

Sit comfortably on a chair or cushion in a quiet room. Set a timer for five to thirty minutes. Select something to focus on, either the movement of breath flowing in and out or your mantra. Begin to concentrate on breathing or your mantra. When your attention drifts to your thoughts, simply notice, then gently refocus on your breath or mantra. Witnessing how your attention becomes distracted by your thoughts reveals how easy it is to get lost in thoughts.

Witnessing your thoughts means to observe them. Like sitting on the bank of a stream, watching leaves float by, sit with your breath or mantra while meditating and watch your thoughts pass by. You will discover that although you have thoughts, you are more than what you think. You cannot be reduced to what you can witness.

If you are new to meditation, sit for only a few minutes so that you can become comfortable with the practice. Even a few minutes are beneficial. Slowly lengthen the time if you like. You will probably experience moments of calm focus, times of witnessing thoughts and other moments of peaceful silence.

Meditate in a way that is pleasing to you so you find the practice inviting. Be gentle with yourself. Enjoy your meditation when it is peaceful and quiet and on days when your meditation consists of witnessing thoughts and refocusing on your breath or mantra, be grateful, for you are developing your concentration. End your meditation by thanking yourself for taking time for yourself.

These practices are as comforting as a dear friend. To be reassured by a friend you have to turn to her and to receive the benefits of yoga you have to embrace the practices. Make yoga a part of your daily life. You will be glad you did.

Kessler RC, WT Chiu, O Demlor, EE Walters. June 2005 Prevalence, Severity, and Comorbidity of 12 DSM-14 Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, Archives of General Psychiatry 62(6) 617-27

Pargament, Kenneth 2007. Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Integrating the Sacred. New York: The Guilford Press.