I still remember the day I made the connection.
Driving down the mountain to my early morning yoga class in Boulder, I realized I hadn’t missed a yoga class all month. I had committed to a certain number of classes per week and had followed through.
My normal morning anxiety and grumpiness suddenly shifted to elation as I realized I could actually take charge of my life and my state of mind.
I spent many years suffering from anxiety, though at the time nobody ever labeled it with a diagnosis. This was long before I discovered yoga and meditation, and I had no tools to help me work with the overwhelming emotions that plagued me from my parents’ divorce when I was a child. I struggled with those emotions for decades—self-medicating with street drugs and fine wine—before I finally found something that worked.
It can be the hardest thing in the world to stay present through difficult emotions, and most of us check out at some point, choosing mindless distraction over empowered acceptance. The most important thing to recognize about these experiences is that they are just a set of sensations. When you can experience intense emotion as simply bodily sensation, you can move it through the body to release it.
The most important practice to work with difficult emotions is to learn to identify and tolerate them in the body. Staying with the sensations is challenging but imperative as the first step to being able to work with and eventually discharge them.
Because whatever is unfinished will keep repeating itself until we finally work through it; we invite our worst-case scenarios into our life again and again and again.
It has been my life’s work to discover how awareness practices can help us work with difficult emotions.
Can yoga practice help beat anxiety?
As someone who has struggled with anxiety at various periods in my life, I can say without a doubt: yes. Before I started practicing yoga and meditation daily, finding relief for my anxiety seemed impossible. Now, I have the tools to deal so that things never get too far out of hand.
That said, it depends on the yoga practice. The breath is a key in working with anxiety. So a yoga practice that does not include breath work will not be as effective in helping to alleviate anxiety. Also, it helps to keep the intention clear—we practice yoga to help work with our state of mind, and not just perfect physically impressive postures.
When I started to practice Ashtanga yoga in my early 20s, it was a game changer, because it forced me to commit to myself. I got up every day to do yoga, and it was the first time I had committed to anything that was good for me. It taught me that I could trust myself—no small accomplishment. Once that ball was in motion, I discovered all sorts of ways I could free myself from heavy-duty self-doubt, fear, and anxiety.
How does yoga help?
At the most basic level, yoga helps connect the breath and body, which creates new stress-relieving chemicals in the body. If anxiety is a chemical reaction to stress—a sort of freezing of those symptoms—then the way to work with it is to find an antidote to the ways of the chemicals.
If we practice in a studio environment, there is the community component to yoga practice, and that element of feeling like part of a community can in itself be enough to take the edge off of anxiety for some.
When I get on my yoga mat each day, it is a time to completely focus on breath, body, and movement. It’s a set period of time when I have total permission to get out of my head. There are other tools that serve the same purpose: art does the same thing for me, and seated meditation (if I am paying attention, which is not always the case) is ideal for this.
Breathing deeply allows the nervous system to relax. The physical component of working with the body while breathing deeply assists this process. So the way to relax is to breathe deeply while allowing the breath to penetrate the body.
This has the effect of clearing out blockages of stagnant energy in the body. Stale energy gets stuck in the subtle channels of the body—the nadis—over time. Nadis are the inner channels, similar to meridians, that acupuncturists work with. Sometimes blockages build up so much over time that it takes concentrated effort to unravel the knots.
If we allow awareness to lapse over time, it might result in a complex set of intense symptoms, such as shortness of breath, sleeplessness, tightness in the stomach, restlessness, sweating, clenched jaw, teeth grinding, short temper, high blood pressure, and heart palpitations. When we clear out the nadis with a yoga practice that includes breath work, there is an immediate effect in the system that is apparent. Addressing the root of the problem by calming the nervous system can offer huge relief.
Is anxiety a body thing or a mind thing?
Is there a difference?
I don’t know. What I do know is that yoga addresses both sides of the equation by guiding the practitioner to move the body, focus the mind, and breathe. And somehow, this combination has the effect of calming the nervous system, which eases anxiety.
Anxiety is a set of symptoms; the label “anxiety” is generated by the mind. Am I saying anxiety is all in your head? No. Anxiety is a very real phenomenon for some, especially those who suffer from panic attacks. What I’m saying is that while the symptoms might be very intense, they are just a set of physical symptoms that we then label and call anxiety.
Anxiety is a messenger alerting us to an imbalance in our lives. By spending a few minutes on the yoga mat each morning, we allow space to listen to what is out of balance. It helps to put things into perspective.
So how yoga can help with anxiety is this: it provides a focus and a context. For a set period of time on our yoga mats, we get to simply be with ourselves in our natural state, being human. It’s ironic that this is such a novelty for so many of us!
Right now, sit up straight and drop your shoulders. Place your feet flat on the floor. Take a slow, deep breath and close your eyes. Listen to the sound of the breath as it releases. Rest in whatever you feel as a result.
Click here to listen to a short guided meditation to help beat anxiety.