Yoga and Anxiety
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
As practices that addresses both the physical and mental health of our being, yoga and meditation are often ascribed as a means of helping to address and eventually overcome anxiety. However for many people, being left in the quiet alone with your thoughts can be nothing short of horrifying. So how do you bring the two together?
As the interest in yogic practices continues to grow in the West so do the number of scientific studies exploring this relationship. It has long been believed that yoga as a holistic practice is beneficial to the health of both the mind and body and many scientific studies have now confirmed this. The results of these studies are finding that yoga can have positive effects on people suffering with mental illness' such as depression and PTSD, helping people to regain physical confidence, increase the rate of recovery (when conducted in conjunction with professional help), and work through the emotions and trauma that can bring about these illnesses. Scientists believe that this may be due to the slow and gentle nature of yoga (like Yin and Hatha) which allows introspection and exploration of the self. However, a number of studies have also found that while yoga can bring about positive effects on some mental health issues, in some cases it can have no effect or even increase anxiety in a practitioner. This counter-productivity is likely because these same slow more meditative styles can bring about too much awareness to sensations and emotions in our bodies that are often best left alone.
So how do you find the middle ground? The first thing to do if you are concerned about your health or the adverse effects of a practice is to seek professional help, no exception. Your yoga teacher is not a medical professional or a therapist, they are your guide. They may offer you advice with the greatest of intentions but they do not know you or your medical history, only you and your doctor know that, so consult them first.
The second thing to remember is that your yoga practice is about you, your journey to getting to know yourself better and live a more compassionate life. Yoga is not a competitive sport so there is no ‘bar’ to reach, no first or second place. When you come to your mat you simply need to be. That in itself is a hard enough challenge. Even in more active forms of yoga like Ashtanga and Power - which can bring about all the benefits associated with endorphin release through muscle work - the onus is on your experience in a safe space free of judgement. There is no ‘normal’ or ‘average’ person. Just as each and every one of us has a unique bone structure that will dictate our ability to move in and out of asanas, we all have very different minds. So in order to get the best out of your practice you have to do what is best for you. Getting to know and accept yourself does not happen overnight or in a few weeks. The self is constantly evolving and changing with our experiences. What we hope to achieve is to simply move and grow with it rather than remaining behind or scrambling in the dark to catch up. If you find that an asana is giving rise to unpleasant emotions and thoughts then move out of it and do so something else that feels better or, if you are enjoying the physical benefits of a stretch but your mind is unquiet, focus on something like the physical sensations, music or the sounds of nature and distract yourself.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that meditation and yoga are silent or quiet practices. It is true that through them we hope to attain calm and tranquility of the mind and body, but it doesn’t mean that we have to be so along the way. It is ok to groan and moan as you come out of a long held Yin asana or to laugh as you wobble in Warrior 3, sound can be a natural release of tension for the body. When meditating or lying in shavasana you don’t have to chase every thought out of your head and float in emptiness, not only is this a very difficult and rare ability but for many of us it feels unnatural. Meditation and therefore long held asanas, are exercises in concentration, it is perfectly natural that your mind will wander, the trick is to just bring it back when you notice and not to chastise yourself. You don’t have to practice sitting on a hard rock at the top of a mountain or a dark room in total silence, but if that works for you then go for it. When we begin practicing concentration it is natural to have to have something to concentrate on. That could be anything from the sound of your breath, to the music you are playing (although it is recommend that you use instrumental music or at least lyrics in a language you don’t understand), even a flame is an excellent and time-honoured way to meditate.
The point is that we are all different and if something doesn’t work for you don’t do it. If you feel that your practice is increasing your anxiety try something new, a new style, add music, speed your practice up, slow it down, change teachers or studios, and if you still feel that it’s not working then maybe yoga is not right for you at this moment in your life. You are under no obligation to be like anyone else. Be kind to yourself and give yourself the love and care that you need to heal, and one day that compassion will spread to touch everything in your life.
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