Coping with anxiety is not about downplaying the causes of anxiety, or invalidating our worries. Instead, by observing the observer, or practicing non-attachment we can learn to recognize our triggers and nurture the parts of us that feel threatened and beckon us towards anxiety. As we practice and better understand non-attachment, we are likely to increase our ability to self-soothe.
Ensure that Basic Needs are Met
When you recognize that something has triggered you, especially when you are not certain what it might have been, it can be helpful to pause and ask yourself a few questions: Do I need food? Water? Rest? Because though these things are not always readily accessible for us, recognizing what might be lacking could alone be enough to settle some of our anxiety. Now, I am not saying that it can all be alleviated with food, water, and sleep, but without these fundamental needs being met it is certainly more difficult to return to a state of equilibrium.
Aparigraha on the Mat
In moments of dis-ease, coming to the mat for even a short period of time can give us a sense of peace, familiarity, and comfort. To practice non-attachment or aparigraha on the mat is to show up to practice without any expectations, or need to accomplish anything in particular.
It is common knowledge that the practice of yoga can strengthen and lengthen the muscles, but even the physical practice of yoga is not merely a workout. By connecting breath to movement, we create a moving meditation that can draw us into the present moment and ease the mind. However, it is not necessary to practice for a full hour or half-hour. There are several yoga asanas for mental health that you can spend a few minutes in to de-stress.
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
How to: Begin in table-top, draw the big toes to touch, either bring the knees wide to create space for the torso to soften between the thighs or draw the knees together to allow the torso the spill over the top of the thighs to lengthen through the spine. The arms can either reach out in front of you, or you can reach out first, bend at the elbows to draw hands to prayer, and lower the thumbs to the nape of your neck for reverse namaskar, or you can reach the arms long by your sides so that the fingers point the same direction as your toes. You might try on different variations to find which one best suits you. Though this posture is notoriously noted as a resting posture, it can be intense for some, so do not shy away from using your props. It can be helpful to place a block under the seat, or a rolled-up blanket between the calves and thighs. If you have a bolster, you might also try tucking it longways beneath the torso. Rest the third-eye to the earth or to a prop.
Benefits of the posture: This posture brings you close to the earth to offer a sense of grounding. The natural compression of the body created by this shape can offer a sense of being held and feelings of security. The pressure on the third-eye can release stress held by the muscles in the face.
Sukhasana (Easy Seat Pose)
How to: Come to sit on the floor or on props (folded blanket or blocks). Root down through the sitz bones, and bend at the knees so that they splay out east to west. If possible, draw the ankles in towards the groin and cross the right ankle over the left. You may land the hands to the tops of the knees with the palms either facing up or down. With an inhale, grow tall through the spine; as you exhale, release the shoulders away from the ears. If it is comfortable to do so, you may close your eyes and draw your attention to the breath.
Benefits of the posture: Sukhasana is a posture meant to require little physical effort while offering calming benefits to the mind. With the eyes closed and the attention on the breath, you can take the opportunity to turn inwards and reflect without judgment on what is happening in the mind, or to become so present that what is happening in the mind no longer feels like a distraction, even if only for a few moments.
Vrikshasana (Tree Pose)
How to: Begin standing with the weight evenly distributed between both feet. The palms can press together at heart’s center. Slowly begin to shift the weight into one leg as you lift and bend the opposite knee to point out towards the side, draw the bottom of the lifted foot either to kickstand on the earth or a block at the instep of the standing foot, or slide the bottom of the lifted foot to the upper calf or to the inseam of the mid-thigh. It is very important that you avoid placing the bottom of the foot at the knee, as you want to protect the joints. You can try a few variations until you find the one that works best for you. When you find your balance, take a few steady rounds of breath before switching to the second side.
Benefits of the posture: This posture requires that you be mentally present and focused. As you continually redirect your focus on your balance and your breath, you might find that there is less room for anxiety to creep its way in. Physically grounding your feet into the earth as you imagine yourself strong and firmly rooted like a tree can also give a sense of grounding.
Yoga Beyond Asana
The mat is not only for creating shapes, and asana is not the only way to practice yoga. Whether or not you feel up to a physical practice, you can come to the mat and practice mindfulness in whichever form is accessible to you. Some days, this might look like lying into savasana as soon as you arrive to the mat. Maybe your whole practice is just one long savasana. So long as you are showing up without any expectations, or need to accomplish anything in particular, you are strengthening your practice of aparigraha and chipping away at the human desire to be always in control, which can, over time result in a calmer mind.
The Power of Pranayama
"Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor." -Thich Nhat Hanh, Stepping into Freedom: An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training
The breath is a powerful tool; it is our life source; it is the very thing that keeps us alive from moment to moment. We are all breathing all the time with or without conscious effort. The difference between pranayama and breathing is that in the practice of pranayama, we are intentionally manipulating the breath to achieve a specific result; in this case, the result we are looking for is to regulate the nervous system.
The effects of pranayama on the nervous system can be observed almost instantaneously, as you oxygenate the body. Pranayama, though typically practiced after asana is available all times of the day. The pranayama practice that follows is meant to be performed with generous, even breath, though at no point should the breath be forceful.
Nadhi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
How to: Begin in an easy seated position. Take a few rounds of cleansing breath. Hold the right hand out, palm facing up. Close the pointer and the middle finger to the middle of the palm. Maintain this hand position and then draw the thumb to plug the right nostril. Exhale through the left nostril. Pause. Plug the left nostril with the ring and pinky fingers. Inhale. Pause. Plug the right nostril with the thumb. Inhale through the left nostril. Continue in this manner for 10 or so rounds of breath, finishing with an exhale on the left nostril, and then return to your normal breath.
*There are contraindications for those who are pregnant or have high blood pressure. If you experience dizziness or shortness of breath, return to the natural rhythm of your breath. If you are unsure if this practice is for you, you can speak to your doctor about whether or not these practices will benefit you.
Meditation for Anxiety
There are really helpful apps (such as HeadSpace) that break down the how-tos of meditation. If you are interested in committing to your meditation practice, it is a great tool to keep you motivated and consistent, but the truth is that meditation does not require organized practice. As Thich Nhat Hanh continually preaches, mediation can be done in conjunction with every other daily activity, including mediation while washing the dishes, walking meditation, or mediation for organization. The practice of meditation is not a practice of clearing the mind of all of its content, but rather learning to sit with and observe what’s there while using the breath as an anchor.
If you are interested in guided meditations, there are many youtube videos, free meditation classes, and virtual meditation classes online. You can also check out these Yoga For Anxiety Workshops/Courses:
This course focuses on ways to process anxiety through mindfulness and yoga. It is designed to help those looking to foster their relationship with their practice to reduce stress and anxiety. It is easy to follow and you are supported by the guidance of their Yoga Therapy Clinic.
This program helps student better understand that chronic pain is a complex, whole-brain experience that profoundly affects people’s lives, and that by reducing stress, we can shift autonomic nervous system activity and lessen pain.
This 8-week course is a comprehensive and evidence-based program for anyone looking to reduce stress, anxiety, and/or depression.
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