3 Ways to Overcome Anxiety During Your Yoga Practice
It may seem ironic that doing yoga can trigger anxiety. Around the world, millions of people are practicing yoga to find peace in their body and mind. However, the true nature of the yoga practice is like a sacred mirror to our internal landscape. Suppressed emotions begin to unravel as we twist and fold our body, and anxiety can occur if we’re unable to cope with these surging emotions.
It’s true, anxiety plagues me during yoga. The feeling of breathlessness overwhelms my entire being. I have to stop. I look out for the teacher hoping that she would notice. Or not. I’m not sure. I feel helpless and at the same time ashamed. Why should I feel anxious at all? It’s just a yoga class after all. As I bend into paschimottasana (a very intense seated forward fold), as my chest compresses into my thighs, it’s only a matter of seconds that I’d burst into tears or anger. Whichever it is, these uninviting emotions have been lurking in the darkness of my subconscious mind for months or perhaps years now. Anxiety, if only I knew is just a play of the cosmic mind, I’d be free from years of heartache and heaviness. How is it that I’ve tried to escape the entrapment of my own emotions, seeking solace in this spiritual practice that promises mankind liberation, yet to find myself consumed with anxiety on my yoga mat?
That was my internal monologue in 2012. That year marked the beginning of my spiritual journey. I had just completed my first 200hr yoga teacher training. The training was arduous to say the least. It taught me to stretch my body in different ways and more importantly to extend my mind beyond my limited beliefs. But what seems to stay unchanged was my battle with anxiety. I suffered from anxiety since I was 19. It started off as short bouts of difficult breathing especially after drinking or if I was very tired. I shook it off hoping it was just a transition, I was 19 after all, and coming into adulthood was not an easy task I told myself. However, my episodes ensued and at 20 I was hospitalized. Being hospitalized had shown me how debilitating anxiety was. I was afraid to drink, to watch suspenseful movies, to be in a hot room...the list went on. My mind had reduced me to live life in what felt like a square inch of space, a space which I struggled to thrive in.
Fast-forwarding to now, almost 7 years later. I now teach yin yoga teacher trainings and workshops around the world. I have given talks about the functions and the mischievousness of the mind. Despite my practice in meditation and yoga, anxiety still gets a hold of me every now and then. Unlike in the past, the anxiety that I experience now is more like an ex-boyfriend whom you’ve tried to block out of your life for many years, but once in awhile he pops up out of nowhere, and the faint memories of that relationship linger albeit annoyingly. Luckily, I no longer identify with my anxious thoughts, but rather, I observe them like a spectator at the zoo- that wild one called the Mind is one wondrous animal.
Over the years, I have come up with ways to overcome anxiety especially during a yoga class. These methods are derived from my personal trials and studies. With no empirical evidences, I share them with you hoping that they would serve you somehow somewhere.
1. Ease into the pose
I used to see yoga poses as a means to an end. I rush into the postures like jumping into a bath not knowing the water’s temperature. Sometimes a posture gives me immense joy and a sense of release, and other times (especially in hip openers) I land myself in deep waters unable to bear the feelings of suffocation. How we do the poses are way more important than achieving the poses. Check in with your feelings as you mindfully ease into the posture. If the sensation of anxiousness arises, instead of deepening or coming out of the pose, take a pause but try to stay in it. The moment of stillness gives you a chance to take control of the mind and restore calmness. Afterwards, with honesty and compassion, you can choose to stay or release the posture.
“How we do the poses are way more important than achieving the poses.”
2. Take deep breaths
Anxiety triggers the body to activate the sympathetic nervous system (also known as the fight-or- flight response). It doesn’t matter if you’re in real physical danger or just trying to put your legs behind your head in yoga nidrasana, when the body is in a fight or flight mode, it triggers a cascade of responses to help you cope. These responses include an increase in heart rate and secretion of the stress hormone called cortisol. Breathing can help you manipulate your nervous system. By deepening your breath, you can trick the body to convert to the parasympathetic state also known as the rest-and-digest system.
3. Develop a positive association with triggering yoga poses
Associating a positive image or mantra can help ease your anxiety when practicing triggering yoga poses. For me, forward folds are my nemesis. However, instead of avoiding them, I consciously picture a positive image like the symbol of Om or reciting the Gayatri mantra silently while I practice forward folds. Over time, you’ll feel neutral or even become fond of these particular yoga postures.
These 3 strategies have helped me to remain calm when feeling anxious during my yoga practice. I hope these methods will also help you in finding tranquility on your yoga mat.