YOGA An Antidote for Anxiety
Have you ever experienced palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, then learned there is no organic cause for your symptoms? Or perhaps your discomfort was subtler – a feeling of vague but persistent fear – a state termed ‘free-floating anxiety,’ which sounds more poetic than it feels.
During my twenty-third summer, I experienced all the symptoms described above. I had no appetite, could not relax, and would have sworn that I never slept. Analyzing my state made me feel worse, probably because my super-ego saw fit to act as analyst. I needed help, but did not want to turn myself over to a therapy or pill. Luckily, the Integral Yoga Institute had opened an organic grocery store down the street – a calm, aromatic oasis in our rough city neighborhood. The next morning, I attended my first yoga class. There was no need to speak to anyone. I simply went to class, chanted along with the other students, breathed and moved as instructed. What a relief to relinquish control for an hour, especially since the instructor’s only aim was to monitor the position of students’ limbs. Within two weeks of daily yoga classes, I felt agile, strong, and fully capable of facing life. I never became a yogi, but I have practiced yoga regularly. I cannot say I will never experience anxiety again: 8% of all Americans are genetically predisposed to anxiety, and I may be among that number. I have learned to manage anxiety, an ability central to limiting its power in my life.
How Yoga Reduces Stress and Anxiety
When under stress, we tend to hyperventilate (shallow, rapid breathing), reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood to levels associated with the feeling of anxiety. Hyperventilation is not conscious, but part of the fight-or-flight response to stress. Yogis have long recognized that shallow breathing accompanies emotional states not conducive to meditation, and yoga practice is composed of positions and movement that facilitate deep, regular breathing. For example, try sitting very erect with your palms together at breastbone level, elbows straight out, and shoulders back. You should feel your breath move your diaphragm and abdomen. Practicing yoga regularly (three or more times a week for at least one-half hour), you are likely to notice how you breathe at other times – even when life is chaotic and stressful.
Yoga practice yields other emotional benefits. We need time to sense and live in our bodies while remaining free of the mind’s tendency to dictate lists or indulge in grievances and chatter. This free time gives our feelings a break from the super-ego. While trying to practice, we may have to make a point of saying: “Look, you rule enough of my life. Just get lost for a while, okay?” We all know how standing up for ourselves, even to some part of ourselves, builds confidence. This kind of attention to self improves our lives and our relations with others, and is exactly what we need when stressed and anxious.
Where and How to Begin
If you have never practiced yoga, it is best to begin in a class, under a certified instructor’s supervision. Some postures look simple, but exactness maximizes their benefits and sensing the degree of exactness is difficult for beginners. To find a class near you, consult The Yoga Journal’s Information & Teachers Directory. (sidebar information at end of article) The Yoga Journal is an excellent source for information about yoga. You can also check in the yellow pages, or look for fliers posted in likely places such as caf_s, or organic food stores.
Once you have established a good mind-body connection in your practice, you can work at home or anywhere appropriate. The following books, all of which are available through the web, are particularly helpful:
For relaxation, or when you’re not feeling well
Relax and Renew. Restful Yoga for Stressful Times, by Judith Lasater, Ph.D., P.T. Ms. Lasater studied yoga in India and the United States with B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the masters of yoga. This book is devoted to ‘restorative yoga.’ Anyone can practice the exercises, and the text clearly and thoroughly addresses how yoga relieves stress.
Acu-Yoga. Self Help Techniques to Relieve Tension, by Michael Reed Gach with Carolyn Marco. Mr. Gach founded the Acupressure Workshop of Berkeley, California and originated Acu-Yoga. The book offers several simple series of exercises based on yoga and acupressure. There is also a section of acu-yoga postures for specific conditions or ailments.
For strength and muscle tone:
Yoga The Iyengar Way, by Silva, Mira, & Shyam Mehta. Based on the practice developed by B.K.S. Iyengar, this book offers large, clear photographs and very detailed instructions about achieving and working in each posture. There recommended courses for beginning through advanced practitioners.
Yoga Over Fifty, by Mary Stewart. Don’t let the title of this book fool you. You’ll find the practitioners’ strength and flexibility very impressive. This book also provides routines for “very stiff” to “advanced” practitioners.
There are many more good books. If you find an instructor you like, it would make sense to let them guide your choice.
Important Reminders Before Practicing Yoga at Home:
1. Carefully read the text accompanying each exercise. You may want to tape the exercises and play them back with appropriately lengthy pauses.
2. Take a short walk or a warm shower before beginning. Relax into postures rather than forcing them. Work in a draft-free location.
3. Never test sore muscles, a very stiff neck, or weak joints without the guidance of an expert.
4. Enjoy yourself. The work may seem boring, but achieving a union of mind and body puts the practitioner in a state beyond moods like boredom.
We need methods for working with the emotions and tension that stress engenders. Though we cannot completely control our outer or inner world, we can develop skills for managing our responses to those worlds.
According to The American Anxiety Disorders Association, 23,000,000 Americans suffer from some form of anxiety; for some, this condition can be overwhelming. If you need more information about how to find treatment for anxiety, contact the AADA at www.adaa.org.
You can visit The Yoga Journal’s Information & Teachers Directory at www.yogajournal.com.
Kallie Wilbourn is a writer and natural health/yoga/animal advocate and student. She operates a wonderful bookstore in Las Vegas, New Mexico in her spare time.