Yoga for Anxiety & Mental Balance
Yoga for Anxiety and Stress
Pre Covid-19 outbreak, it has been estimated by the WHO that around 1 in 13 people globally, have anxiety. We now know that yoga for anxiety, specifically applied, can be as effective as talking therapy for anxiety. Since lockdown and increased restrictions were imposed throughout the world over most of 2020, the number of people experiencing anxiety has undoubtably increased (Pierce,2020).
The benefits of yoga are so well established that Harvard Medical school recommended starting a yoga practice to help deal with the extra stress associated with being in lockdown. Many people come to yoga class because it makes a noticeable difference in their mood, energy levels and ability to tolerate stressors.
The mechanisms by which yoga works to reduce anxiety are numerous. However essentially, the movement, mindfulness and breath practices of yoga are ideal for re-wiring our nervous systems when they have become stuck on overdrive. This allows us to purposefully access the calming states that allow us to gain mastery over anxiety and nervous tension.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is often associated with thought-driven fear of future events. It creates physically uncomfortable sensations which might include some of the following: shakiness, palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, panic attacks.
It can also be accompanied by increased rumination and circling thoughts; avoidance of certain situations/places; self judgement; self criticism and fear. State anxiety occurs in response to a specific stressor.
Trait anxiety refers to an overall anxious trait that pervades a person’s experience, if this reaches a critical mass, it may be clinically diagnosed as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders were only recognised in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association, before this people received a general diagnosis of ‘stress’ or ‘nervous tension’.
Treatments for Anxiety
Until recently, treatments for anxiety were either drug-based or talking therapies. Talk-based therapies give space for reflection upon feelings that come up.
This can help with gaining an understanding about how events in the past might be affecting the way we think and feel about current challenges and future scenarios. Being able to talk freely to someone who is empathetic and non-judgemental can help us enormously, it offers a good support to your yoga for anxiety practice.
Drug-based therapies create changes in specific neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the nervous system. Different drugs are suited to different people and many have unwanted side effects. There is also a danger of building up a tolerance and becoming dependent on some drugs (such as benzodiazapines).
Drugs work by changing the body to change the mind (this is called bottom up regulation). Yoga works in this same “bottom up” way, because yoga practices also affect the neurotransmitters. Like medication, yoga must be used regularly in order to have a beneficial effect.
Recent research suggests a minimum of 2-3 times a week for at least 30-45 minutes to increase a neurotransmitter called GABA, which is lower than usual in people with trait anxiety. The more regularly you take your yoga medicine, the better the results.
Yoga for Anxiety and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
Yoga practices offer a direct connection to our autonomic nervous system (ANS). This is divided into two branches – the parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic (SNS). The PNS is governed by a nerve called the vagus nerve. This complex nerve has two main parts: the dorsal and ventral. The dorsal vagus nerve is an older part of the nervous system, which puts us into shutdown when we are very shocked, stressed, traumatised or ill. The ventral vagus nerve governs our rested, socially engaged caring behaviours and processes.
We ideally move between these three systems, easily returning to the ventral vagus calm state after the stress, threat, shock or panic is over. This rested state enables us to regulate many of the body’s processes such as sleeping, digestion, detoxification, repairing tissues, building immunity, hormonal balance etc. Modern life, with all its mental and emotional stressors, can cause us to get stuck in the SNS, constantly feeling under threat or danger to varying degrees.
This is why continued stress leads to problems as diverse as digestive issues; heart problems; immune disorders; fertility problems, menopause symptoms; chronic pain and insomnia. However, do not despair, as there is concrete science to show that yoga gives us powerful tools to self regulate so we may restore balance back to all the body systems.
Self regulation means we can “hack” the ANS through specific yoga practices in order to reduce stress (calm the sympathetic nervous system, or lift ourselves out of the shutdown). In addition, the practices increase a sense of social engagement and well being. This creates a sense of safety and lifts our mood.
Building Mental Resilience with Yoga
Yoga is not simply about learn how to relax, but this is the first stage of the process. Once we learn how to tune up our ANS and come into a place of calm, we can start to challenge ourselves safely.
This helps us to meet the inevitable ups and downs of life with more flow and ease. Yoga can help us to increase our emotional and mental resilience. This because we learn how to meet challenges and adversity with a different mindset.
This new perspective enables us to to stay calm under pressure. This is a skill that we can practice on a yoga mat, that also translates into real life “out in the world.”
Increasing Self Awareness with Yoga
Yoga draws from a body of knowledge that has been built up over millennia. The philosophy of yoga is very practical, detailed, nuanced and highly applicable the present. For the purposes of working with anxiety, we work with getting to know and understand our “witness consciousness.”
This is the part of ourselves that observes the thoughts about the future, emotions and feelings, the memories of the past, the present moment, the sensations of the body… A typical modern education fails to cover this essential information, therefore we tend to identify with our thinking mind, rather than our witness consciousness.
Through the practices we see that we are more than just our thoughts. In fact, we see the erroneous nature of Descartes assertion: “I think therefore I am.”
Yoga for Creating Calm
Yoga is a practice that has been developed over millenia to prepare the mind for higher states of consciousness accessed through deep meditation.
That said, it is best to appreciate and enjoy the path of the journey, rather than being concerned with the goal. Along our yoga journey, we learn so much that helps to support us in our everyday life. Most people begin yoga or meditation practice with a “monkey mind”. This is a mind that flits from one thing to the next; doesn’t stay still or empty or quiet; and plays loops of random thoughts, criticisms, memories, lists, dreams, songs and melodies.
Yogis learn how to quieten this monkey mind and thus experience a more integrated mind, body, behaviour and spirit. The yoga practices that calm the monkey mind are not complex. To gain some mastery over the monkey mind, it is simply a question of doing the practice regularly. Thus yoga for anxiety can tap into and quieten the brain.
Mindfulness, Yoga and Mental Health
Mindfulness is the capacity, which we can develop, to notice what is arising in the present in the body and mind, without judgement. It is a part of the Buddhist tradition, which itself grew out of the yoga tradition.
There is a large body of scientific research, conducted from the 1980s onwards, most notably by the mindfulness researcher John Kabat-Zinn, that proves mindfulness to be a powerful practice for helping reduce chronic stress and pain.Yoga for anxiety and stress focuses as well on mindfulness.
Moreover, using fMRI imaging, studies have shown that mindfulness practice has the power to increase activity in the brain structures that contribute to the feelings of calm and well-being. This is good news as mindfulness is a practice which can be incorporated easily into everyday life, which deepens our appreciation of life itself.
OK This All Sounds Great… Where Do I Start?
There are three choices of how to access Holistic Yoga classes online. Choose what suits you best.
Choose the slightly stronger Holistic Yoga Classes to lift your mood, develop your resilience and work with your breath to create balance in the autonomic nervous system.
Holistic Somatic Classes are ideal if you are tired after a long day at work, or if you are working with an ailment and pain and wish to move more gently.
If you are new to Holistic Yoga, having a private session is the best place to start. Working one to one enables me to assess your individual concerns and devise a unique programme that works to build your understanding and confidence. Email Julia about in-person 1-2-1 classes or book a Zoom 1-2-1 class by clicking the button below
Have a look at the Courses Page for Upcoming Courses.
Ideal courses to help with your Mental Balance Are:
- Yoga for Anxiety
- Yoga for Sleep Recovery
- Gentle Yoga and Somatics for Resilience