Thursday, April 26, 2012

Case Study: Yoga for Anxiety

As mentioned in my earlier post, yoga is an excellent way to calm the body in a heightened state of anxiety and stress. A general yoga practice will help with this as it works to burn through the nervous energy created in this state; but there are also some specific exercises which can help to release the tension from existing in constant "fight-or-flight" mode, bringing your nervous system into a state of increased calmness and relaxation.

Recently I had the privilege of attending a workshop with Nadine Fawell, an amazing yogi who specialises in yoga for those suffering from anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She took us through a few poses which are especially helpful in these states, which would be great to add to your routine if you need a little relief from anxiety and tension. She also recently wrote a great article on the Healing Power of Yoga here

Firstly though, it is useful to go over the role of the breath in calming anxiety; by slowing the breath we slow the heart rate, and "trick" the body into relaxing. As you do the below exercises make a conscious effort to slow your breath, some of them involve counting to ten on your exhale/ inhale - try and make the "ten" longer and longer as you go :)

Tadasana with arm raises

We all know trusty Tadasana or mountain pose. The idea of this pose is to ground ourselves and slow the breath; perfect for those suffering anxiety. By adding arm raises we can start to link the breath to movement and slow our movement down, which will also calm and relax us.

Take a deep inhale, then on the exhale begin raising your arms above your head as slowly as you can, to a very slow count of ten. Begin the breath first, then the movement. Pause at the top, gazing up between your hands with the palms facing inwards. Take a break from either inhaling or exhaling, but don't hold your breath - let the pause be natural and unforced. Bring the arms down on an inhale in a similar way - lead by breath, to the count of a slow ten. Repeat ten times.

Supta Baddha Konasana 

Lying on your back, bring your knees out in a diamond, with your feet together, the soles pressing into each other. Try and get your thighs closer to the ground by rotating your internal thigh muscles.


From this position, take a deep slow inhale, then on the exhale, start bringing your knees slowly in together to the count of ten.

Pretend someone is pushing on your knees to create a strong pressure to work against. Ideally by creating this pressure, you should start to get a "trembling" effect in your thighs. This is a good thing! It is releasing all the tension you are holding onto in your "fight or flight" state.

Pause at the top of the exercise/ exhale, then inhale to bring your knees back down. Repeat several times, more if you feel up to it.

Navasana (Boat Pose) 

This is another excellent "tremble" creator, and has been covered before, as it is an strong core exercise also. Click here to view instructions.

Warrior One

When you remain in a constant state of "fight or flight" your thigh muscles can become pretty strong (and tense) from being always at the ready for the "flight" part eg. running away! So let's use that strength, at the same time releasing some of the tension held in this area. One good pose for this is Warrior One.

Starting in Tadasana, take a large step back with your left foot. Turn the back (left) foot so it is at a 45* angle.

Have the front foot facing forward (90*) positioned so that if you a line it would dissect the back foot in the middle.

Check your hips are aligned to the front of the mat by placing your hands on them like guns - if the "guns" aren't pointing to the front, adjust the angle of your back foot (to say 60*) to make this happen.

Inhale - raise the arms above your head, palms pressed together, gazing up between them.

Switch on your core to stabilize your pelvis, and lengthen your spine towards the ceiling, as long as you can go! Don't overarch the back - keep the torso stacked above your hips.

Exhale - bend the front knee trying to bring it parallel to the floor, keeping the knee directly above the ankle.

Hold the pose - on the inhale lengthen the spine and expand and open the ribcage. On the exhale sink further into the pose.

Keep pushing your back hip forward and your front hip back. Don't sink into your feet, keep the arches lifted. Ground your back foot into the floor while at the same time feeling a lift running up your leg through the belly and chest, and up through the arms.

When you are ready to come out of the pose, inhale and straighten your legs, and exhale step the feet back together into Tadasana.

Repeat other side!

Tree Pose

Balancing poses are EXCELLENT for anxiety, as they take the focus from the mind and our thoughts and into the body. Tree pose is a great one for this as you really need to focus in order not to fall over! Let's get started...

Stand in Tadasana and shift your weight into the left foot, keeping the foot firm to the floor and making the leg stable and strong. Bend your right knee, reaching down with your right hand to grab your right ankle.

Draw your right foot up and place the sole against the inner left thigh. Press the right heel into the inner left groin, toes pointing toward the floor.
Make sure your hips are even (don't sink into the standing leg hip) and lengthen your spine toward the floor. Push the right foot sole firmly against the inner thigh, resisting with the left leg.
Find a (unmoving) point of focus ahead of you and focus your gaze unwaveringly upon it. Slow your breath.
Once you have established your balance bring your hands out to tree position, hold, then raise to above your head, hold, then finally bring down to prayer position on front of your heart. Try to stay in the pose for 30 seconds to a minute.
Slowing the breath, using the focal point and pressing into the thigh are all ways which will help you balance. If you wobble this is great as you are exercising all the right muscles, and if you fall... start again!
Release and repeat on the opposite leg.

If you have difficulty balancing place the foot down against your shin instead of your thigh. Choose either shin or thigh though - never use the knee. It can be damaged from the pressure on it in this pose. 
Savasana (Corpse Pose)

You will probably be feeling exhausted after all that trembling and pose holding, so a natural conclusion to this series is Savasana - or "corpse pose". As the name would suggest, yes you do get to lie there in a position akin to that of a corpse!

If that sounds relaxing to you, then you are not alone... many of my brogis list it as their favourite pose. It is usually done at the end of class, so it can be seen as a little bit of a reward after all the hard work you have done. Having said that - it is not an excuse to dose off! Although some think of it as the "nap" they get to have at the end of class, the idea is to still and quieten the body and mind, but not to completely drift off into slumber.

Lying on your back, gently shake out your legs and allow your feet to fall out sideways. 

Let your arms rest gently by your sides, apart from the body with the palms facing upwards.

Turn your head slightly from side to side to loosen out any tension, then settle it in the middle. Unclench your jaw, leaving your mouth slightly open, and feel your eyeballs rolling back into their sockets.

Feel your spine long along the mat, and your limbs stretched out long. Tilt your pelvis to straighten out any curvature in the lower spine, and sink your low back into the floor.

Let each part of your body sink into the floor, surrendering all tension becoming heavy.

Breathe deeply into the abdomen, and let the breath get slower and deeper. If your mind wanders return your thoughts to focusing on the breath, or try a guided meditation if you find it difficult to stop thoughts from entering your mind.

After five minutes, roll over to the right side of the body, then slowly push yourself up to seating cross-legged. Give yourself a few minutes to enjoy the relaxed feeling in your mind and body before returning to the "real" world :)


Hope you feel relaxed and anxiety free after these poses brogis, and are inspired to add these to your routine! I strongly believe any kind of yoga is a great help in this area... I'm sure those of you who have noticed the amazing feeling of peace and relaxation after a class will agree with me here.

And remember, keeping a focus on the breath and the mind still and focused on the moment during class (and life!) will act as a double boost to your practice, adding an extra level of anxiety busting goodness to every pose :)

And a wee bonus - Tara Stiles has a yoga routine for anxiety here if you want a video to practice along to at home.


PS. Thanks again to Nadine Fawell for letting me pass on these poses to you! If you want to know more about her healing based practices she has a blog here, a free downloadable relaxation meditation here and is contactable for classes here!

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor! These are suggested exercises, not solutions for medical issues. Please consult a doctor or trained professional if you have severe or re-occuring anxiety. Here is some info from SANE Australia on Anxiety Disorders which might be a good place to start. Stay safe brogis :)

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