In 2019, in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, which left 70,000 people homeless, I was asked to share with survivors, healthcare workers, and teachers the yoga therapy techniques they could use as tools for anxiety management. The community was in shock and looking for alternative ways to heal, as there were not enough mental health professionals to serve their needs. The techniques I used, including the one that I share with you here (which I have since refined), produced such positive results for the participants that they were, in turn, taught in local schools and clinics by yoga teachers, school teachers, and healthcare and psychiatric professionals.
According to the yoga tradition, fear—especially abhinivesha, the fear of death—is at the heart of our inability to make progress in our physical, mental, and spiritual health. As a result of writing my first book, Yoga Therapy for Fear, Treating Anxiety, Depression, and Rage with the Vagus Nerve and other Techniques, I’ve learned a lot from teaching and working with people all over the world who experience fearfulness and the effects of trauma. Primary among the lessons I’ve learned is that because we experience our lives uniquely (though our heartaches may be felt similarly), I must never make myself an authority on anyone’s trauma. And secondly, I learned that the biggest trigger for many people is the lack of choice, which means that offering options like “Eyes can be open or closed” is important when working with either a group or an individual.
According to ayurveda (often referred to as yoga’s “sister science”),there are several types of fear. They include fight-rage, which is pitta driven; flight-anxiety, which is vata based; and freeze-depression, which is based.
One practice that seems to be surprisingly effective in coping with all types of fear is eye movement desensitization and response (EMDR), which has been shown to benefit those dealing with chronic fear and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In an EMDR session, a patient will recall disturbing memories and images and work with the brain’s ability to access memories bilaterally and thereby make the memories less debilitating. Therapists approach EMDR with different methods which include side-to-side eye movement, hand tapping, or buzzers placed in the hands. A 2009 review concluded that EMDR is as efficacious as other exposure therapies and more effective than SSRI medications (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, some of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants), problem-centered therapy, or "treatment as usual."It is now included in several guidelines for the treatment of PTSD.
Fear or trauma tends to “live” in the right limbic system, especially the amygdala, in the right hemisphere of the brain, which is where feelings are stored. Psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk brings this point home in his lectures and books. He goes on to explain that in order for traditional talk psychotherapy to be effective, those historical fears and traumas need to be moved into the left hemisphere of the brain, which controls rational thought and speech. (1)
Working with a mental health professional is essential for directly addressing trauma. But with the following practice, we can at least tiptoe into areas that are causing us to feel some distress—such as anxiety about a job or a family member’s health, or even worries about time management.
For this practice, which is based on the success of EMDR techniques, you can recline or sit, but make sure you’re comfortable and well supported. If you are seated, your pelvis should be higher than your knees in order to avoid stress on your back; if you are reclining, a folded blanket under your head or a support (such as a bolster, cushion, or pillow) under your knees may help you feel more at ease.
1. Bring to mind the issue that upsets you and give it a number from 0 to 10 (with 0 being no stress or anxiety and 10 a lot). Note any related physical sensations such as shortness of breath, jumpiness, or tightness in your throat or shoulders.
2. Start with your breath and a goal of lengthening your exhalation and taking a modest inhalation. You may want to hum the breath out to encourage the exhalation to linger and lengthen. If you aren’t somewhere you can hum, exude a quiet hissing-like sound from the back of your throat, similar to the exhalation with closed mouth in ujjayi breathing. This process may produce more saliva in your mouth, which is an indication that your parasympathetic nervous system is reminding your organs that everything is okay. (Conversely, dryness in the mouth is a sign that we are stressed.) Breathe this way for five or six breaths, and then move into what’s a comfortable, natural breath for you.
3. Next, place your left hand on your right cheek, ears, or neck and your right hand on your left cheek, ears, or neck, crossing your right arm on top; make soft circular movements with your hands five times in each direction. When you’re done, release your hands to your lap.
4. Your eyes can be softly open or closed. In coordination with your breath, look left (even if your eyes are closed), and then right for a total of five times, continuing to breathe comfortably and naturally. Now cross your hands again in front of your face, placing them once again on opposite sides of your face, with your left arm on top this time; make five soft circles on cheeks, ears, or neck in each direction. Then look right and left again five times in coordination with your breath before releasing your hands to your lap.
5. Now move your tongue over the front of your teeth five times in each direction, covering both top and bottom teeth. We often feel relaxed when we do this simple practice because the vagus nerve—our primary stabilizer for the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” nervous system)—innervates the tongue.
6. Now look from left to right again a total of five times, and stay connected to your natural, comfortable breathing.
7. Check in on the number you gave your fear before this practice. Has it changed? If it’s lower but remains above a 5, you may want to repeat the practice.
8. Now come back to the sensation of your breath. Especially notice the brush of it across your upper nasal membranes, imagining that your breath could reach your midbrain. Let that lovely sensation expand and calm your mind. Stay centered in that place of calm as long as you can today, and return to this practice again as needed. See if this becomes a valuable tool for healing your nervous system in the long run. During times of fear, you may even want to incorporate this practice daily or multiple times a day.
I’ve also found this to be a good practice to do prior to meditation as it helps to ease the mind and reduce daily stress. And I would recommend that you first practice the exercise on a small issue—which will help you to build your skills for dealing with the big stuff.
1. A., V. D. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma(p. 42). New York: Penguin Books.