A Yoga Practice to Calm Anxious Thoughts
Anxiety is no longer my foe. I'd come to realize that the sleepless nights, restlessness, non-stop movement, and worrisome thoughts that consumed my mind and life just weren't working for me. And as a yoga teacher, I thought, What better place to turn to than my practice? This isn’t to say that I no longer have anxiety, but that the control it used to have over me has surely lessened. At those times when I can connect with my yoga practice in the midst of anxiety, I find refuge moving inward—into forward bends, inversions, and restorative poses that help to clear my mind and relieve my body of accumulated stress. I'm going to share with you the go-to sequence I use to calm my nerves and slow down my thoughts.
Anxiety is a normal reaction in a stressful situation. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety can be mild—generating worried thoughts over everyday responsibilities, which is a completely ordinary experience. However, about 6.8 million American adults suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which can cause hours of worry and restlessness every day, and often interferes with the ability to perform daily responsibilities. Statistically, women are twice as likely as men to be affected by GAD.
Whether you are chronically affected by anxiety or experience only mild bouts, it can certainly interfere with day-to-day activities and social interaction. According to the ADAA, physical symptoms of anxiety include trouble sleeping, irritability, muscle tension, edginess, restlessness, and fatigue. Yoga and meditation can be valuable tools for helping to relieve emotional disturbances and lower overall stress levels.
In a 2011 study by Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, on how yoga affects mood states and stress, the self-reported scores of mental disturbance, tension-anxiety, anger-hostility, and fatigue were lower for long-term yogis than they were for those without prior yoga experience. Other studies have shown similar results, such as a 2005 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, which found that women who described themselves as emotionally distressed who participated in a three-month intensive program of attending two 90-minute Iyengar yoga classes per week showed vast improvement in their mental well-being and lowered stress levels.
Much of my own anxiety stems from negative thoughts churning in my head, similar to the little feet of a hamster peddling his wheel continuously. The continuous repetition of these thoughts affect my self-perception and my interaction with others. To calm these anxious thoughts, I practice the sequence below—which keeps my mind engaged with bodily awareness rather than the looming thoughts. I find it interesting that when my body is upright, negative thoughts tend to stream and my mind loses its firm grounding in the present moment. My mind seems to struggle between the thoughts of the past and present. By turning my body upside down and supporting my head, my mind reins itself back in and anchors in the here and now. With the support of props, this sequence helps to slow down my anxious thoughts—if not relieving the hamster of his post in my mind, at least allowing him to take a little break. Or even just slow down.
This intermediate practice involves a folding chair, a bolster (or large pillow or two), a block (or thick book), two blankets, and an eye pillow (or paper towel over the eyes). The practice can be as short as 30 minutes, or as long as two hours.
Moving the body and finding a rhythm of movement can help ease the tension brought on by anxious thoughts and prepare the mind and body to move into poses with longer holds.
Begin on all fours, and move through cow and cat. On an inhalation, move your hips back, your chest forward, and look up slightly for cow pose. On an exhalation, round your back up into cat, releasing your head and neck. Take a few rounds of this spinal movement, and then return to a neutral spine in tabletop. From here, you can try different variations, such as side-bending or circling the hips.
Supporting the Head
The next two poses use support under the head, which helps to ease anxiety by giving the head a foundation for relaxation without putting strain on the cervical spine. This is where I find my senses can move inward and I can connect with what is happening in the present moment: my eyes soften, the chatter within my mind lessens, and my connection with my breath returns.
From tabletop, transition to extended child's pose. Bring your big toes together, widen your knees, and with your arms extended like downward facing dog, press your hips back to your heels. You may find that having the knees wide apart, perhaps as wide as your mat, relieves some tension that has accumulated in your hips and low back. Release your head down onto either the floor or a block. Gently press your forehead down into the support. You might also like to try slowly rolling the forehead side to side to massage away tension.
Keep your focus on your body and breath as you shift from extended child’s pose into downward facing dog.
In your downward facing dog, place a bolster or block underneath the front of your head near the hairline. Creating this support beneath the head offers a more restful, restorative version of downward facing dog and prepares the body for the forward fold and inversion that follow. Here, with the hips above the head, the body eases into a gentle and supportive inversion. In my own practice, I can feel an immediate shift in my thoughts when I turn upside down and support my head.
For experienced practitioners, aim to hold this supportive downward facing dog for three to five minutes. Newer practitioners, aim to hold this for 45 seconds to one minute to start. No need to use a timer—simply come out of the pose when you feel ready. I personally find the use of a timer (and a focus on time) counterproductive when I want to release anxiety.
Releasing Tension in the Legs
The larger muscles of the legs tend to fatigue and ache when dealing with anxiety, creating an overall lethargic feeling in the body. To overcome this sensation in the lower body, this part of the sequence targets the calves and hamstrings, using a folding chair for support.
Open the folding chair and flip it so that the legs of the chair are in the air, and the seat and chair back are on the floor. Position the chair so that the seat portion of the chair faces you and the chair back faces away from you. Stand between the legs of the chair, facing the seat of the chair. Keep your left foot planted on the floor and place your right foot in the middle of the bottom surface of the seat. Hold the chair legs with your hands, and shift your weight into the right foot, still keeping your left foot on the floor. With the left leg on the floor behind the seat of the chair, lean your body forward until you come onto the ball of your left foot, placing most of your weight in your right foot. Take a few moments to feel the release of the right calf from the angle of the foot and dorsiflexion of the ankle. For a deeper calf stretch, lift the left foot away from the floor an inch or two. Change sides.
Close the chair so you may now use it as a prop for parsvottanasana (pyramid pose). Standing upright in tadasana (mountain pose) with your feet hip-bone-distance apart, place the rim of the seat back against the front of your pelvis. Step your left foot back about three feet or so, and angle the back heel in (like the back foot in warrior I). Hinge at your hips to fold over the chair. From here, you may walk your hands down the sides of the chair to the chair legs. Keep both hip points on the chair. Support your chest on the surface that has been created from the closed seat of the chair. If your chest doesn’t reach the flat surface of the chair, bend your front leg to help move your chest forward. You can also support your chest on a blanket or a bolster between the chair and chest. And if you like, you can place a block under your forehead, sandwiched between the chair and the forehead. Stay here for anywhere from two to five minutes on each side.
Inverting the Body
Inversions often help to ease anxiety. When your head goes below your heart, blood pressure momentarily rises through the carotid sinuses on the sides of your neck and the aortic arch above your heart. The baroreceptors (vascular sensors that detect changes in the blood pressure and send that information to the brain) ignite and signal your body to quiet your mind and shift into its parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system puts the body in rest-and-digest mode by slowing your heart rate and reducing blood flow to the skeletal muscles (so that it can be directed toward the organs of digestion).
This next inversion is a supported shoulderstand. To set it up, open the chair to its upright position. With the chair on the floor, place a bolster flat and horizontally in front of the chair's front legs. Sit facing the chair. Bring your legs up and over the chair seat. Hold onto the sides of the chair as you pull your hips forward toward the back of the chair seat and lower your back onto the seat of the chair. Then, carefully slide your back down the chair seat until your shoulders reach the bolster. Your neck and shoulders are supported by the bolster while your head rests on the floor. Your hips stay on the chair seat. Walk your hands down the sides of the back chair legs. Then walk your shoulder blades toward each other as you hold onto the chair. Place your feet onto the rim of the chair back and straighten one leg at a time. Stay here for one to five minutes.
To come out, bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the chair rim. Slide your back and hips off of the chair as your head slides back and your shoulders come off of the bolster. Rest your hips on the bolster and your calves on the chair seat.
For a restorative inversion, stay exactly where you are on the bolster and chair. Allow your hips to externally rotate so that your legs turn out, and hook your feet onto the inside of the back of the chair, similar to baddha konasana (bound angle) legs. As an alternative to this position, you can elect to cross the ankles. Stay here for five to ten minutes. The external rotation of the femur bones here offers a bit of balance to the neutral leg position used in the rest of this sequence. There is little effort in this pose, offering a subtle transition from inversion to shavasana (corpse pose).
Slide off your props and come into supported shavasana. You may choose to support your head, neck, and legs with rolled-up blankets under the neck and knees, cover yourself with a blanket, and/or place an eye pillow over your eyes. This modified shavasana allows the body to sink into the floor with a sense of comfort and grounding from the weighted props.
Once I reach this stage of my practice, I often find that the sequence has relieved many of the symptoms of anxiety. But in those cases where I still feel the anxious thoughts pulsing, I end my practice with yoga nidra (yogic sleep), a type of guided relaxation. This allows me to follow a guided script, which puts me in a state of deep relaxation both mentally and physically. At the end of the practice, I feel refreshed, with a sense of wholeness.
This sequence is a self-soothing practice that addresses some of the common symptoms of anxiety. Practicing it regularly will help to balance your nervous system, ground your thoughts, and perhaps break the cycle of anxiety. If you are suffering from high levels of anxiety, please seek the advice of the doctor. This article is in no way a substitute for medical advice, therapy, or treatment.
Allison Ray Jeraci (Schleck) is a 500-hour E-RYT, PRYT who teaches alignment based vinyasa classes, prenatal yoga and yoga nidra in New York and Connecticut. Allison released her first Yoga Nidra MP3 compilation Yoga Nidra: Meditations to Relax and Move Forward (available on iTunes) and you can follow her on Instagram @allisonschleck.
Fascinated by the intricate relationship between the mind and body, Allison has studied and taught yoga as well as other mind-body arts over the past decade.... Read more>>