There's a stubborn part of me that would love to say that, as a yoga student, teacher, and writer, I never get anxious anymore—that yoga has cured me of all of my emotional ails—but this is not the case. Rooting out negative thought processes, and uncoupling ourselves from their grip, is a day-to-day process. Choosing to face our feelings within the context of practice (whether that means practicing asana, chanting kirtan, or sitting in meditation) is a valiant effort, but it’s not always easy to do. At times, it can seem easier to enter our proverbial shells and cast distressing thoughts aside to deal with on “another day.” But in truth, if yoga teaches us anything, it's that feelings have a way of surfacing, whether we seek them out consciously or not.
Choosing to face our feelings within the context of practice is a valiant effort, but it’s not always easy to do.
Whenever I want to run from my mat, I try my very best to slip into crocodile pose—even if that's the only pose I do all day. When I do manage to surrender to the simple, nurturing actions of this pose, it does typically engender a sense of lightness in the moment which carries over into my day. The same can be said for when I practice a soothing, heart-centered sequence, and especially when I practice that sequence regularly.
If you're feeling a touch overwhelmed, try this grounding sequence I've developed, which includes plenty of prop suggestions for both physical and emotional support. I continue to return to it whenever I need a little comfort.
Pick and choose which props you'd like to incorporate, or leave them out of the sequence entirely. You may want: one bolster, two to three blankets, two blocks, a chair, a strap, and two pillows.
And remember: Yoga is not a substitute for medical attention. If you experience chronic anxiety that interferes with the overall quality of your life, please consult a medical professional.
Sequence to Soothe Emotional Distress and Anxiety
Makarasana (Crocodile Pose) with Blanket Roll for Support
I love to support myself with a blanket, rolled into a tube-like shape, in this pose. Lie facedown on your mat and stack your forearms, one on top of the other, with the blanket resting under your upper chest. Rest your hands on your bent elbows, your left hand on your right elbow and right hand on your left elbow. Rest your forehead on your stacked forearms. Separate your feet a comfortable distance apart, with toes pointing either in or out. Draw your elbows back slightly to elevate your chest. Now, relax the way you are holding yourself—from head to toe—releasing tension into the ground below you. Feel your abdomen pressing into the ground on each inhalation, and feel your side ribs and your lower back lift and expand as well. On each exhalation, feel your abdomen draw back, and the waistline lower. Remain here for several breath cycles.
Leg Circles from Table
Move through a few rounds of cat-cow, then come back to a neutral table. Lift your left knee off the floor and draw it forward, toward your chest, then out to the side, then back in a clockwise rotation a few times. Then rotate your leg counterclockwise several times. Repeat these actions with the opposite leg.
From child's pose, walk your hands forward, arms straight and elbows lifted off the floor, so that you can stretch and lengthen through your upper body. Stack your hips over your knees (your hips will be lifted high in the air). Rest your forehead on the floor. Maintain external rotation in your upper arms; lift your inner armpits up toward the ceiling as you draw your chest down toward the floor. Breathe as though you could breathe right into the back of your body; feel your side ribs, back ribs, and low back/kidney area expanding with every inhale. Find sweetness, comfort, and stillness here. Stay for a few breaths.
Low Lunge to High Lunge
From table, step or slide your right leg forward between your hands and come into a low lunge. (You can also place blocks under your hands in table, which can make it more accessible to step your leg forward.) Stack your front knee directly over your ankle. Slide your back knee back so that it's behind (not right underneath) your back hip (this will be less pressure on your knee). From this position, interlace your hands and press down on your right thigh. Feel your lower abs engage, and lengthen your upper body upward. Keep that engagement and length as you lift the back knee and come into a high lunge. Keep your back leg straight and your inner back thigh lifting.
Lower your hands back to the floor or blocks. Come out of your lunge by stepping your right leg back to meet your left knee in table. Repeat the pose on the opposite side of the body by stepping the opposite leg (in this case, the right leg) back and repeating the same key actions.
Downward Facing Dog
From table, curl your toes under, lift your knees off the floor, and press your hips up and back for downdog. Walk your feet back so that you can shift forward into plank. Then from plank, shift back to downdog without moving your hands or feet, a trick that will help you establish a comfortable distance between your hands and feet in downward facing dog.
Now alternately bend one knee and then the other, walking in place for a few rounds of breath before finally coming to a place of stillness in the pose. If you're not “perfectly” still, that's completely okay. It's also completely okay if your heels don't reach the floor. (Prop tip: Before your downdog practice, place a rolled blanket on your mat where you know your heels will be in downdog, and if it's comfortable for you, once you're in downdog you can lower your heels toward the blanket.)
Come back to child's pose (oh, how lovely) with your knees together, or as close as they comfortably can be, and place your hands to rest on your lower back, palms stacked and facing up. Engage your low belly, and then inhale as you sweep your arms out to the side and up, lengthening through your spine as you rise up into a high kneeling position with arms overhead. Exhale back to child's pose, keeping a long spine as you sweep your arms back out to the side, touch your forehead to the mat, and bring your hands stacked in reverse order (the opposite hand on top this time) over your lower back. Repeat these actions three to four times, making your movement as fluid as possible.
Camel with Bolster
From child's pose, come back onto your knees, with your hips stacked above your knees. Keep that alignment throughout your backbend Place a bolster lengthwise just below your knee creases. Then place your hands on the back of your pelvis, fingers pointing down toward your buttocks. Lengthen up through your torso and open through your chest to initiate your backbend. Focus your backbend more in the upper back. Allow your neck and head to follow the curve of the rest of your spine. Release your hands to the bolster, if possible, to deepen the backbend. Come out of camel by leading with your chest rather than your chin. Place your hands back on your low back (if they aren't already) for extra support as you come out of the pose.
Kneeling Hands to Heart
Come to a high kneeling position, shins parallel to one another, and place the short edge of a bolster between your feet and shins. Without moving your feet or shins, hug the bolster. Sit so that only your sit bones (not your thighs) are resting on the bolster. Bring your hands to prayer position at your heart. Gather your attention inward, and return to your breath. Feel all that you need to feel.
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold)
Sit either on a folded blanket or flat on the floor with your legs together (or as close together as they comfortably can be, extended straight out in front of you). Keep your feet active and strong, toes pointing toward the ceiling. Bend your knees either a little or a lot, so that you can lengthen optimally through your spine (head, neck, and torso in line), and then hinge at your hips and begin folding your upper body over your legs.
Catch hold of the outer edges of your feet, or wrap a strap around the soles of your feet and hold the ends of the strap. Maintain a long spine throughout this forward bend. You'll feel your low belly touch your legs first, then, potentially, your upper belly, chest, and head will follow. You can play with straightening your legs a little bit at a time, but if your belly lifts up away from your thighs, or your upper back starts to round a lot, rebend your knees. Relax your face and jaw. Refine by drawing the pinky-toe sides of the feet back and pressing out through the big-toe sides of the feet. Rest here for a few breaths.
Now lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Extend your arms out to a “T” position with palms facing up or down. Lift your hips off your mat slightly, shifting them slightly to the right, then rest them back on the floor. Drop your knees to the left, onto the floor, close to the left armpit. Keep your legs stacked. Your back shoulder may lift away from the floor. If that's the case, you can support your shoulder and arm with a folded blanket, or you can bend your back elbow so that the elbow is on the floor and place your hand to rest on your rib cage. Stay for a while, feeling yourself moving toward the restful direction of your final relaxation, and then repeat this pose on the opposite side.
Ah, we're here, at the final pose. This will require some set-up. Get a chair and, unless the chair is already quite cushioned, fold a blanket and place it on the seat of the chair (a pillow will do as well). Then take another folded blanket, or a pillow, and place it on the floor where you'll rest your head. Lie down on your back and prop your legs up on your chair. You can cover yourself with a warm blanket for extra comfort. Finally, place your hands on your belly and feel it rise (inhale) and fall (exhale) with each breath cycle. Then, either bring one hand to your chest and leave the other hand on your belly, or you can rest your arms alongside you (palms facing down or up).
Return to this sequence, or sprinkle any one of these poses into your home practice, whenever you're seeking a little extra comfort.