Ah, anxiety. Whether you experience it chronically or situationally, we are all familiar with the way our minds and bodies manifest the fight or flight response. For me, anxiety causes my heart to beat way too fast, my breath to become shallow and short, and my hands to sweat and shake. In my mind, thoughts race and become dark and hopeless. It’s not pleasant, and it can stop me in my tracks.
Anxiety can be a gift, a message that there is something we should look at in our lives or within ourselves. Most of the time when we experience anxiety. We try to stifle it in any way we can, and as quickly as possible. We turn on the TV, scroll through our phone, take a pill, or indulge in a substance. We try to escape anxiety rather than look at it directly and with curiosity about what it might be telling us.
We do this automatically; it is human nature to avoid pain. Only through mindfulness and a quiet, undistracted mind can we learn the lessons behind anxiety. With practice, we can learn to sit with our anxiety, to feel it in all its intensity without trying to escape. Attempting to escape anxiety doesn’t make it go away. It temporarily stifles it, causing energy blockages in our systems and engrained patterns of avoidance in our minds.
This is where yoga comes in as an invaluable tool to help us look at the root of our anxiety, and to become curious about its message. Though the postures of yoga, or asana, and learning about the philosophy behind it, we embark on a journey of self-exploration and healing.
In today’s post, we’ll look at three key ways yoga helps us deal with our anxiety in a healthy way. Through mindfulness, loving-kindness toward ourselves, and connection with the Divine (or our higher purpose, if you’re more comfortable thinking of it that way), we can use anxiety as a teacher, and eliminate the suffering we experience as a result of trying to avoid it.
Anxiety Fix #1 – Mindfulness
Mindfulness simply means being in the present moment. It means seeing the truth in a situation instead of listening to the stories our mind makes up about it. The mind is powerful, and its tendency is to ruminate about the past or anxiously anticipate the future. Mindfulness is an invitation to turn off the stories and to experience the clarity of the here and now.
When we practice asana, we are instructed to focus, to move with our breath, and to bring ourselves back to this focused attention whenever we notice our minds have wandered.
We are told to relax into each posture and notice where we are holding tension. A single asana practice can catapult us into a mindful state, and regular practice can make mindfulness our default state.
Being in a mindful state allows us to look at anxiety objectively and with curiosity. Only then can we begin to question what is causing the anxiety, rather than react immediately to try and stop it. We can ask ourselves, ‘Am I doing something I shouldn’t be doing in life, or not doing something I should be?’ ‘Am I in the wrong job, wrong relationship, wrong geographical location, and the Universe is trying to bring that to my attention?’
Anxiety Fix #2 – Loving-Kindness Toward Ourselves
It’s a common saying that we are our own worst enemy. We tend to treat and judge ourselves more harshly than we do others. Someone once told me, when pointing out how mean I can be to myself, that I should practice treating myself as a good friend. She was essentially describing loving-kindness toward ourselves. If a friend made a mistake or went through a difficult life experience, I would never criticize her or tell her she’s a hopeless loser, so why would I do that to myself?
Loving-kindness is abundant in the world of yoga, and it increases our compassion for ourselves and whatever situation we might be going through. Through regular practice, we begin to strip away the lies we tell ourselves about how we fall short, or how we should be more like so-and-so. There are lots of ways yoga can bring this about; for me, it was an increase in confidence. As my confidence grew as a result of asana and related practices like meditation, I began to understand that I deserved to be treated with loving-kindness, both from myself and others.
Loving-kindness allows us to give ourselves a break. When we feel anxious, we might feel as though we are doing something wrong, or that we shouldn’t feel that way. When we regard ourselves as a dear friend, we can encourage ourselves to sit with our anxiety, and trace it back to its origin.
Anxiety Fix #3 – Connection to the Divine
Regardless of your stance on spirituality or religion, it is impossible to deny there is a power greater than ourselves. Whether it’s watching a tree grow from a tiny seedling into a towering structure, or the miracle of a newborn baby, we must understand that these things don’t just happen. There is a driving force behind it, and in yoga we call it life force energy that comes from the Divine. When you become curious about and open to this concept, a natural comfort arises. I like to think about it as the Universe taking care of me and providing me with a fundamental feeling of being okay.
Life force energy courses through our body; it is literally what keeps us alive. When we practice asana, we are mindfully activating and moving that energy around, restoring the connection with our sacred bodies that we all too often disregard. We start to let go, and to trust this energy that motivates and supports us.
When we feel a connection with our higher selves, the Universe, God, whatever you want to call it, we feel more secure and grounded. This can help soften the sting of anxiety, as we realize that although our current moment might be stressful, it will pass, and we will be okay.
Something about knowing that we are being guided on a much higher level than we can perceive, offers a solution or at the very least, some relief, from the daily stressors of life, as well as the big disappointments.
Mindfulness, loving-kindness, and connection to the Divine are only a few ways yoga can help with anxiety. The common theme behind all these benefits is a quiet mind, and at Inspiring Actions that is our only goal. Our studios in Hudson and River Falls, Wisconsin, as well as online, offer a variety of classes and events to work toward quieting the mental chatter and distractions that lead to anxiety and other forms of suffering.
Whether you feel you would benefit from a fast-paced flow class or a mindfulness meditation series, there is something at Inspiring Actions for everyone, and for every part of your journey. If anything from this post about anxiety resonated with you, we invite you to come and practice with us, and see how you can look behind the anxiety you experience to the valuable life lesson it is trying to teach you.
Click here for a 20-minute sequence by yoga instructor Emily Rowell specifically designed to reduce stress and symptoms of anxiety.