Yoga for Anxiety

By Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Facing Fear

From as early as I can recall the idea of standing up in front a group of people has terrified me. As a child, I loved the idea of acting but the reality of getting up on the stage was overwhelming. I remember wanting to shrink so small to make myself disappear. I know I am not alone. Today I routinely teach classes and offer presentations. I still have anxiety when I step out in front of a group of people, however, with my training as a clinical psychologist and therapeutic yoga instructor I have cultivated effective tools to work successfully with anxiety.

“Growth and change often require exploring the edges of our comfort zones and challenging ourselves to step into unfamiliar territory. Yoga for anxiety guides you to harness the power of your thoughts, works directly with your body, and helps you to face your fears. Be willing to take risks and make mistakes. You may just discover that you are stronger and more capable than you imagined.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Power of Thought

Our thoughts powerfully impact our lives. This is not a new idea and like me, perhaps you were first introduced to the power of positive thinking by The Little Engine that Could who huffed and puffed his way over the mountain repeating, “I think I can, I think I can.” Truth be told, we cannot always predict success, however the likelihood of a positive outcome greatly increases when we change our thinking from “I can’t” to “I will try.”

Well researched psychotherapy interventions for anxiety, primarily from cognitive behavioral therapy, support the idea that changing negative thoughts into those that are more helpful and supportive. Clients are asked to keep track of thoughts in a journal and to challenge irrational beliefs, replacing them with more beneficial thoughts. For example, when you say, “this will never work,” “what’s wrong with me,” or “I’m worthless” you reinforce self-limiting beliefs and painful emotions. Whereas, saying “It’s okay to be nervous,” “remember to breathe,” or “most people will accept me if I make mistakes” is likely to create a greater sense of possibility and positivity.

Patanjali’s Sutras, a major text in yogic philosophy, also emphasizes observation of our thoughts in order to develop “clear perception.” The Sanskrit word Klesha translates as “trouble maker” and refers to our mental misperceptions and misunderstandings. We work with them through increasing self-observation and labeling our thoughts as useful or not useful. It is important to note that we are not judging our thoughts as “good” or “bad.” We simply recognize that there are thoughts that create greater ease and those that create more distress.

Body and Breath

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Somatic (body-centered) psychology proposes that a healthy nervous system is one that oscillates naturally and freely between active (sympathetic nervous system) states and relaxed (parasympathetic nervous system) states. Anxiety tends to occur when we are stuck in a sympathetic nervous system response. In short, a perceived threat triggers a release of cortisols such as adrenaline into your bloodstream facilitating a fight/flight response and this response continues after the stimuli is gone.

If you, too, have experienced anxiety then you know well the accompanying physical sensations; usually some variation of quickened breathing, racing heartbeat, and sweaty palms. In addition to working with the mind, we also can directly intervene with the body in moments of anxiety or panic. Yoga for anxiety offers practices such as deep relaxation (yoga nidra) or conscious breathing (pranayama) which are powerful tools for calming oneself during surges of panic.

My yoga practice has become an essential somatic tool to work with anxiety. Stepping onto my mat, I appreciate the ways that yoga offers opportunities to observe my body in both active and resting states. In challenging postures or extended holds, such as warrior poses or backbends, the sympathetic nervous system activates by fueling my body with the energy needed to sustain action. In resting poses, such as child’s pose or shivasana, the stillness allows me to feel my rapidly beating heart and quickened breath begin to slow down again. I gain tolerance of a broader range of somatic sensations and feel that I have a choice to create more alertness or calm down at will.

Practice not Perfect

A common cause of anxiety is the need to be perfect. As I step on my yoga mat I remind myself that I am engaging in yoga practice not yoga perfect. Each practice is an opportunity to explore my mind and my body and to refine my awareness in one small way. Now, when I step in front of a class or audience for a presentation I imagine my yoga mat beneath me and remind myself that I have permission to take risks, make mistakes, and to learn in the process. I have discovered that my need to be flawless actually inadvertently distances me from my audience. However, my anxiety is greatly reduced when I show up humble and imperfect, relating to others from common ground. We are all in this imperfect, human experience together.

Stepping Out

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Eventually we have to take our learning off of our yoga mat and into our lives. One well researched therapeutic approach to working with anxiety is exposure therapy in which you challenge yourself to engage in the feared activity with sufficient support to have a positive experience. Ideally, you will recognize are stronger and more capable than you previously realized. In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

You are Not Alone

Performance anxiety and panic are common reasons clients come into therapy. I have been working with anxiety (my own and others) for many years and am deeply appreciative of the therapists who have supported me along the way. My aim in sharing my story is encourage you to seek support as necessary. Anxiety can lead to shame that can interfere with reaching out. Asking for help can often be the hardest step. You do not need to continue to suffer and you do not need to walk the healing path alone.