Anxiety is by definition a condition of agitation and distress, but it can look vastly different along a continuum from everyday stress and worry, to more chronic and debilitating expressions. It arises from many overlapping sources, related to our thought patterns, behaviors, personal experiences & history, environment, genetics, and other psychological, social & emotional roots.
Anxiety is our sympathetic nervous system (sometimes referred to as our fight/flight/freeze response) going into overdrive. As a mental & physical phenomenon, this is marked by shallow rapid breath, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue & sleep disturbance, muscle tension, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, tightness of breath at the chest, indigestion and abdominal discomfort, and sometimes sweating, shaking or trembling. It is a high expenditure of energy.
These responses are not inherently wrong. The body is deeply intelligent & has been designed to respond in this way over millennia of human evolution when staying safe in the presence of many dangers was our first prerogative. However, the body now often has a hard time deciphering what is a real danger from the many worries of modern life.
Fear & anxiety are different creatures. Moments of fear are inevitable. But anxiety as a learned pattern & constant experience is not. While it might be labeled a mental illness, anxiety is a patterned behavior and therefore can often be unlearned. Yet more than the mental acceptance, a new way of being needs to be reintegrated within the nervous system. Practices of yoga, especially restorative yoga, can activate our parasympathetic nervous system & help to rebalance the many detrimental effects of stress.
Yoga helps. Yogis of ancient times & traditional lineages know this. But a large body of modern research is helping us to understand why. As explained, the nervous system is one of the largest connections which explains yoga's potential here. Another aspect is the studies that demonstrate a correlation between yoga practice and an increase in GABA (a neurotransmitter antagonist that blocks and slows the firing of neurons producing a calming effect).
I believe that yoga is also successful based in encouraging our own personal investigation of our minds and bodies. Yoga also promotes acceptance and the ability to acknowledge anxiety when it arises without aversion or contention, but compassion & curiousity.
My intuitive experience in my own body & in teaching others is that anxiety-prone people need restorative yoga. Restorative yoga is designed to create a deep experience of complete comfort and support which elicits the parasympathetic response. But I have learned that you can hardly take a restless, anxious person who is unsure about this new practice or environment & pop them into a restorative pose.... No matter how much physical support you create, the mind often cannot settle when the vibration of anxiety is so strong within. When I started to offer classes designed for clients with anxiety for the Canadian Mental Health Association, restorative yoga was my goal, but I quickly realized I would have to adapt the practice to first use breath, movement and other techniques to resolve the restlessness & become more embodied before we could work towards stillness.
This is the model that organically developed over time:
Phase 1: Breath & Embodiment
After arriving on our mats & present in our bodies, each class first begins with a mindful body scan, observing sensation without judgment. We begin to witness the patterning of our breath and to regulate it a little slower and deeper with the goal of recalibrating the nervous system. We soften the pressure of physical tension and the mental vibrations that affect our breathing. We come back home to the body and the present.
Phase 2: Mindful Movement
We then use mindful movement linked to breath to work through any feelings of resistance & release restless energy in the body. Methods of meditative movement like yoga have been demonstrated to help anxiety & depression. The movements & postures taught here are intentionally uncomplicated. Every body can practice yoga. These all-levels sequences use slow rhythmic movement and particular poses chosen to create a sense of grounding or release to the physical tension resulting from anxiety.
Phase 3: Embodied Massage
Integrating guided self-massage into the practice gives participants a resource for self-care. Each technique can be easily done on your own body using one or two tennis balls. Self-care practices are so important to any recovery. This self-care tool is not expensive and does not take a lot of time. Staying present to the shifts in pressure and release of physical constriction help create a direct connection to one's body. Becoming more embodied, we become more calm.
Phase 4: Restorative Yoga
Each class closes with a restorative yoga pose. Restorative yoga makes generous use of yoga props to design a pose where the body meets complete physical support. We shift from a space of thinking and doing towards feeling and being. These poses can stimulate the rest and digest response, and the physical support of the pose can translate to a simple and beautiful feeling of just being supported as a human being.
Phase 5: Shavasana
At the end of every practice, do not skip shavasana. These brief minutes of laying over the earth, allowing your body and mind to fully integrate the process of your practice are of service to your healing journey.
Find a quiet space that will support your practice. A few practice videos require a wall to stand at and lean into during self-massage & restorative poses so you might wish to set up nearby.
For each class, you will need.
- 1 yoga mat (a sticky surface that will create softness & support between your body and the earth)
- 1 bolster pillow (you can substitute a few other regular pillows as needed, but firmer helps)
- 1 or more blanket (the woolier & thicker, the more supportive)
- 1 or more yoga block (books or boxes can suffice, something sturdy & supportive)
- 2 X tennis ball (rubber therapy balls are great if available - but not the spikey ones!)
- a little wall space (we all need something to lean on)