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Asanas for Anxiety

So many poses, so little time: It's easy to get overwhelmed just trying to figure out which asanas might calm you down. Here's help:

By Melanie Haiken

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Breathe Easy

If you suffer from acute anxiety, try a gentle restorative class with plenty of focus on breathing, suggests San Francisco Bay Area yoga teacher and physician Baxter Bell. Viniyoga, in which poses are synchronized with the breath, is a good option; even better would be to find a teacher who stresses pPranayama, the science of yogic breathing. One breath pattern Bell recommends calls for adding one second to each exhalation, so your exhalations grow increasingly longer than your inhalations. "This is a quieting, calming breath pattern that combats stress," Bell says.

Open Up

My favorite poses are backbends and chest openers such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), simply because they make me feel free and open. And these are among the poses yoga teachers most often recommend.

Go Upside Down

Other favorites are supported inversions because they give you the relaxation benefits of going upside down without the hard work—and stress—of a challenging pose such as Handstand. "When the blood rushes to your head, your body interprets it as a rise in blood pressure and reacts to calm you down," Bell says. Your heart rate and breathing slow and your blood vessels dilate. However, if inversions scare you, they may trigger the fight-or-flight response, which in turn boosts anxiety. If that's the case, you should practice Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) or Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) as the perfect compromise. Lastly, Bell recommends sitting and standing twists to release emotional tension.

Melanie Haiken is a freelance writer in San Rafael, California.
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Reader Comments

Allison

I too, have had anxiety and panic disorder. I was walking around with yet another prescription to fill to help and didn't want to do it. Yoga has been transformational. I've never practiced the asanas during an attack, but do use the pranayama for the FEW attacks I have had since starting a regular yoga practice. I am completely drug free and the attacks I have had have been small, only a few minutes, and I can feel myself getting through them...then I go back to sleep. Everyone is different, but yoga has worked well for me. A regular, daily practice has helped me to keep the attacks away and to weather the ones I have quickly...then get back to what I was doing. I had always felt there was a physical component of my panic attacks...like I was trapped in my own skin. Interestingly, the forward folds were the hardest for me and when I read ayurvedic theory, that was an area that held my stress and worry. I hope others have the same relief I have had and those who don't, are able to find peace.

Jesamine

Anxiety has many faces and each of those faces can have different effects on us. I think most any asana has the potential for alleviating the symptoms (emphasis on symptoms) of anxiety. If anyone is seeking to alleviate only the symptoms in an anxious moment, it might be helpful to focus on an asana (or a series of them) that counters the effects of what you are feeling in that moment: for example, if someone is experiencing anxious “knots in the heart” – a heart opener can be helpful; if someone else is anxiously “fearful of action” – a slow-moving, mindfully executed warrior vinyasa sequence could be helpful. The paths to relief are individually infinite.

However, if you really want to get to the root of anxiety, you have to be willing to engage it as part of your spiritual practice; and it is a journey that you have to make alone because only you can make spiritual sense of it. No one can give you a pose or a "technique" for it. That is virtually the same as taking a pill for it.

The Yoga Sutras tell us that accepting pain as purification is the sacred key to transcending it. Anxiety – especially when it is acute and chronic – is certainly and multi-dimensionally very painful. I know from experience that anxiety in its myriad faces serves a divine purpose in our process of transformation. It is a kind of messenger – one who is telling us something about ourselves that we are currently not in touch with.

We can use the asana as an alchemical container – a container in which we allow a mixing of conscious and unconscious elements to take place. From there, we watch closely at what happens - it is an opportunity to both experience and witness the symptoms of anxiety and its effects, and, if we stay with all of that long enough - the message of anxiety (the gold!) will eventually penetrate. And as the alchemists told us, “take care not to bring the work to pass too quickly” - be patient with the process.

Patrick

I also am inclined to disagree with the article, however well-intended it is. I suffer from an anxiety disorder and I think that the last thing I want to try is a backbend when I'm in that state.

I agree with Jeff that salamba sarvangasana works as well forward bending. I haven't as yet attempted sirsasana but it might produce the same quieting effect as sarvangasana...?

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