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Twice a week, yoga teacher Amy Lawson drives through the gates of Walden Behavioral Care clinic for disordered eating in South Windsor, Connecticut, clears the tables and chairs from a conference room, and leads small classes of recovering patients through a gentle hour-long practice. With rare exception, all of her students—female or male, young or old, and from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds—are moody, withdrawn, and showing classic signs of stress and anxiety. They are restless, their hearts pounding, bodies tense, and breathing quick and shallow. “They fidget,” says Lawson. “They are stressed out about being observed and judged.”
Americans are no strangers to angst—in fact, nearly 40 million have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. And while not all of us suffer the intense level of stress and anxiety that many of Lawson’s students do, we’re not immune to the symptoms. For instance, nearly 75 percent of respondents in a 2014 American Psychological Association Stress in America survey reported stress-related symptoms, such as nervousness and irritability, because of money. Stress and anxiety aren’t necessarily bad things, explains Nancy Molitor, PhD, an Illinois-based psychologist and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, but when they persist for weeks on end they can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, lingering restlessness, insomnia, panic, and depression. And over longer periods of time, stress and anxiety have been linked with inflammation, which researchers correlate with migraines, cardiac issues, and even cancer.
Though they have some distinct differences, both stress and anxiety represent varying degrees of nervous-system imblance, explains Robin Gilmartin, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. (Gilmartin is also a student and teacher of Mindful Yoga Therapy [MYT]—a version of which Lawson teaches.) Stress is defined as a reaction to a life event that disturbs a person’s physical and mental equilibrium: Someone who is stressed out might become edgy or overwhelmed by sitting in traffic or thinking about their workload. Anxiety, also part of everyday life, is not necessarily event driven, says Molitor, who specializes in anxiety disorders: “You might wake up and just feel ‘off’ or uncertain,” she says.
The catalyst for both stress and anxiety is a primal, hardwired neurological response to a potential threat. When something presents a challenge, whether it’s an event, memory, or a general sense of shouldering the weight of the world, your sympathetic nervous system—the nerves that control your “fight or flight” response—sends signals to your brain to flood your body with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These shorten your breath, fire your muscles, sharpen your focus, and jolt you into action. That’s normal, and helpful if you, say, happen to come across a mountain lion on a remote trail, or are a sprinter at the starting blocks. But when you remain in a heightened stress state—for example, when you have to take care of a sick loved one for months or years—the potential health consequences start to add up.
So how do you regain balance? A growing body of research shows that practicing mindfulness and breathing more slowly can tame sympathetic activity and balance the nervous system. “When you take a deep breath, you tell the body to relax,” explains Erin Byron, co-author of Yoga Therapy for Stress and Anxiety and an Ontario, Canada–based psychotherapist and yoga and meditation teacher. Slow, mindful breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system—the sympathetic nervous system’s counterpart. When the breath slows, the parasympathetic nervous system in turn slows the heart and sends a relaxing message to the nerves, inspiring a “rest and digest” response, explains Byron. Several yogic tools encourage us to slow our breathing and stay present, including gentle asana; meditation; some pranayama (breathwork); and rest in the form of Savasana (Corpse Pose) and yoga nidra, or “yogic sleep.”
MYT teacher Lawson combines many of these tools as she tries to give the students at Walden Behavioral Care a soothing experience. She takes them through a centering practice that helps them become aware of their hurried breath, then slowly moves them through asana designed to relieve tension and help them feel grounded. Every class ends with a resting pose.
“Toward the end of class, they are often calmer,” says Lawson. “In Savasana, some students are able to finally settle in. Sometimes they manage to get useful rest. When that happens, I’m so happy. They are in such need of rest and peace.”
For your own slice of serenity, take a break from life’s stressors and try this calming Mindful Yoga Therapy sequence.
A Yoga Sequence to Keep Calm and Carry On
Mindful Yoga Therapy was developed to aid returning military service members suffering from PTSD, but a version of this same practice can help us all develop the skills to better manage stress and anxiety. Because these conditions may manifest themselves differently in every body, it is important to remember that the following sequence isn’t a cure-all; it’s simply one way to find some peace of mind. Practice these poses, designed to access the parasympathetic nervous system, with a soft, steady Ujjayi breath—breathing in and out through the nose with an oceanlike sound—with equal inhales and exhales and a relaxed face. Both breath and asana will also help you stay in the present moment and counter the great deal of pain and anxiety that can arise when thinking about the past and future, explains Suzanne Manafort, the founder of Mindful Yoga Therapy. Practice as many times a week as you can and you’ll start to see a shift in the way you react to stress.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor hip-distance apart. Allow your knees to rest together. Close your eyes or just lower and soften your gaze. Simply observe your breath as an exploration: It may feel deep and rich, or it may feel shallow and light—there is no right or wrong. Just allow the breath to wash through you, nourishing your cells, tissues, and organs. If it feels appropriate, you can focus on one specific area that may be troublesome (a tense shoulder, for example). As you bring your focus to this area, treat your awareness as if it were a sponge: Every time you inhale, the sponge brings in fresh, new oxygen that washes through you, and when you exhale it sends out anything unneeded or unwanted. Then take a moment to think about one thing you are grateful for, and use that to set an intention for your practice. Take as much time here as needed.
Draw your knees in toward your chest, place your right hand on your left knee, and extend your left arm straight out to the left. Inhale, and as you exhale, roll your knees to the right. Take 3 to 5 breaths here. Inhale and draw your knees back to center, and exhale as you squeeze them back in toward your chest. Inhale and reach for your right knee with your left hand. Extend your right arm out to the right and exhale your knees to the left. Take 3 to 5 breaths here. Inhale and bring your knees back to center; squeeze in one more time. Exhale and release your feet to the earth. When you reach through your extended arm, you are twisting deeper and bringing more breath into the lungs. This pose is also effective at relieving tension in the lower back, where many of us carry stress.
When you’re ready, roll to one side to sit up and come to your hands and knees. Place your hands slightly in front of your shoulders, and your knees directly under your hips. Bring your attention to your hands, allowing them to press into the earth. Let this keep you grounded and present. Softly bend your elbows. As you continue pressing, connect with the earth, seeing if you can feel the rebound of that connection all the way up through your body and to your tailbone and sitting bones. This pose helps to ground you, allowing you to trust the earth to support you. Next, imagine that you have your hand on your navel, supporting you from the underside of your body. Lightly lift your core up and in. This is called “navel support” and allows the spine to be long and supported, protecting and strengthening your lower back. Try to maintain this support throughout your practice. Inhale and raise your right arm and left leg into Hands and Knees Balance; now reach the two limbs in opposite directions. Navel support and the grounding of the opposite hand and leg pressing into the earth should keep you steady and even. Remain here for 5 breaths, and then exhale as you draw your extended arm and leg back down to the earth. Repeat on the other side.
Step your feet back into Plank Pose. Your hands should be directly under your shoulders, and your body in one long, even line. Feel your hands pressing into the earth and the resulting rebound all the way through to your tailbone, and sense the connection from your feet to your head. The strength in this posture comes from your navel support. Keep your chest and collarbones wide. Be careful not to let your hips hang. Take 5 breaths here, focusing on your soft, easy Ujjayi breath.
Come to your hands and knees. Keep your hands directly under your shoulders, and press them fully into the earth. Roll your toes under, bend your knees, and push back into Downward-Facing Dog. From the firm press of your hands, see if you can draw your awareness all the way through to your sitting bones. Maintain your navel support; lengthen both sides of your waist. If you have tight hamstrings, feel free to bend your knees. Take 5 to 10 breaths here, feeling grounded through both hands and feet. From here, walk your hands to your feet or your feet to your hands. Inhale and come up to standing.
Step out sideways on your mat so your feet are about 3 to 4 feet apart. Establish all the same grounding supports you used previously, including pressing your feet into the earth and maintaining navel support. Begin by spinning your right leg and foot out to the right. Turn your back leg and foot in a little bit. Line up your right heel with the arch of your left foot. Really plant onto the earth through your feet and legs. Inhale and reach your arms out to the sides; exhale and bend your right knee, and slide your right sitting bone toward your right foot. Be careful not to let your knee go past your ankle. Stay stable through your back leg—this is a strong and focused posture that requires you to remain in the present moment. Take 5 breaths here. Maintain the supports that keep you grounded. Inhale and push into the earth to straighten your right leg and come out of the posture. Exhale your way back to center. Repeat on your left side.
Spin the right leg and foot out again, taking the time to align your feet as they were in Warrior II. Inhale, press your feet into the earth, and reach your arms out to the sides. From the press of your feet, draw your awareness all the way through to the top of your head. As you exhale, use your navel support to keep your spine long and healthy. Lengthen your right side body out over your right leg and reach your right hand down toward a block or your shin. Let your left arm reach straight toward the sky. Take 5 breaths here, doing your best to maintain Ujjayi breath. To come up, inhale and push into the earth. Your exhale will bring you back to center. Repeat on your left side.
To balance in a posture, it is helpful to be calm, steady, and focused. To begin, keep your gaze, or drishti, fixed on one point to steady yourself. Now press both feet firmly into the earth while drawing your awareness up to the crown of your head. Notice whether you were able to maintain navel support. Bring your right foot up and press it against your left leg. You can bring your foot above or below your knee (but never on it), and even keep your toes on the floor if need be. As you press your foot into your leg and press your leg back into your foot, you’ll create equal and opposing forces. Finally, press your palms together in front of your heart. You can stay here, or you can reach your arms up as if they were limbs on a tree growing toward the sun. Stay calm and steady by focusing on your drishti and your breath, even if your tree sways a little. Take 5 to 10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Lie on your back with your feet on the earth and your feet and knees hip-distance apart. Inhale and press your feet down as you lift your hips. Roll onto your shoulder tops and place a block under your sacrum—the triangular bone at the base of your spine—at whatever height feels comfortable. Once you have the block situated, place your hands back on the floor alongside your body and press firmly into the earth. Draw the chin toward your chest and do not turn your head from side to side. On an exhalation, draw your right knee in toward your chest. Inhale and extend your right leg straight up. Take 3 to 5 breaths here. On the next exhale, draw your right knee back in. Inhale to bring your right foot back to the earth. Exhale to draw your left knee in toward your chest. Inhale and extend your left leg upward. Take 3 to 5 breaths here. Exhale to draw your left knee back in. Leave your left knee here and draw your right knee in to meet it. Both feet will be off the floor, so be sure that both hands and the block are supporting you. On the next inhale, extend both legs upward. Try to stay here for at least 5 breaths. To come down, draw both knees into your chest on an exhale. Inhale and place both feet back on the floor. Remove the block by pressing your feet down to lift your hips. Slowly lower back to the earth. Take a moment here to let your spine settle.
Lie on your back with your legs and arms extended, palms up. You can put a bolster under your knees for additional support. If Savasana isn’t comfortable, even with props, find a posture that you can relax in. Close your eyes or just soften and rest them. Spend 5 to 10 minutes here, allowing your body and mind to absorb the work that you’ve done.