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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all of her students—female or male, young or old, and from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds—are moody, withdrawn, and showing classic signs of stress and anxiety.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.”
See alsoThe Science of Breathing
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.