Living with anxiety is exhausting.
Obsessive thoughts, racing heart, shaking legs, irritability, shallow breathing, in short.. a big mess.
When we are stuck in a persistent semi-panic mode, our agitation and rumination start to interfere negatively with our daily choices and take away from us the possibility of living fully and joyously.
There are no miraculous cures for anxiety, rather many paths to explore: my invitation is to stay open and proceed tentatively, until you find what works best for your specific story.
I believe the issue for many of us is that we might think the only serious solutions might come from either talking therapy (top down, from the mind to the body), or pills (bottom up, from the body to the mind). These still remain great and valuable tools, and should not be disregarded, but there is much more we can do to heal.
The problem with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is that unfortunately this can only arrive to a certain point. Not everything can be healed only working with our conscious mind as certain areas of the brain involved in anxiety disorder are not reachable through verbal communication and reflection. So you might have the best experts by your side, but still some stuff could linger in the body.
The problem with the medications is of course a wide range of side effects and the fact that you might have to keep adjusting and increasing the dose constantly, so they can create dependency.
More and more today, studies show that mindful movement practices such as Yoga (among the bottom-up techniques) can provide precious tools as an adjunct treatment to regulate the breath and physiology of the body and offer us small windows of time where the mind can take a break from its frenetic chatter.
Through certain movements and postures, calming breath work and focused attention on the physical sensations we can heal ourselves (for the best results I always recommend to practice first with a trained Yoga therapist or someone with experience in Anxiety specific Yoga, as not all Yoga helps with stress relief).
The following 7 Asanas (Yoga poses) can help you release tension and negativity from the system, and open the areas that usually tend to be in a state of chronic contraction when we are unconsciously over reacting to external or internal stressors.
You can hold them for as little as 10 breaths or 5 minutes, the most important indication is to always find a suitable level of stretch and intensity, enough to stimulate the body but not too much to cause injury or generate excessive tension.
Choose a comfortable surface (a mat or towel on a rug) and clothing, find a quiet space and may be play some calming music (you can choose a 30 minutes long track so you don't have to worry about setting an alarm).
Standing forward fold
Soften your knees and allow the upper body to fold, imagining the spine is hanging from your pelvis. Try and let your head drop and feel free to position your arms in the most comfortable configuration.
Bending the knees and keeping the legs mildly active, while relaxing the weight of your torso, this pose helps you both ground and free some tension in the shoulders, neck and jaw, which are likely to be contracted and tired from chronic stress.
Laying on your belly, press feet, legs and elbows firmly on the floor and shift the chest forward.
Try and keep the collarbones open and the space between ears and shoulders free and long.
This position allows the chest to expand and stimulates a sense of courage, by opening areas we usually collapse in an unconscious attempt to protect ourselves.
Forward bends facilitate a longer exhalation and help us turn inward, while helping take some weight off the shoulders and the head, and inducing the relaxation response.
Come to seated and bring feet together and allow the knees to drop sideways and the torso to bend forward.
There is no need to reach any specific point and if you need to support your arms, head or knees with props or books, feel free to do so. Ideally you want to feel some stretch as you focus on relaxing the upper body, but you shouldn't feel any pain, otherwise your tissues are actually getting even more stressed and contracted.
Another forward fold, in this version more lengthening is offered to the hamstrings, which for someone might hold lots of tension (it's like the body is often preparing to escape by switching on the legs muscles).
Feel free to keep your knees bent and if needed use some pillows to rest your chest and arms. As always the goal is not to touch your toes, rather to send the breath down to the bottom of your lungs and notice any tension in the neck, face, shoulders, thighs and consciously try and relax in the most contracted areas.
Laying on the back, allow your knees to drop on one side, while anchoring your shoulders on the ground.
Besides offering a wonderful relief for the back, supine twists automatically facilitate the movement of the breath down to the diaphragm (imagine the bottom of the ribcage), which is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to calm the nervous system from the body.
This pose releases the whole back chain of the body, back of the neck, head, space between the shoulder blades, lower back and hamstrings. It is powerful in turning the gaze inwards but also potentially risky for people suffering from cervical spine issues, so an alternative could be to keep the pelvis on the floor and simply squeeze the knees towards the chest (or if you are an Iyengar practitioner prop yourself with blankets and blocks to make sure the neck doesn't take too much weight).
Reclined butterfly with chest opening
This pose offers a wonderful opportunity to learn how to breath more fully in the diaphragm, because it stretches the small intercostal muscles that often get stiff and keep the ribcage from moving fully when we inhale and exhale. Also, maintaining the chest in an open position is very beneficial if you suffer from depression or you simply feel that uncomfortable sensation of "heavy heart": backbends can lift the mood and teach the body how to feel more available and trusting towards the outer world (we are literally expressing the idea of being ready and strong enough to handle what comes to us instead of shutting down in fear).
Feel free to close this sequence with a final relaxation laying on the back, still aiming at slowing down the exhalation and keeping the focus on the physical sensations (how does it feel to touch the ground? can I send the breath to the areas the feel more stiff or vulnerable? how does the breath move my belly? how does it feel to let go of the jaw?..)
I hope integrating these poses can help you find some relief from worry and mind clutter, as always I am curios to know what you think (you can write me here)!
And if you wish to join my next evidence-based Yoga course to reduce stress and anxiety, we are starting on 9th January in London: INTRODUCTION TO YOGA FOR ANXIETY