Practicing Releasing AnxietyApr 10, 2020
We all know that these are fragile times. I’ve heard so many people saying that one of the hardest things to deal with right now is the anxiety that feels like it’s coming at us from all angles - and many have been asking how to use yoga to manage it. I’ve dealt with anxiety for as long as I can remember, and I know as well as anyone what a terrible cycle it is and how impossible it can feel to pull yourself out. The world is always an uncertain place, but with so much anxiety afflicting the day to day lives of every single person on earth, I wanted to share with you some of the strategies I use in my own life and my practice.
It often doesn’t make sense to people that someone with a regular yoga practice can struggle with anxiety. Aren’t yogis supposed to be relaxed? And sure, a regular yoga practice can be incredibly helpful for anxiety - but, unfortunately, anxiety can make it difficult to do most of the regular things in your life, especially when your life itself is being disrupted by circumstances beyond your control. I remember when I first started practicing, I used to skip a lot of practices because my anxiety was affecting my sleep so badly. Anxiety was undermining my ability to do the main thing in my life that I used to fight it. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, my digestion was wrecked, I skipped practice and repeat - it is a vicious cycle.
When we’re stuck in anxiety, our bodily energy tends to be operating from the waist up - that’s why it might feel like you’re stuck in your head, or have the weight of the world on your shoulders, or butterflies in your stomach or heart in your throat. Mentally, we’re often stuck in the future and unable to bring ourselves back to the present. That’s why one of the most helpful approaches I’ve found to anxiety is finding your grounding - both the literal ground beneath you and the grounding of the present moment.
The two body parts most associated with physical grounding are the feet, of course, and the pelvic floor. Grounding in the body, however you do it, has so much to do with yoga and with the asana practice. Even the simple (but really very helpful) practice of walking barefoot outside brings our awareness down through our bodies and into our feet and toes, and combining that with the experience of nature and the earth can be incredibly helpful. In asanas, we ground with the mula bandha and lift from there. The best method of grounding is to get back to basics, and that’s why I’ve found that one of the best practice approaches to anxiety is to focus on Primary Series. (Focus on standing postures if it’s the kind of anxiety that’s disrupting your sleep or digestion.) Primary is all about grounding, and most of the postures in the series have the pelvic floor as their foundation. The pelvic floor is one of the most grounding parts of our body, and a focus on it can give us a much more tamasic and grounding practice. Primary can sometimes make us feel a little sleepier than we’re looking for in our practice, but this tamasic effect is often a welcome benefit when you’re struggling with anxiety. Finding your grounding in this way brings back a deeply felt awareness of gravity, helping us reconnect to ourselves and reconnect ourselves to the earth.
If you already have a regular practice, you know about inhabiting your body and finding your grounding. Whether you have a practice or not, though, it can be challenging to carry those things throughout the day - especially during the times when anxiety levels are more elevated than usual. That’s why I love exercises to find that kind of grounding wherever I am, and you can find two of my favorite grounding exercises for anxiety right here.
Pratyahara Pranayama is a fantastic breathing exercise that I learned from Tim. It follows the chakras up and back down the body, allowing you to bring your body and mind to the present moment simply by counting and getting in tune with your breath. This is an especially great technique because it’s so accessible - wherever you are, you can use this to get some of the great anxiety-fighting benefits of a yoga practice anywhere, anytime. Plus, this breathing technique doesn’t use any retentions, so there’s nothing to stress about on that front.
My Meditation for the Asana Junkie exercise is exactly what it sounds like, and that’s one of my favorite things about it. This exercise brings you through the meditation by focusing on what you’re experiencing in your body and by consistently bringing your attention back to the physical - the sensations of your skin, the expression of your face, the weight of your sit bones on your mat, the activation of the pelvis. The act of checking in with these elements is an act of meditation - it keeps you present, keeps you focused, and wakes you up.
The effect of “waking up” makes this a fantastic meditation exercise and an excellent supplement to the tamasic effects of Pratyahara Pranayama breathing. This exercise awakens us to our bodies in a different way, and we’re all waking up in a lot of different ways right now. We’re waking up to the ways that not all of our old systems are sustainable, and we’re waking up to the ways that new systems might show us new ways forward. Even in the yoga world - our studios are closing, but we’re finding new ways to engage with our communities.
Anxiety puts us in a place of fearing the future, but to ground yourself back in the present is to make yourself more adaptable and able to face whatever’s in front of you and whatever’s yet to come.
We might not know what’s going to happen, but we never did. Whatever we might face, we’re all sharing these unexpected waves of growth and connection alongside sadness and grief and anxiety. But if we inhabit a place of anxiety in the present, we’ll carry that with us into the future Whatever we inhabit in the present, we’ll carry forward - we have the choice of whether we want that to be anxiety or purpose. Now can be a time for leaving old systems of attachment and fear behind, and moving forward to deepen our intimacy with ourselves and each other and the unknown. We are all in this together, just as we are all on our own unique, magical journeys. I hope these exercises help you find solid ground. They certainly helped me.
Stay safe. Stay well. Breathe. Find your solid ground. It’s always there for you.
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