Yoga For Anxiety & Panic Attacks
Have you ever experienced a time when the mind just wouldn’t stop giving you scenarios and thoughts that get you worried, nervous, worked-up, or on-edge? Thoughts that are mostly negative or unpleasant can be hard to shake off. With anxiety, it’s common to feel alone and misunderstood, to feel uncertain, and to have doubts about your position in life. You might also fear that people will judge you negatively.
When particular thoughts, emotions, or fears trigger you and you identify with them and believe that they are your own and that they’re real, these thoughts can keep you up at night, affect how you relate with people, and how you function at work or school. They can get your heart racing or make you hyperventilate. Over time, these perceptions and thought patterns can start to form a habit.
It can be exhausting living inside of your head and feeling stuck there with the repetitive playing of short stories that your mind weaved for you.
“Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). And about 40% of American adults have experienced an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.
But what exactly is anxiety?
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
In an article released by Anxiety UK, it said: “Anxiety can make a person imagine that things in their life are far worse than they really are and prevent them from confronting their fears. Often, they will think they are going mad, or that some psychological imbalance is at the heart of their woes.”
According to ADAA, anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and traumatic life events.
It is of much importance to distinguish if what a person is going through is normal feelings of anxiety or an anxiety disorder that needs medical attention.
Mental health issues have been at the forefront of awareness campaigns lately because of the number of silent sufferers who sometimes do not actually know what is happening to them. Anxiety disorders are treatable, yet in an article written by doctors Sanne van Rooij and Anaïs Stenson, among the 40 million people affected by anxiety disorders, only 1/3 of adults and 1/5 of teenagers receive treatment.
The ADAA explains that “often the cost of cognitive-behavioral therapy and prescription deters people from getting the help they need.”
People affected by anxiety usually deal with it differently. Some resort to substance abuse, having a night out with friends, or seeking external validation from sexual partners or even through social media as their coping mechanism, which usually only lasts for so long until anxiety hits again.
It is best to get treated if you’ve been medically diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder. Treatments vary from different therapy sessions and medications. And although some patients take prescription medications for anxiety, others discontinue use after a while because they don’t want to be too dependent on the drugs to relieve them of their anxiety.
While others spend time with loved ones, take up a new hobby, get into sports or exercise.
Yoga and meditation are also encouraged by a number of medical practitioners to help ease anxiety, relieve emotional disturbances and lower stress levels. In an article published by the Harvard Medical School, it said: “Available reviews of a wide range of yoga practices suggest they can reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses and may be helpful for both anxiety and depression. By reducing perceived stress and anxiety, yoga appears to modulate stress-response systems. This, in turn, reduces psychological arousal – for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration.”
In an interview with Dr. Bryan Bruno, medical director at Mid City TMS, a New York-based medical center focused on treating anxiety and depression, says yoga can be a remarkable form of self-care to help your anxiety become more manageable. “Yoga can help benefit those with anxiety by quieting anxious thoughts. Anxiety causes patients to hyper-focus on distressing thoughts. These negative thinking patterns generally go away when a person spends time practicing a meditative exercise like yoga.”
“One of the basic reasons many people take up yoga is to change something about themselves: to be able to think more clearly, to feel better, and to be able to act better today than they did yesterday in all areas of life.,” says Desikachar in the book The Heart of Yoga.
What is Yoga?
In the USA, yoga typcially refers to ‘asana’ or the physical postures. When you join what is commonly called as a ‘yoga class,’ you are likely attending an asana class where you learn how to get into different poses which is just a part of the whole science of Yoga.
So then, what is yoga? Yoga has a lot of definitions.
In Sri Patanjali’s Inside the Yoga Sutras, he is quoted as saying this about yoga:
- “Then the Seer (Self) abides in its own True Nature (Self-Realization / Enlightenment)”
- “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” You can translate this as Yoga is the Mastery of the Mind.
- “The ability to direct the mind without distraction or interruption”
Yoga teacher and writer, Kara-Leah Grant explains this in an article as: “Self-Realization is known as enlightenment. This is a place where the fluctuations of the mind have mostly stilled, and you no longer identify with any remaining fluctuations or thoughts.” She also explains our usual thought process. And how we are affected by our thoughts: “Your mind thinks thoughts. Most of us identify with our thoughts. We think that we ARE our thoughts. We have depressed thoughts; we think WE are depressed. We have a happy thought; WE are happy. Our thoughts are the puppet master, pulling us this way and that way.”
This is our mind’s natural function. It sends you information which the brain has gathered all your life – from the things you’ve read, the movies you watched, the conversations you had, your experiences, etc. And what Yoga also teaches is to just be an observer or a witness to your thoughts instead of identifying with them or acting out.
Grant emphasizes, “Yoga is the mastery of our thoughts, where they no longer control you. YOU are in charge.”
Desikachar also explains, “The body and mind are used to certain patterns of perception, and these tend to change gradually through yoga practice. It is said in the Yoga Sutra that people alternately experience waves of clarity and cloudiness when first beginning a yoga practice. That is, we go through periods of clarity followed by times in which our mind and perception are quite lacking in clarity. Over time there will be less cloudiness and more clarity. Recognizing this shift is a way to measure progress.”
So, during an asana class, you develop your focus in following instructions to get into poses. It also brings forth full awareness to your breath, yourself, emotions, and your body parts. You learn the practice of meditation which is a technique of quieting the mind by focusing on the breath or a prayer or a mantra. These activities momentarily give you rest from focusing on the thoughts that your brain sends to you naturally or the thoughts that weigh you down when you are feeling anxious. It also gives you a chance to re-train your mind to think differently. The work happens from within. And you will notice this as you go deeper into your practice.
A consistent asana practice develops your body’s strength, flexibility, balance, detoxifies your body and mind. It gives you calm and a sense of peace.
Even famous celebrities like Robert Downey Jr, Sting, Adam Levine, and Russell Brand, to name a few, all experienced some kind of stress-related condition, anxiety or addiction at some point in their lives. They found the practice of yoga and turned their lives around and became better versions of themselves.
If you are interested to try asana classes, here are some of the types you might want to look into:
Ideal for all ages. This is the blueprint for the other styles of asana classes. It is a set of physical postures and breathing techniques, practiced more slowly and with more static posture holds than a vinyasa flow class.
This is a slow-paced style of asana class which entails holding asana postures for longer periods of time. This class can be very relaxing, cooling and calming. It has a lot of stretches than strength building. This is also a good complementary practice to vinyasa, alternating one after the other.
Which translates to “arranging something in a special way” in relation to the sequence of the physical postures. It is moving with the flow of the breath from one pose to another. The class sequence changes. A dynamic style of yoga which brings heat to the body. Power yoga and Ashtanga can be considered vinyasa style.
Vigorous and fast-paced. Ashtanga operates the Mysore style wherein the students are expected to memorize the sequence and practice in the same room with others at their own pace without being led by the teacher. In some classes, the teacher takes a group through the same series at the same time and pace.
Kundalini which is the Sanskrit term for “coiled snake” which refers to a reserve of untapped energy within each of us, located around the sacrum or “sacred bone” at the base of the spine. A kundalini practice is said to help awaken and move that energy for the student’s potential. This class combines physical postures with meditation and chanting.
It is a set of 26 postures and 2 pranayama (breath work) exercises done twice in a 90-minute class. This is done in a heated room with the intent to loosen tight muscles and to cleanse the body through sweating. The heat of the room varies on the studio. Best to hydrate before each class.
One of the more traditional styles, Iyengar is about precision and a very high degree of attention to posture alignment, breathing techniques and the use of different props (blocks, straps, blankets, bolsters, back-benders, wall ropes) to increase awareness and make the poses more accessible to everyone.
Ask around, do some research or even try a few classes to see which one is right for you. Keep exploring until you find a style of class in which you can see yourself doing for a long time. Teachers have different styles of teaching asana. Find a teacher whom you feel comfortable with but also challenges you. Who is very knowledgeable but also approachable. Someone who truly cares about his / her students.
And once your class starts, remember that this practice is all about getting to know yourself again. Leave all your expectations behind and just be open. Create space for all the things that you will learn.
As you step on your mat, observe your thoughts and slowly let them go then bring your focus to your breath. Patiently and gently breathing life into every inhale and exhale that goes in and out of your body. Pay close attention to verbal instructions and bring awareness and energy to each part of your body.
Consistency is key. That is why we call yoga a practice. We practice it regularly and consistently to get better. And watch how you’ll be able to catch the fluctuations of the mind which causes anxiety, fears, and worries when it happens or the negative thoughts as they get lesser and lesser through time. Don’t worry if this doesn’t happen instantly. Take your time and just devote yourself to your practice.