Friday, January 21, 2011

Yoga for Anxiety

Let's face it, anxiety is a part of modern life. In small amounts, anxiety can be motivating, but when it becomes excessive, it can be downright debilitating. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems, and often leads people to seek help through counseling and medication. While yoga may not be a replacement for medical treatment, it is quickly gaining a reputation as a way to manage anxiety and stress-related symptoms safely and effectively.

Many studios offer yoga classes specifically for relaxation and anxiety reduction, which are usually slow-paced, meditative, and excellent for reducing stress. For students with a lot of anxiety, however, staying still in a pose for a long time can be difficult or overwhelming. In this case, it may be more beneficial to begin with a more vigorous practice, which directs the mind away from the experience of anxiety and burns off nervous energy and agitation. The student can then end the class with more relaxing, restorative poses and often will find it easier to relax at that point.

One of the ways yoga helps anxiety is that it helps us focus our attention away from our feelings of anxiety and anxiety-provoking thoughts, and on to our breath and the way our body feels in the various poses. There's no way to worry about that big presentation you have to give tomorrow when you're trying to do a handstand! We're also reminded to come back to our breath, time and time again, and to let go of the various mental distractions we encounter. We learn to be in the present moment - and by focusing on keeping our breath smooth and steady - we learn to relax in the present moment. This is a practice that takes time, but many people experience a glimpse of relief almost immediately. And, whether you are in a yoga class or in your daily life, you can practice bringing your attention back to your breath, and letting your exhalation become longer than your inhalation, which helps your body (and your mind) relax. Another breathing exercise you can try: inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale for a count of 8. Do this several times, without strain and see if it helps.

Meditation is another effective way to manage anxiety, but it can be challenging in the beginning. Often new meditators are overwhelmed when they sit down to meditate and realize just how busy their minds are. This is a normal reaction and sometimes it helps to consider that even experienced meditators have busy minds - and, as much as they have learned skills to quiet all that business, they have also learned to accept it and do not let it bother them anymore. So how do you quiet a busy mind? Having something to focus on while meditating is helpful. Try counting your breath; with each breath, silently count to yourself ('inhaling - one, exhaling - one') from one to ten, then begin again. If (or when) you get distracted and lose your place, gently let go of your thoughts and come back to counting your breath - as many times as you need to. Notice how you react when this happens - do you get frustrated, angry, or can you be gentle with yourself? If you haven't tried meditation before, it's good to start with short sessions - 5 minutes or less at first, and gradually build up to 20 minutes or more. Guided meditation can also be a good way to begin - and there are countless CDs for sale and download available that make it easy to start.

If you are prone to anxiety, it may surface during yoga or meditation (or elsewhere for that matter). If this happens, acknowledge it ('Hmmm...I'm feeling anxious right now') and return your attention to your breath. If it persists, try examining the anxiety with a curious attitude: where does it start? Where does it reside? What does it feel like exactly? Does it stay steady, or does it fluctuate? Usually when we approach intense feelings with an investigative attitude, they start to lose their intensity. We learn that they are not as awful and scary as we thought they were, which is half the battle; so much of our anxiety is anxiety about anxiety. When we can learn to live with and accept unpleasant emotions instead of trying to push them away all the time, they have much less power over us.

Neither yoga nor meditation will probably eliminate anxiety from your life completely; that's not really the point. But if practiced regularly, they will help anxiety become manageable, and less distressing - and provide you with other benefits you wouldn't have expected.

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