A kind of baseline anxiety is very normal in our human experience. Many of us try to get away from this underlying uneasiness and discomfort by trying to control our experiences and other people, by avoiding things that feel uncertain or unpredictable, by numbing out that icky feeling with busy-ness (multitasking, overscheduling), alcohol, food, shopping, netflix, sex, planning, finding certainty or the “answers” etc. And this tendency to escape doesn’t make us bad or flawed in some fundamental way, it is just our human-ness in action.
It is our nature to move away from discomfort and toward comfort.
However, it becomes kind of a vicious, constricting cycle when we take action with the idea that eventually, at some point, if we just do enough of _____, we can rid ourselves of this feeling, eradicate it, make it go away forever.
Ah, if only that were the case. Just figure it out and be floating around as blissed out beings all day and night, mmm! The thing is, that we can never get to a space where we are completely free from anxiety, from discomfort, from pain, from sadness, disappointment, *insert whatever “negative” emotion here, trust me, I have tried so hard!
Luckily though, there are many ways we can work with our difficult emotions so they become less scary, cause less harm, and don’t knock us down and hold us back as much. There are a myriad of options to working with anxiety; talk therapy, medication managed by a great psychiatrist or psych NP that you trust and feel comfortable with, exercise, time in nature, journaling, minimizing caffeine intake, etc…
In the rest of this article I’m going to discuss how we can use a few tenets of yogic philosophy to work with anxiety when it arises.
Asana – Movement
The first way I’ve found extremely helpful for working with anxiety is asana, the physical postures of yoga.
Particularly focusing on postures where your feet are connected to the floor. Rooting and grounding postures can help bring balance to anxiety and re-route the energy so that we are feeling more steady. Some grounding postures include downward facing dog, warrior 1, warrior 2, side angle, crescent lunge, triangle, and deep squat.
Here’s a sample sequence you can try out when you’re feeling a little extra anxiety is to
- Begin in down dog and take 10 deep breaths to get settled.
- Step your right foot forward for crescent lunge and hold the posture for 10 breaths.
- Step back to down dog and take crescent lunge on the left for ten breaths.
- Hold down dog for 5 deep breaths before the next posture. After 5 deep breaths step the right foot forward for warrior 1.
- Take 10 breaths in your warrior 1 and move back to down dog. Repeat on the left side and then hold down dog for 5 breaths before taking the next posture, warrior 2, on the right.
- Continue this sequence of stepping forward and back to down dog and holding the standing postures for about 10 breaths with side angle and triangle.
- Then step forward into your deep squat and hold for about 10-15 deep long breaths.
- Lift your hips and take whatever variation of a forward fold you like. Step your left leg back for low lunge and hold about 5 breaths.
- Step your left foot forward and switch sides stepping your right leg back for 5 deep breaths of low lunge.
- Step your left foot back to down dog and lower your knees for child’s pose.
- Take as many breaths as you need in child’s pose before you move on with the rest of your day.
Muladhara Chakra – Root Chakra
The second practice that I’ve found incredibly beneficial for working with anxiety is bringing attention to Muladhara Chakra, or your root chakra.
Muladhara Chakra is like your energetic foundation. It governs feelings of safety and security and deals with our basic needs in life.
To practice connecting more to your root energy you can try this little exercise. Upon waking, just before bed, or perhaps after trying that grounding yoga sequence above:
- Lay down on your back.
- Let your body completely relax onto the floor. Take your right hand to your right hip flexor area (that place where your leg bone meets your pelvic bowl, below the bony hip protrusion) and your left hand to your left hip flexor area and press.
- Keep your hands resting there as you bring your attention to your pelvic floor, your legs, and your feet. Do a little body scan and take note of sensation, temperature, and pulse in these parts of your body.
- While the attention lingers on those areas start to visualize a deep red color. Imagine this deep red energy flowing through you and over you, covering you. As you feel settled in your body and bathed in that deep red, begin chanting “LAM” like OM, outloud.
- Continue this, inhaling smoothly and chanting LAM on the exhale over and over again. Let your chant be a steady and natural rhythm without forcing or holding the breath.
*Tip is to set a timer for 5-15 minutes, however much time you have, before you lay down so you can focus your attention fully on the exercise without worry of being late for your next thing.
Pranayama – Breath
The third is using Pranayama (breath practice) and the Vayus (winds).
This exercise involves using breath to combat an imbalance of Udana Vayu. Udana Vayu is an upward energy and if you are experiencing excess anxiety it is likely that you may be cultivating too much Udana Vayu.
To counteract this abundance of Udana it’s helpful to activate Samana Vayu by breathing deeply in through the nose and pulling the breath into the belly.
Feel the belly expand but keep the breath in the belly, try not to bring it up into the ribs/chest, and as you exhale strongly pull the belly in (not sharp and forceful like breath of fire but slow and steady).
This strong exhale activates Samana Vayu (spiraling/coiling in energy), and cuts the energy off at the navel so it doesn’t continue upward adding to Udana. The result is less upward/Udana flow and more grounding energy.
Take about 10 breaths like this before any situations, conversations, or tasks that trigger increased anxiety.
Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender
And finally, and perhaps the most difficult one, Patanjali’s last Niyama (spiritual guideline), Ishvara Pranidhana.
This tenet involves giving up control, which is really, super, freaking hard especially when you’re feeling anxiety. But for me, accessing ishvara pranidhana is like this huge cosmic relief.
When shit hits the fan when my anxiety is spinning and my thoughts are racing, dropping into this principle creates so much space for it all.
This niyama is about cultivating trust in whatever arises and surrendering to the intelligence of your higher power, to The Universe, God, Karma, Allah, Mother Earth, whatever you understand it as.
It’s about giving up trying to control how things are or resisting against our current experience and finding that radical acceptance, allowing things to be just as they are, allowing ourselves to be just how we are.
It’s a compassionate practice. It’s about trusting that the experiences we’re having, even the uncomfortable ones, are the ones that are meant for us, that the lessons we’re learning, even the hard ones, are the ones we need, that it’s all going to work out in some way, and that, honestly, most of it doesn’t really matter anyway.
Pema Chodron instructs us to “welcome the present moment as if you had invited it. It is all we ever have so we might as well work with it rather than struggling against it. We might as well make it our friend and teacher rather than our enemy.”
Practicing Ishvara Pranidhana allows us to do that, to mke anxiety our friend and teacher and gives us the strength to soften into whatever arises.