In the yoga world, anxiety is the new black.
And no wonder. The stats are in. “Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, one in four people – one in three women and one in ﬁve men – will experience anxiety at some stage in their life.” (2017 www.beyondblue.org.au)
Around two million Australians each year will experience either acute or chronic anxiety so it’s a big issue facing the general public, including the yoga teaching community. In response to this, teachers need to be increasingly aware of what can trigger anxiety in students and how to manage it calmly and compassionately. If we develop our own coping and management skills then not only will we feel more confident offering support to anyone who may experience anxiety or an anxiety-related condition in our classes, but those students affected will most certainly appreciate the extra care and safe space being provided.
I personally believe a major contributor to the anxiety pandemic we see across the globe now is related to the fact that WE DO NOT REST ENOUGH. We don’t know how to stop. We don’t give ourselves, or each other, permission to do so, and this quite simply, has to change.
By nature, we push, pull, juggle and joust our bodies around as if they were indestructible. They are not. Sure our souls are infinite, but these homosapien suits aren’t; we all have a use-by-date. This alarming increase in anxiety – and all the other conditions connected to it on ‘the spectrum’ in fact – is now a huge cause for concern because not only are we inadvertently teaching our children that this is the ‘normal’ pace to live and exist in; but we are passing on to them – genetically and energetically – weakening hereditary conditions (or constitutions) and ailments of all kinds because of growing collective social pressure and the stress envelopes we all keep pushing. Is this a healthy example? No.
Each generation is becoming more hyperactive and oversensitive as a consequence and we must all take some responsibility for co-creating this. It’s time to shift the belief from ‘survive’ back to ‘thrive’ before our toddlers morph from babycino addicts into caffeinated drug lords. Well yes, that’s a bit extreme, but you get the urgency of the situation and the point I’m trying to make I’m sure.
As a culture we are so fixated on going and doing and getting MORE, that we have lost the subtle art of pausing, receiving and just being. So many people find it hard to even conceive of a life where less is better or where not engaging could offer them a pathway to freedom. They’ve been ‘trained’ by their parents and the social conditions they grew up in. And we are living proof that history is repeating itself again. Stopping and allowing is just too obtuse a concept for those still committed (by choice or subconsciously) to the pace and power of the rat race. We wax lyrical about finding the still point, we dream about finding peace and living without pressure, we threaten to chuck it all in and ‘go bush’, but what we need to recognise is that frequency of alignment, grace and ease already resides inside of us. If we truthfully face ourselves, we will realise – remember – this.
The introduction of yoga to the western world has obviously been a godsend to our hardwired, multitasking culture, but even the yoga industry is now being affected by the overwhelming demands of support from people who don’t know how to get off the crazy merry-go-round. Teachers are working themselves to the edge of fatigue and illness to keep up with demand (imagined or real) and increasing competition. It’s crazy, and yet despite the fact that each week a new meditation studio, yoga retreat or self help offering is announced, the chaos continues to grow. WHY?? Because we haven’t fully embodied the reality that we are that which we seek – that we already are the ‘no-thing’ we chase so passionately. And don’t take ‘nothing’ literally as in you have to abandon ship and set up digs in the middle of nowhere in order to find lasting peace. Renunciation doesn’t have to mean moving to somewhere remote and leaving our communal hub of support; it means surrendering that part of ourselves that is so attached to what is in trend right now, whatever that trend is, and trusting more deeply in the process of DEATH. Yes, anxiety is intimate bed mates with the head story of “what happens to me if I let go of everything I know, trust, expect and believe in, in this moment?” Anxiety hates CHANGE. It reminds us of all our past wounding and where we don’t want (but need) to revisit in order to clear and heal.
As every good yogi knows, the 8 limbs of yoga offer myriad support structures for all manner of ailments of mind, body and spirit – there’s enough information there to chew on for several lifetimes and then some – but Chinese Medicine is also an incredibly valuable resource to consider when you are looking for ways to support your anxious self.
Anxiety is infused into each one of the seven primary human emotions which are Fear, Anger, Joy, Worry, Grief, Pensiveness and Fright. When you understand the qualities of these and which organs they relate to, you gain a deeper understanding of not only the human condition, but of all imbalances because each one can be traced back to one or several of these primary doozies. Things start to make sense. YOU start to make sense to you. Anxiety becomes manageable because you understand it’s source of origin.
The power of Chinese Medicine lies in its’ intention to identify and treat cause instead of symptom; it focuses on the root of any presentation, and so in regards to anxiety, depression and the usual associated suspects, the aim is to restore the flow of Chi (Qi, Prana); nourish the heart and calm the mind. Simple and super effective.
Seasonal yoga therapists would treat the Liver because the liver regulates emotions and orchestrates the release of pent up anger and frustration. We address the heart, the Emperor of all organs, by softening ‘walls’ and moving blood and warmth and increasing the source levels of loved-up vibes. We support the spleen because this organ is connected to worry and fatigue (and womb trauma for women). We dissolve fear from the kidneys and harmonise the fluid body so internal communication flows and we work to sedate the mind because well, that is self explanatory really isn’t it. No need to invert yourself and further freak out your already freaked out proprioceptors.
There are some standard and well intentioned hatha postures that most yogis roll out when preparing to treat anxiety and they often include Balasana (childs’ pose) and Viparita Karani (legs up the wall), which are fine and good; any number of inversions (from Down Dog to Headstand) with some more intense variations than others, and of course meditation and pranayama (breath work), which are both totally appropriate and beneficial. I’ve also seen some extreme heart openers like Extended Bow variations and even that crazy flashdance-Wild Thing-Camatkarasana pose recommended – although I cannot for the life of me figure out why; my kidneys cringe when I see this last one, because like, really? No.
Why do we assume that strong heart cracker-openers are the only and best way to regulate emotions? That we have to break something open in order to break through, when in truth, softening boundaries from the inside out is the best way to raise awareness and self empathy and facilitate authentic emotional catharsis. Most bodies can’t cope with extreme chest openers anyway, especially those peeps with adrenal issues, which is 99.99% of anxiety sufferers by the way. Expansive heart moves also belong in the warmer phases of the year – seasonally they are connected to summer and the fire element – so if you’re doing these in the dead of winter, (unless you’re a master energy manipulator) you are not only throwing yourself out of alignment with Nature, you’re disturbing your immune system further as well as your emotional capacity to feel settled and supported. Ah, there’s that support word again.
If you’re a teacher or devoted yogi you will naturally have less risk practicing on your own, but if you aren’t being guided by an expert all the time or don’t know exactly what you’re doing, you can risk damaging your neck with deep inversions and therefore disrupt your neural pathways. Or you can inadvertently establish incorrect breathing patterns (which happens more easily than you think) and further agitate your para sympathetic nervous and adrenal systems. Cracking your heart open wide can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed and even more unsupported, which is exactly the opposite of what you want (and need) to achieve.
There is no ‘one fix all’ routine obviously because anxiety is experienced in such individual ways, and yoga should never be taught as a blanket cure-all anyway. It should be offered as a support that one can then adapt to their needs on any given day, depending on how they’re feeling.
I know it’s a lot to take in but stay with me! It’s all about timing remember.
SLOWING DOWN. DOING LESS. ZIP EVEN.
It’s a no brainer really to state that people with anxiety feel UNSUPPORTED – so let’s SUPPORT them! Let’s use props and make them feel completely held so their bodies can relax fully into the experience of themselves and then their heads and hearts can feel safe enough to open organically. Everything is stored in the cells of the body anyway, so it makes sense to get super cozy and comfy first and create the space for the other layers of yourself to gently unravel.
You can’t rush or force an ‘ah-ha’ moment on (or off) the mat of course, but you can create some pretty lush conditions that will encourage and nurture it through your use of bolsters, blankets, towels (warmed if you can), eye pillows and as an added self treat, heated salt packs. Trust me, your kidneys will LOVE you!
Here’s what you’ll need:
2 bolsters, 4 thick blankets, 2 thin blankets, 2 sandbags (5kg), 2 blocks (one narrow and one thick), a standard bed pillow, one yoga eye pillow and two of your favorite crystals. Amethyst, rose quartz, lilac agate and moonstone are very calming choices. Turn off the phone/radio/mental chatter, put on your most embarrassing fluffy bed socks and diffuse some essential oils – lavender, ylang ylang and rose geranium are my faves. If you want to do the salt pack: grab an old pillow case, 2-3 cups of himalayan sea salt (to warm, I use a dry fry pan, don’t add oil or water). Pop salt in the p’case and wrap up securely. Place on your sacrum, back of your neck or front/back of heart (more over collarbones instead of directly over your heart) as you rest in the positions.
OH, and you’ll also need plenty of TIME. At least 45 minutes. Maybe more. However long it takes right?
- Propped Childs pose
- Cat/Cow/hip circles
- Supported Banana
- Supported Bridge
- Supported Downward Dog
- Supported Paschimottanasana
- Pranayama – Nadi Shodhana
- Seated Supported Meditation
- Supported Downward Corpse with salt pack & crystals in both palms.
Images for each will be included in part two of this blog so stay tuned.
When you create the space for healing, the healing arrives. All you need to do is show up; and encourage your students to be brave and do the same. Let go of the need to ‘fix’ anything and just allow whatever shows up in the moment, to rise. Love it all and forgive it all.
Like any emotion, anxiety is just another expression of energy in motion – E:Motion – and therefore like any other vibration out of balance inside of us, it can be restored. You CAN find your self and your peace again.
* I’d like to acknowledge my dear friend and peer Kylian Martin for influencing and inspiring my own work. Check her out at www.kylian.com.au.