August 27, 2018
Earlier this year, Harvard Medical School published an updated reflection on Yoga for Anxiety and Depression. It was noted that nearly 8 percent of American adults had “tried yoga at least once” and around 4 percent had practiced yoga in the last year. Most importantly however, the report summarized studies that focus on how yoga modulates our pain/stress response systems. This is a good thing. Because “the scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are not just closely allied, but are essentially equivalent.”
In conversations with individuals who struggle with anxiety, it is more than clear that physical and mental health are: “essentially equivalent.” After all, anxiety is an all-encompassing experience. One doesn’t just have anxious thoughts. In addition to repetitive negative cognitive loops – the heart races, palms sweat, belly tightens, sleep evades, head muscles tighten, and face grimaces. For the anxious, the physical and mental expressions of stress are twinned.
“Yoga won’t work for me. I’m not flexible.”
“I can’t meditate because my mind is too busy.”
“I know yoga could help me, but…”
“I don’t have time to sit still.”
As a yoga teacher for more than 20 years, I’ve heard hundreds of variations on these themes. Of course, yoga is but one of many stress reduction exercises that a person can adopt. Choosing to live of life of healthy eating, exercise, and sleep count a great deal too – in fact they are fundamental to living well and reducing unnecessary stress.
For an individual who is sleep deprived and/or living on fast food, the occasional yoga class will do less than simply adopting healthier lifestyle choices. Gratefully, it is not an either/or situation. Why? The practice of yoga makes a real difference. In fact, “mind-body interventions” (MBIs) like yoga not only reverse stress, they “reverse” how our DNA expresses itself. A summary of 18 studies spanning 11 years of research, documents the “pattern in the molecular changes which happen to the body as a result of MBIs, and how those changes benefit our mental and physical health.”
So, how to benefit? How to benefit if you are already insanely busy, over-stressed, and flooded with anxiety?
My suggestion: Start with a simple 10 minutes. Yes, 10 minutes. Dana Faulds, a Kripalu Yoga teacher and poet writes:
It only takes a reminder to breathe,
A moment to be still, and just like that,
Something in me settles, softens, makes
Space for imperfection.
A good deal of anxiety has to do with an obsession with perfectionism – we want to be “perfect” and much of the attention in this relentless pursuit is preoccupied by exteriors. What do we look like? How much money do we make? Who do we know? Who likes us? Et cetera. A rather stern fear of negative judgment can keep us racing on a treadmill to nowhere. But what happens when the attention is turned within? What happens when screens are shut off and quiet descends? When the body moves softly and the breath begins to settle more deeply in the chest and belly?
The harsh voice
Of judgment drops to a whisper and I
Remember again that life isn’t a relay
Race; that we will all cross the finish
Line; that waking up to life is what we
Were born for. As many times as I
Forget, catch myself charging forward
Without evening knowing where I’m going,
That many times I can make the choice
To stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
Slowly into the mystery.
So, unplug for a spell and move mindfully, breathe consciously. Try to pick a routine – a time each day that is your “yoga time.” If that isn’t possible, simply commit to take 10 minutes at some point during the day/night before you close your eyes for sleep. During this time, simply notice what is going on in your body. Notice the busyness of the mind. Yoga’s purpose is to bring us to a deeper realization of what is real.
GIVE IT A TRY: Here is a short, quality yoga practice of sun salutation variations drawn from the Eckhart Yoga tradition:
On one level, anxiety is “real.” It can be overwhelmingly “real.”
Yet, the wisdom of yoga teaches us to open into an acceptance of this anxiousness and the feelings underneath it – feelings and sensations we would so much rather avoid. Yoga strengthens us to stay present with the unpleasant and soften as we “hold space” for our own imperfections. Yoga literally rewires how our cells duplicate and express themselves. This remapping of the self through mindful movement and breath reveals something deeper than anxiousness. We may come to “walk slowly into the mystery” revealing aspects of the self untouched by time, change, age, death – let alone anxiety.
We learn to listen to the body’s wisdom through yoga and then the body guides our yoga. We can choose to replace the addictive patterns that stem from dealing with anxiety with patterns of self-awareness and compassion.
All starting with 10 minutes a day.
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