Flip to the back pages of ‘Light on Yoga’ – the definitive work by B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the world’s most respected yoga teachers – and you will find yoga sequences and asana (yoga poses) to help heal a wide range of illnesses and conditions including stress and anxiety. Iyengar says the key to overcoming anxiety is to calm and strengthen the nervous system.
With science backing Iyengar’s claim, there’s now little doubt that asana and pranayama (breathing techniques) can play a role in diminishing the effects of stress and anxiety. One research study summarises that “yoga has an effective role in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Thus, it can be used as complementary medicine.”
But, in my experience, yoga philosophy has just as powerful an effect on managing anxiety. Perhaps, it is for good reason that yogis learn the social and personal code of conduct (yamas and niyamas) before they begin to practise postures on the mat.
Let’s take a closer look at three surprising ways yoga can ease anxiety.
Thank your mind
What better place to begin that with the first yama, ahimsa or kindness. Your brain is always doing what it thinks is necessary to keep you safe. But sometimes it overreacts and treats everything like a threat. Practise ahimsa and thank your mind for doing what it thinks is right. It’s only trying it’s best, after all.
Knowledge is power
Svadhyaya (self-study) is becoming aware of our bodies and minds. A good place to start in managing symptoms of anxiety is learning to notice what happens in physical body when you experience anxious thoughts or emotions. Become curious rather than judgmental in your self-study. What do you notice with this observer mindset?
Is it true?
Many anxious thoughts are caused by predicting the future, catastrophising or even mind-reading. Practice satya (truthfulness) by asking yourself what is true and what is simply your perspective. When you find your mind making up stories, try to focus on the truth and the present moment to reduce the feeling of being out of control.
We have only scratched the surface of the various ways that yoga can help us to manage anxiety. I’d love for you to add any that you can think of in the comments below. Remember, you don’t need to be in a yoga class to experience the benefits of yoga. In fact, many effective yogic tools are subtle enough to use in the midst of everyday life.
Pratipaksha bhavana is yet another yogic tool that can effectively combat negative thoughts. Try it out with me in this ‘Yin yoga for negative thoughts’ class on YouTube. And, if you haven’t already joined my mailing list, subscribe and follow for more simple and effective yoga and mindfulness tips to relieve stress and anxiety.