Yoga is often misunderstood. We’ve become concerned with the strength, flexibility, and appearance of the body during practice, reducing yoga to a simple exercise class. However, the physical poses, asana, are only one part of what yoga truly embodies.
Yoga is both a mental and physical practice
Yoga is an ancient, sacred practice, created in India thousands of years ago. There are 8 limbs, or parts, of the traditional yoga lifestyle. Only one of which is related to movement. The other 7 limbs are concerned with a whole host of things; from ethical guidelines on how to treat yourself and others, how to respond to the challenges of life, to breath work and mediation. You can take a peak at how we use them here at 108.
When you practice yoga with the guidance and support of a well educated teacher, you are also practising meditation, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. All of which can help conquer anxiety.
This combination of physical movement and self-soothing mental practices leaves you feeling more connected to your body, and helps lower stress levels. An anxious mind can find peace while focusing on the movements and sensations of the body. This hyper-focus helps distract your mind, breaking the endless spiral of anxious chatter.
Calm your nervous system
Pranayama, meaning breath work, is the 4th limb of yoga. Your breath is a powerful tool you can use to lower your heart rate, calm your nervous system, and switch yourself from an anxious fight-or-flight response to a relaxed, peaceful state.
When you are anxious your breath is quick, sitting high in your chest.
A change in the pace or length of breath is enough to completely alter how you feel. Most yoga teachers will lead you through some type of breathing practice during a typical yoga class. Teaching you how to move your breath to your belly and slow your inhalation and exhalations.
Practising yoga can be challenging at first. Being able to focus your mind and stay present in your body is a skill. The same way you can’t expect to pick up a physical skill immediately, like playing an instrument or a sport, the ability to calm your mind and stay present during a yoga class will also take time. This is why we call it yoga practice, and not yoga perfect!
Yoga for anxiety
Even the most advanced yogis do not immediately get on their mat and feel completely calm and peaceful. The point of yoga, and of mediation, is not to clear your thoughts, but to practice non-attachment to your thoughts (you can read some common meditation myths here).
If you feel frustrated your anxious thoughts are loud and trying to interrupt your class; take a breath, as feeling this frustration is kind-of the whole point. The work is in bringing your attention back to your breath when you start to spiral. The challenge is refocusing on what you feel in your body when your mind starts to wander, and doing this from a place of kindness and compassion for yourself.
Feeling challenged and finding yoga difficult means you’re doing it right. It will get easier to calm your mind, slow your thoughts and focus in time. Taking an overactive anxious mind to a yoga class, can turn your whole day around and leave you feeling at peace, and give you the tools to manage anxiety outside of yoga practice.