To me, the most certain thing about this life is that everything is always changing. A myriad of experiences, both terrible and beautiful, have propelled me into the life I now know as a yoga practitioner and teacher. Life is always teaching me the balance of Yin and Yang, black and white, peace and destruction, for they are nothing and everything at the same time. Six years ago I was suffering from extreme chest pains and anxiety. My life as an evangelical Christian halted to an abrupt stop when I had a personal awakening and so much of my heart and mind was confused, afraid, and utterly lost. I went to a cardiologist and took "stress tests", ultimately wearing a heart monitor for a week and still the doctors had no definitive answers. I turned to a professor who has been a mentor to me and she referred me to try acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. I then became very interested in plant healing energetic medicine and more ancient Asian/Eastern arts. While learning about self healing practices, I began a deeply ritualistic yoga practice based on asana, pranayama, and meditation. Having a consistent yoga practice has helped to reduce my anxiety, induce feelings of calmness and contentment, as well as great gratitude for life in general. According to Dr. Woodward, "Yoga leads to an inhibition of the posterior or sympathetic area of the hypothalamus. This inhibition optimizes the body's sympathetic responses to stressful stimuli and restores autonomic regulatory reflex mechanisms associated with stress. Yogic practices inhibit the areas responsible for fear, aggressiveness and rage, and stimulate the rewarding pleasure centers in the median forebrain and other areas leading to a state of bliss and pleasure. This inhibition results in lower anxiety, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and cardiac output in students practicing yoga and meditation." (Woodyard C, 2011). After having an enlightening experience with shamanic medicine, I no longer felt aligned with the dogmatic teachings I knew and studied all my life up to that point. For awhile, I felt I needed another belief system to hold onto, so I started taking Beginning Buddhist Classes, learning more ritual practices like Mantra, as well as meditating and studying the 8 Fold Path complimented with Tao De Ching studies. As my Asana, Pranayama, and Meditation practice progressed, I was able to let go of ideas narrowly instructing me that the only path to help me feel free of fear and anxiety was orthodox Christianity. The interwoven teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Daoism, and Yoga allow me to breath in deeply the silence of what it means to be a human on Earth. These new found paths of expansive thoughts and practices allowed me to let go of all the expectations and assumptions of fear further allowing me to be present in each moment. I have compiled this series of poses based on peer revised studies that help to bring evidence towards the claim of utilizing yoga for reducing anxiety, increase compassion, and give one an increased quality of life. Living a spiritual life has helped me to live a life of seva, service, while continually growing and becoming healthier through a balanced mind, body, and spirit. Not surprisingly, "A study on the effects of spirituality on promoting increased mental health found imagery, meditation, and group support activities may address various components of spiritual health such as meaning and purpose in life; self-awareness; and connectedness with self others, and a larger reality. In turn, positive changes in health behaviors such as communication, diet, activity, and treatment compliance were noted, and a variety of beneficial physical and emotional health outcomes such as heart disease, reversal, decreased cancer mortality, reduced anxiety, and improved mood states were reported." (Hawks, 2016). Yoga helps one to find themselves a stable perspective amidst the endless waves of life and its ever turning tides and waves. With all of life's fluctuations and constant changes, a consistent yoga practice helps to bring one back to the truth found in one's quality of breath and mind synchronicity. A study on yoga for easing patients' anxiety and depression was 2 weeks duration, with a follow-up after 1 month. Participants’ mean age was 42.8 years, predominantly female, with no experience in meditation and yoga. Two groups, intervention and a wait-list control, were established. The study found a significant reduction in scores on anxiety, depression, and tension in the yoga group, as well as an increase in well-being, compared to the control group (Mehta, 2010). Peer reviewed academic studies likes these help support the evidence behind a consistent yoga practice and the many benefits one can get out of beginning a consistent yoga practice. I am going to share 11 poses and supportive breathing techniques to aid in calming and releasing anxiety or stress.
3 Part Yoga Breath - Diaphragmatic Breathing
Laying on your back with legs extended out to the sides, bring the right hand over the diaphragm, or navel, and the left hand over the heart. Take a deep inhale through the nose while simultaneously pushing the belly out as far as you comfortably can. While exhaling, draw the navel to the spine, engaging the abdominal muscles and releasing the breath out your nose. It is recommended to find this for a several breaths, possibly 3 full minutes. Again, begin to inhalation and feel the belly expansion, and then the chest gently rising. Imagine the breath moving all the way underneath the armpits and gently lifting the the collar bone. Exhale fully engaging the abdominal muscles, bringing navel toward spine. Continue this for several more breaths, or until the desired effects of lowered heart rate and blood pressure are achieved. The third part of our yogic breathing inhalation includes belly expansion, gentle thoracic chest lift, then the elongation through the crown of the head, decompressing the cervical spine with the breath. Find this pranayma breathing for 2-5 minutes and then one is ready to begin exploring the more demanding art of Ujjayi breath.
This breath is balancing to the mind and body connection helping to bring awareness to the breath using sound, as well increased oxygen to the brain. A gentle constriction of the glottis helps to create a control valve for the flow rate of the breath. This breath builds heat in the body and assists in detoxification of the mind and body while helping to relieve tension.
Getting started with Ujjai, take a deep inhale through the nose and then exhale sighing out the mouth making the "HAAAAH" sound. Continue this ten times. Then begin to inhale and exhale through the nose bringing that sighing sound to the back of the throat and gently contracting the muscles in the back of the throat which control the breath flow. Try to find Sama Vritti, or equal inhale/exhale with a four count inhale and four count exhale. Slowly build up to a ten count inhale and exhale, but only as is comfortable while playing one's personal edge, as internationally best selling author and yoga teacher Mark Stephens poetically explains.
1. Childs Pose
- Kneel on your mat and bring the knees as wide as the mat.
- Press the buttocks back to the heals and extend the arms in front of you.
- Release the shoulders down the back and rest the head on the ground.
- Hold for 10 breaths.
Helps support the nervous system and the lymphatic system.
Quiets the mind and releases stress
Stretches the hips and lumbar spine (the seat of the emotions)
2. Cat & Cow Pose
- Begin on all fours; exhale draw the belly up to the spine while.
- Rounding the back to the sky, pressing the shoulders apart, or into protraction.
- Inhale as the belly expands toward the floor while stretching the chin gently forward.
- Open through the clavicle bone and draw shoulder away from the ears.
- Continue this motion for 15 breaths stimulating spinal flexion and extension.
Warms up the spine in a synchronized and gentle balance of motion
Massages the internal organs
Creates calming for the mind, body, spirit
Stimulate blood flow along the entire length of the spine while strengthening the breathing apparatus, or diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
3. Puppy Pose
- Start in stable table position (optional: tuck the toes under for added support/ toe stretch); shoulders in line with the wrist, knees in line with hips.
- Slowly walk hands out, lowering the chest towards the ground, keep hips over knees, and arms shoulder distance apart, release forehead to mat.
- Energetic activity in the arms pressing into the palms and lifting arms and elbows off of the mat.
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths, to release out, press into palms and walk hands back toward body onto all fours.
Heart opening pose
Wonderful shoulder stretch to relieve tension
Calms the mind and invigorates the body
4. Triangle Pose
- Step or hop out to the side of your yoga mat about 3 feet, turn the right foot about 90 degrees with front and back heals in alignment.
- Strongly engaging the thigh bones, and rooting down into earth through the feet.
- Extend the arms into a T-position, keeping a gentle micro-bend in the front knee to prevent hyperextension.
- Slowly reaching out through the fingers, either gazing towards the thumb to stretch the neck, or looking forward reach out as far ad you can and hold the ankle, or shin stay here 7-10 breaths each side.
- To transition out root the back hip and feet, slowly coming up with arms extended bend the front knee and step back to the front of the mat.
Helps improve digestions
Release stress, osteoporosis, and sciatica
5. Bridge Pose
- Lie supine on the floor, bend the knees and keep the feet on the ground finding Pada Banda (Foot Lock). Lift the feet off of the floor and resent them onto the ground to find stability. Reach back and touch the ankles keeping the heals as close to the sitting bones as possible.
- Press firmly into the palms and inhale lifting the hips to the sky.
- Lift your chin slightly to keep space under the back of the neck so the chin is not pressing into the breastbone.
- Stay here, or interlace the fingers the hands underneath you, shrugging the shoulders underneath you, lengthen the tailbone to the heals and continue this for 3 rounds of 10 breaths.
Calms the brain and helps alleviate stress and mild depression
Reduces anxiety, fatigue, backache, headache, and insomnia
Lengthens and stretches the neck helping to calm the nervous system
6. Legs up the wall, Viparita Karoni
- Sit sideways against the wall (as closely as you can) exhale and slowly bring one leg up the wall and then the other leg, releasing the head and neck to the ground, open up the palms to the sky, and keep the head and neck elongated not pressing the chin into the chest.
- You may also use a blanket, or bolster to support underneath the lower back for this pose.
- Stay here for 5-10 minutes focusing on strong diaphragmatic breathing.
- To exit the pose, slowly slide the legs down the wall coming back onto the side in a fetal position take 5 deep breaths here before getting up. (If you have a support underneath you, slowly slide it out from underneath you and then release the legs from the wall).
Releases anxiety, and mild depression
Calms the nervous system
7. Head to Knee Pose, Janu Sirsasana
- Sitting tall with legs extended out in front of you, draw the left heel to the inner right thigh with the knee resting on the floor, or supported by a block underneath.
- Rooting down into the sitting bones, square the hips up with the front of the mat.
- Slowly folding at the hips, lift the belly and draw it slightly towards the right thigh.
- Squeeze the knee to stabilize the ACL. Protect the knee if uncomfortable and use a block as a prop to support the knee.
- To exit the pose, extend the legs.
- Find this on the right side. 5-10 breaths on each side.
Affects the limbic system of the brain which controls our mood. This pose helps to clam the mind and bring a soothing effect to the heart.
Relieves menstrual discomfort, headache, anxiety and fatigue.
Relieves symptoms of insomnia and high blood pressure.
8. Supta Baddah Konasana
- Exhale while releasing onto your back, legs extended and feet relaxed. Let the palms face up to the sky and the arms move into external rotation.
- Bend your knees and bring the soles of the feet together while releasing the knees towards the floor. Blocks are helpful to support the knees in this pose.
- Take a body scan seeing how you are feeling mentally and physically. Is there any pain in the hips, or groin areas? If so, you might take the feet further apart, or use blocks underneath the knees.
- Relax the shoulders away from the ears and allow yourself to melt into the ground while focusing on using the breath to calm the body.
Stimulates the heart and improves general circulation
Relieves anxiety and helps to mange panic attacks
Reduces nervous tension and stress
9. Pigeon Pose
- From Downward Facing Dog, bring the knee just outside the right hand while releasing the left hip to the ground. Prop up the left sitting bone by placing a blanket underneath the hip.
- Make sure the hips are even and grounded to the earth while making sure there is no pain in the lower back or knees.
- Slowly walk the hands out in front of you while folding into the hip opener. Stay here for 2 minutes on each side.
- To exit the pose, tuck the back left toe while extending the leg into Tale of The Dog pose. Find downward dog for one breath before moving into the stretch on to the right side.
Releases stress, trauma, fear and anxiety in the hips that are often seen in yoga as the seat of the emotions. It is often noted that bottled up feelings can create tight hips.
Diminishes lower back pain and stiffness.
Lessens or alleviates sciatic pain associated with the piriformis muscles and hip imbalances.
10. Alternate Nostril Breathing - Nadi Sodhana Pranayama
"Nadi is a tubular organ for the passage of prana (life force energy). It is said that we have thousands of nadis throughout the body.(72,000) Sodhana means cleansing, or purifying. The term Nadi Sodhana means the purification of the nerves, or nadis. This Pranayama combines the technique of exhalation (rechaka) as in anuloma, and inhalation (puraka)." Light On Pranayma B.K.S. Iyengar (Ch. 28 p.1) The subtle changes of the mind and body after practicing this breathing technique are truly transformational, allowing calming of the psyche, and deep relaxation of the body.
- Sitting in a comfortable position the fingers as positioned as in picture number 10. Bring the left hand into Gyana Mudra resting on the left knee. Inhale while lifting the right hand above the head in the Mrigi Mudra, or Deer Mudra. Place the right thumb onto the right side of the nose and the thumb as shown in figure 10. Narrow both the nasal passages with thumb, ring, and middle fingers. Exhale completely through the left nostril.
- Inhale through left nostril then close the left nostril with the ring finger, exhale out of the right.
- Emphasizing the right nostril in the morning to help bring energy and warmth to the body and the left at night to help with calming and grounding the mind for sleep, or relaxation
- Improves concentration by activating the pineal gland for memory retention
- Rejuvenates the nervous system helping to settle stress and anxiety
Alternate Nostril Breathing Video
11. Corpse Pose
- Lie on your back and extend the legs one at a time keeping the lumbar spine stable
- Place a folded blanket under the head. Place a bolster or pillow under the knees
- Be sure you are comfortable and relax the arms with palms facing up to the sky
- Bring attention to the breath while finding a natural inhalation and exhalation. Engage deep diaphragmatic breath helping to fill the lower lobes of the lungs.
- Concentrating on the present breath and begin to allow relaxation to fully occur.
Relaxes the mind and calms mild anxiety and depression
Relaxes the body
Relieves tension, headaches, fatigue, and muscle pains
Helps deepen the meditative elements of the yoga practice
Listen to this Yoga Nidra for relaxation
Woodyard C. Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. Int J Yoga 2011 4:49-54. Available from: http://www.ijoy.org.in/text.asp?2011/4/2/49/85485
Steven R. Hawks, Melisa L. Hull, Rebecca L. Thalman, Paul M. Richins. Review of Spiritual Health: Definition, Role, and Intervention Strategies in Health Promotion.
American Journal of Health Promotion Vol 9, Issue 5, pp. 371 - 378
First published date: August-25-2016
Yoga as a Complementary Therapy for Clinical Depression. Purvi Mehta, MA, MSManoj Sharma, MBBS, CHES, PhD. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine. Vol 15, Issue 3, pp. 156 - 170
First published date: December-14-2010