Yoga for Stress and Anxiety
“Yogas citta vritti nirodhah,” is the second sutra in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. “Sutra,” a Sanskrit word, means “thread,” or “string.” You can think of these sutras as rules or aphorisms. What does this second sutra mean? “Yogas citta vritti nirodhah” is the definition of yoga. In English, “The restraints of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga.” What does that mean? Well, as human beings we see the world through our own perspective. We think, we project, we see the world through our own personal experience. The goal of yoga is to quiet the mind, to see the world as it is, rather than from our own, often misguided, perspective.
Sri Swami Satchidananda tells us, “The entire world is based on your thoughts and mental attitude. The entire world is your own projection. Your values may change within a fraction of a second. Today you may not even want to see the one who was your sweet honey yesterday. If we remember that, we won’t put so much stress on outward things… If you control your mind, you have controlled everything. Then there is nothing in this world to bind you.”
Stress is a normal part of life. Everyone deals with stress. Anxiety is a reaction to that stress. The physical practice of yoga helps us to focus on one thing, what we are doing, in the present moment, and it can help us clear our minds and ease symptoms of stress and anxiety by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The purpose of the physical part of yoga, or “asana,” is to loosen up the body and release tension, making it easier to sit comfortably in meditation.
How can yoga help us with our stress and anxiety? The first, and probably most important thing you can do, is breathe. Begin to breathe consciously. Take in deep breaths, bring your awareness to your breath and into the present moment. After you’ve brought your awareness to your breath, get on your yoga mat. You don’t have to do anything fancy. Forward folds are great poses to help relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety. You can do standing folds, seated folds, wide-legged folds, just fold forward and take some full breaths in and out through your nose. After you’ve held a forward fold, come into a child’s pose, and hold it for as long as you'd like, then try a backbend. There are many types of backbends, again, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe a cobra pose, bow pose, bridge pose, take your pick. After you’ve done your backbend, come into downward dog and breathe. After downward dog, stretch your hips. One of my favorite ways to do this combines an inversion, which is also good for relieving stress and anxiety. Find a wall, lay down, and put your legs up the wall. Hang out there for five or ten minutes, then bend your knees and place your feet on the wall, cross your left ankle over your right knee and allow the left knee open out to the left. You will feel a stretch in your left hip. This figure four shape on the wall is a variation of pigeon pose. After 10-30 breaths, switch sides and hold for an equal amount of time on each side. Then, come down from the wall and sit in a comfortable seat, lengthen your spine, sit up tall, let your legs relax and your shoulders rest down away from you ears. Now you are ready for meditation. You can sit in meditation for as long as you’d like, but try to sit for at least five minutes. While you sit, don’t try to change anything, just be present with what is. Allow yourself to hear the sounds around you, notice how your body feels, and allow any thoughts that enter your mind to be there. Notice the thoughts, try not to judge the thoughts, just notice and then let them float away. Each time you find yourself thinking, label the thought, “Thinking.” After your meditation, if you are still feeling anxious or stressed out take some time to breathe a little more. Take normal inhales and extend your exhales. This type of breath is great to do to calm anxiety, and you can do it anywhere, even without doing any asana.
When we are anxious, we are living in the future. Coming back to the present moment is the best cure for anxiety. Focusing on your breath will help bring you back to now. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The past is finished. Learn from it and let it go. The future is not even here yet. Plan for it, but do not waste your time worrying about it. Worrying is worthless.
When you stop ruminating about what has already happened, when you stop worrying about what might never happen, then you will be in the present moment. Then you will begin to experience joy in life.”