Yoga for Anxiety (Part 1)
Yoga is becoming more integrated with Western medicine and is getting more recognition in the scientific community for being an effective therapeutic addition to traditional psychotherapy. Yoga is helpful for alleviating a number of mental health concerns, including anxiety. Traditional talk therapy uses a “Top-Down” approach, which means it relies on you using your brain (cognition and logic) to shift your unhelpful thoughts, which then signals to your body that it can relax. Yoga and other body/breath work is a “Bottom-Up” approach. Yoga relaxes your body by slowing your heart rate, easing muscle tension, slowing your breath, and releasing calming chemicals which then signals to your brain that it can relax and stop ruminating on those unhelpful thoughts or worries. You do not need to be athletic or have any yoga experience in order to try this and gain the benefits. Even a simple breathing exercise is considered yoga and has the beneficial effects listed above.
The following breathing exercise is designed to slow down your breath, decrease anxiety, and increase relaxation. I recommend practicing when you are already relatively calm, for 5 minutes, 3 times a day, until you get the hang of it. The more comfortable you can be with this exercise, the easier it will be to successfully use it when in a heightened state of panic, distress, or anxiety.
How to practice calming breathing:
1. Sit up tall, with a straight spine. Either place your hands on your knees, or place one hand on your heart and one hand on your stomach. You have the option to close your eyes.
2. Inhale normally. Try to fill your lower belly with air, rather than your chest. If you are filling your lungs your belly should rise significantly. If only your chest is rising, try taking a deeper breath. (4 Seconds)
3. Exhale slowly. Some people like to use a mantra in their mind like, “calm,” or “peace,” as they exhale. (4 Seconds)
4. After you empty your lungs, hold for 4 seconds before your next inhale. This hold is an important piece and is what is going to send the signal to your brain to relax. (4 Seconds)
5. Repeat for 5 minutes or until calm.
- I find it easiest to count my breath in my mind when doing this exercise. So I’ll think, “Inhale…2…3…4. Exhale…2…3…4. Hold…2…3…4.” Then repeat.
- Another option is to inhale naturally, slowly exhale as you think about your mantra, and then hold for 4 seconds. So I’ll think, “Inhale…Caaaaallllmmm…Hold…2…3…4.”
- If you feel like you’re holding your breath too long or breathing too fast, adjust the pace of your counting to what feels best and most comfortable for you. This exercise may feel challenging the first few times you practice, but it shouldn’t feel like you are holding your breath or cause any physical discomfort.
- It’s natural for your mind to get distracted and wander away from the breathing exercise. If you notice your mind drifting, just gently bring your attention back to your breath and continue. This may happen many times when you first try this out. Without judgment just notice this, and redirect your attention.
Kaitlin is a psychotherapist at Freestone Psychotherapy who integrates Yoga-Informed Psychotherapy and Trauma Sensitive Yoga into her work with patients. If you would like to talk with Kaitlin about meeting, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the contact link on our website.