Why are we so anxious?
Anxiety is a familiar companion to many of us, and understandably so. We’re constantly inundated with messages urging us to do more, achieve more, earn more, and consume more—mixed with warnings about the dire state of the world. To be sure, activity, achievement, resource development, and even consumption and concern over the world’s problems are necessary and valuable, but only when balanced with rest, play, restoration, and reflection. While we also hear a lot of messages these days promoting “self-care,” this can often feel like just another thing to add to the to-do list, exacerbating rather than alleviating our sense of anxiety.
What happens when anxiety becomes chronic?
When a stressful event occurs, our brilliant bodies respond by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This hormone cocktail gets us ready to fight or flee, increasing heart rate and respiration and sending resources to the muscles and brain while suppressing non-emergency systems like digestion and immunity. While enormously helpful when we’re in mortal danger, this hormonal state has devastating effects when it continues unabated.
Our bodies are meant to return to homeostasis after a stressful event. When we remain on anxious alert, the constant release of stress hormones depletes the adrenal glands and creates imbalance in other body systems. Chronic stress has been linked to problems with blood sugar regulation, brain function, immunity, metabolism, mood, sleep, and more. As the stress response system becomes depleted from overwork, many experience fatigue and depression.
Can we really do anything about anxiety?
It can seem hopeless. When life is busy and hectic, the mere suggestion of adding something to the list might just create more anxiety. The truth, however, is that some very small, simple practices can create the possibility for monumental shifts in perspective and create more expansiveness in our day-to-day lives.
How can yoga help?
Yoga is often defined as union or “yoking.” Various yogis describe this union in different ways, such as joining mind with body, body with spirit, or our individual being with the infinite. We might also consider yoga as a way to unite our waking consciousness with our true indwelling nature, which is always deeply valuable and worthy of unconditional love. While the word “yoga” tends to make most Americans think of complicated postures that require great flexibility, these poses are not the goal of yoga practice. The fact is that anyone can practice yoga, even with the most limited mobility. In fact, the earliest yoga texts barely mention asana (postures) at all.
Make a commitment, but start small.
The first step is to commit to a practice. This doesn’t mean you need to get up at 5 a.m. and do an hour-long asana practice. It might be as small as committing to five minutes of meditation before getting out of bed in the morning or doing a single sun salutation to welcome the day. What you commit to is up to you; the idea is to recognize that you are worth caring for and take concrete steps on your own behalf. When you use your will to initiate positive change, however small, it builds confidence in your power to shift your experience.
One of the simplest tools we can use to begin quieting anxiety is grounding. Grounding is the practice of rooting your attention in the here and now. It’s an essential part of mindfulness, the practice of being consciously engaged with the present moment. As we shepherd our awareness into the present, we loosen our grip on the replaying of memories and imaginings of possible futures that fuel anxious states. Yoga offers a variety of grounding techniques. Spend at least five to ten minutes exploring each practice you choose to get a sense of what works best for you.
- Bring attention to where you’re contacting the ground (or whatever you’re sitting, standing, or lying on). Notice the pull of gravity and the support of the earth beneath you.
- Take a long, slow breath, allowing your belly to expand as you inhale and flatten as you exhale. Practice keeping attention on your breath. It’s harder than you might think, but don’t beat yourself up when your attention strays. Just bring it back and keep trying.
- Extend the exhale portion of your breath. If you can do so comfortably, leave a moment between the end of the exhale and the beginning of the inhale. Notice your state of mind in this momentary pause.
- Close your eyes and focus on sensation. There are many ways to do this, and each works to bring your attention into the present.
- Notice the sounds around you. Begin by noticing sounds that are far away, then move focus to sounds that are closer, eventually tuning into the sound of your own breath and heartbeat.
- Hold a warm cup of tea in your hands and bring all your attention to the sensation of temperature. The scent of the tea also provides a sensory focus.
- Tune into the feeling of air on your skin. Notice temperature, breeze, and the difference in sensation between exposed areas and those covered by clothing.
- Choose a small morsel of wholesome food, like a raisin, nut, or berry, and eat it as slowly as possible, bringing all your attention to the sensations in your mouth.
- Step outside and find something in nature to focus on. It can be anything at all. You might listen to birdsong, feel the bark of a tree, or watch a beetle scramble over the soil. Nature is always there with lessons to share, but most of us rarely take the time to listen.
- Practice grounding yoga poses. These are postures that encourage you to slow down, feel the strength of your bones and muscles and the support of the earth, and bring your attention to the immediate experience. For example,
- Warrior 2, goddess, or chair pose can help you feel the strength of your legs and the support of the earth.
- Balance poses, such as eagle, warrior 3, or half moon, command attention to the present moment.
- Inversions like downward dog and standing or seated forward bends have grounding benefits.
- While a fast-paced, power flow-style practice can exacerbate anxiety, a slow flow asana sequence can be quite grounding because it links movement with breath while maintaining a slower pace, requiring a great deal of attention to the present moment.
- Restorative yoga poses, such as child’s pose, supported bridge, or supine twists, are held longer to invite relaxation, ease, and a sense of calm. Savasana, or “corpse pose,” is typically used at the end of asana practice to rest and assimilate the benefits.
You can start your journey to a calmer mind by committing to practice grounding every day. As you practice, pay attention to any shifts in mood, perspective, or sensation you may notice. These experiences will support your commitment by providing a natural, intrinsic motivation to continue.
Getting grounded is an essential skill for calming anxiety, and it’s just one of many tools that yoga provides. In future posts, we’ll explore more yoga tools for shifting anxiety.