To say that dealing with anxiety is a challenge is quite an understatement. It can create feelings of fear, panic, decreased self-esteem, worry and defeat. I personally was diagnosed with anxiety a few years ago – I know that it’s painful, difficult and downright frustrating to not “be in control” of your thoughts and your actions. Instead, you fell consumed by your endless thoughts and worries.
As a certified yoga instructor and a dedicated student of the practice, I have witnessed how yoga can help ease anxiety, depression, panic attacks and even PTSD.
The beauty of yoga is that it is for everyone. You don’t need a studio or fancy yoga gear to practice these poses – all you need is space and the willingness to allow yoga into your heart and mind. Along with guidance from a medical professional, you can also find a release from that grip that anxiety has over you through these four asanas that I find to be the most effective in managing anxiety.
1. Uttana Shishosana/Extended Puppy Pose: This invigorating inversion is one of those poses that requires minimal effort but still gives you a great, relaxing stretch that offers endless benefits to both the body and the mind. Whether you utilize this pose in the beginning of your practice or as a closer, the deep stretch in your shoulders and your spine triggers the mind to slow down and enjoy the gentle movement you are giving your body.
The method: Begin on all fours (tabletop pose) with a straight, neutral spine – hands are shoulders-width distance apart, shoulders are over the wrists, hips are over the knees, knees are in line with the wrists and the tops of your feet are on the floor. As you inhale, walk your hands forward as your chest drops to the floor and your hips reach back toward your heels. This pose has a mini backbend in it, so you should feel your shoulder blades widening and releasing any tension that tends to build up in that area. If it’s available to you, drop your forehead to the floor and allow your neck to relax. With every exhale, press deeper into your hands. Hold this pose for 30 seconds to one minute. Since extended puppy pose reverses the blood flow, slowly exit this pose to prevent dizziness/lightheadedness.
Tip: If bringing the forehead to the floor is creating more pain than pleasure, try putting a bolster or a folded blanket under your forehead to ease any unwanted pressure.
2. Salamba Sirsasana/Supported Headstand: Headstand is another pose that relieves anxiety by reversing the blood flow and by requiring you to stay present through focusing on your breath and muscle engagement in that moment. Don’t let this pose scare you; it may look hard, but it is actually attainable for all yogi levels.
The method: If your mat is on the thin side, use a blanket for additional head support. Kneel on the floor while crossing your arms over chest, allowing the right hand to rest on your left shoulder, and your left hand on your right shoulder. Keeping that connection, allow your body to hinge forward, propping your torso up on your elbows. Doing this step will force your elbows to remain shoulder-width distance and will place your elbows exactly where they need to be on your mat. Now, release your hands from the shoulders and allow them to lay parallel to one another on the mat and lace your fingers together, but keep your palms open. While pressing down on your forearms and your wrists, roll your upper arms slightly outward and come up on to the tips of your toes. As you tip-toe forward, bring the crown of your head to the floor, allowing the back of your head to nestle into your palms.
Keep walking your toes up with your heels elevated until you feel your hips are stacked over your shoulders. Remember to keep your quads active in this pose and to keep your torso long and firm in this set-up. Kick both knees up at the same; this may cause you to bend your knees while you kick up – and that is okay! Find your balance while your thighs are perpendicular to the floor by firming the tailbone against the back of the pelvis. Spiral your thighs inward and keep engagement in your toes (think “Barbie Toe”) and press the heels toward the ceiling, straightening into the knees. You should be able to draw one straight line from the crown of your head to the arches of your feet.
You can hold this pose anywhere from five seconds to five minutes. Exit the pose on an exhalation while keeping the shoulders firm and hips active, allowing the feet to lightly hit the floor at the same time.
Tip: If this is your first time trying headstand, or you would like some additional support, try setting up against a wall, allowing your feet to lightly rest against it while you’re inverted.
3. Ardha Padmasana Vrksasana/Half Lotus Tree Pose: The intense concentration required in this pose helps ease anxiety by taking your mind off of your thoughts and forcing you to focus on your physical self.
The method: Stand with your feet hips-width distance, and shift your weight into your left leg. Bend your right knee and allow the outside edge of that foot to rest on your left hip bone. If this feels too intense, or your hips don’t allow half lotus, place the sole of your left foot on the inside of your left thigh, calf or ankle with your toes pointing to the ground – whichever feels more comfortable. Never allow your foot to rest against the knee, doing so will cause more harm than good further down the line. This version is simply called Vrksasana or Tree Pose.
I like to tell my students to focus on an object in front of them that isn’t moving, like a block, the top of their mat or by focusing on the point where the wall meets the floor. This will help keep your balance and force you to stay in the moment. Now, engage your core and bring your hands into prayer pose by your heart, known as Anjali Mudra or the Salutation Seal. Hold this pose for up to one minute. Repeat on the left side.
Tip: If you are having trouble keeping your balance in this pose, try shifting your weight into your big toe on your standing foot.
4. Janu Sirsasana/Head-to-Knee Forward Bend: One of the benefits of forward bending is reducing tension in the body and the mind. This pose is extremely effective in calming the brain which aids in relieving mild depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
The method: Start with both of your legs extended in front of you, keeping the toes engaged (again – think “Barbie Toe”). On an inhale, draw your right knee into your chest, forcing your right foot to come off the ground and cradle it. On an exhale, open the knee to the right, allowing the sole of your foot to rest against the inside of your left thigh, creating 90° angle from your right knee to your left foot. If you can open your angle to wider than 90°, go ahead and do it. Extend your arms overhead, and fold over your straight left leg on an exhale. You can hold this pose anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes. Repeat on the other side.
Tip: To keep your hips square as you are bending in this pose, reach towards the outside edge of the foot on your straight leg with the opposite hand, and then fold forward.