understanding anxiety through yoga

I’ve lived with anxiety for a long time. It would be hard to pin down exactly when it started, but, retrospectively, sweating through my clothes in the seventh grade seems like a clear sign. I wouldn’t wear the color gray for years. I’m a chronic planner who constantly wants to control the next moment, and spends a lot of life reaching towards the future rather than living in the moment.

I don’t think I realized how much anxiety I experienced until I momentarily stopped feeling anxiety, looked around, and thought, “is this how everyone else normally feels?” I owe that break in anxiety entirely to yoga. If anxiety is the pain of disconnection (a paraphrased definition from Sarah Wilson) then yoga eases anxiety through reconnection – to yourself and your “Something Else.” Your higher power, the universe, define it as you will.

But I couldn’t articulate that until recently. For a long time, yoga just inexplicably worked. It’s been working for me for 10 years now, and along the way I’ve started to understand how and why.

Here are the top five ways yoga taught me to live with and let go of anxiety:

  1. Anxiety feels like shaking a sealed soda; too many thoughts, moving too fast, with nowhere to go. Movement (asana) releases the built-up energy in a healthy way instead of melting down or blowing up at the people around you.
  2. Anxiety is loud, loud enough to drown out common sense or intuition. Breath work (pranayama) quiets the mind without trying to force it into submission, and breath work is easier to access when meditation feels overwhelming or impossible.
  3. Anxiety thrives on comparison. Meditation (dhyana) helps dissolve the sense of separation between you and me by reminding us that we’re made of the same energy and elements as every other person, animal, and thing in our universe.
  4. Anxiety compels us to grasp for the future, trying to control or plan what will happen to us and the ones we love. Non-grasping (aparigraha) is the antidote to anxious reaching – it’s a tangible practice of releasing expectation, softening your grip, and leaning back instead of forward.
  5. Anxiety is fueled by the belief that things, including ourselves, could/should be better than they are. Contentment (santosha) helps us accept that we’re not owed a pleasant, comfortable, or easy life – and we can only work with things as they exist now.

I could describe these practices in detail and try to deepen your intellectual understanding of how it works, but intellectual understanding doesn’t help as much as we expect it to. The only thing that could help is actually trying something, experimenting firsthand, and validating whether (or not) it works for you

try this

Each of these topics could be an entire newsletter, an entire book, the work of an entire lifetime. But here are a few shorter things you can try. If you have…

  • 5 minutes: Create your own breathing routine. Take a slow inhale, hold at the top, take an equally slow exhale and repeat. Over time, you can lengthen the inhales, exhales, or hold. And you might experiment with holding the breath after the exhale, too. Aim for 5 minutes of uninterrupted, focused breathing.
  • 15 minutes: Experiment with intuitive movement. Next time your anxiety indicators are going off, get up and move. It doesn’t have to be yoga asana – ask yourself what motions feel proportionate to the energy you need to release. Maybe it’s a walk, maybe a stretch, maybe a handstand (my personal energy-flipping favorite).
  • 50 minutes: If you’re in the Chicago area or open to virtual learning, I’d love for you to attend one of my yoga classes . I can’t promise all of the above, but in each class we experiment with different ways that the body, breath, or mind can help us work through uncomfortable situations.

a quote for the road

This is from Sarah Wilson, whose book First, we make the beast beautiful inspired my reflection on anxiety.

“We have an original anxiety that stems from feeling we’re missing something, that there’s more to life, that we need to know where and how we connect with life. But to sit with our true selves causes another anxiety, a lonely, exposed anxiety. Then, if we flee this sitting with ourselves, we encounter the anxiety of, well, knowing that we’re fleeing ourselves and truth…

I guess we have to ask ourselves, which anxiety is worse? Or perhaps the question is, if anxiety is unavoidable, which anxiety will produce the better life, the bigger life, the more meaningful life? The better journey?

Mindfully, Jaime

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