Yoga for Anxiety
Do you feel like you can’t breathe?
I was bouldering about a month ago with my girlfriend and a fellow yoga teacher and her husband. Not only is my friend a rock star yogi, but her and her husband have some spiderman moves on the rocks. I hadn’t been outdoor climbing in a few years and I forgot how real the fear is outside vs. indoor climbing at a local gym.
Inside there were mats all over the place. Holds inside the gym are more forgiving than skin hungry rocks outside. And inside, I had one route, one color, one way to the top. But outside there were choices.
Outside, fear was there.
FEAR is a reaction to current events, things that are happening to our immediate person. These feelings cause physical symptoms, such as a racing heart and shakiness. They are stimulated by the release of ACTH in the brain and norepinephrine surges around the body. The adrenal gland (think adrenalin) is hyper vigilant during these times that require violent muscle reactions.
During a break I was talking to her husband about breathing and stress when climbing.
He was killing it! He would make a move and breathe. Take another hold or change his foot, take a breath. In this regard, yoga and climbing go very well together. He had learned to control his anxiety and breathing related to a specific climb. Seediness was there.
But during this talk about breathing he confessed that he doesn’t enjoy the pranayama (breathing) exercises. They are difficult and bring up a lot of fear for him.
Fear and anxiety are different. Anxiety is a worry about a future event. Think like, anxiety is worrying about Kapotasana while having your morning coffee. Fear is actually doing the backbend with Sharathji.
OR anxiety is thinking about an asthma attack and not having an inhaler and not being able to breathe and sitting out on the fun and holding everyone back from enjoying the day and being miserable that you forgot the inhaler and afraid that everyone will hate you, and that you should have prepared, and that . . .
Fear and the fear response has been preserved throughout evolution because it ensures our survival by generating an appropriate behavioral response, fight or flight. The brain records this fear and will cause the individual to remember details surrounding the situation. We re-live our fears. Hopefully to have a finer tuned response the next time we encounter the stimuli.
I sat across from his wife during pranayama class with Sharath this summer in Mysore. The Pranayama (breath holding) got increasingly more intense each class but she remained calm and poised. She has asthma (under control) but she understands what it feels like to be without air. She understands how to calm her anxious mind and control her breathing. She has developed this skill for her survival. Adaptation. She had practiced pranayama without knowing that she was practicing when she was growing up. She was simply surviving.
So as the pranayama became more difficult she had an advantage, if you want to call having asthma an advantage? She was able to remain poised and controlled during the long exhale retentions. Practice.
Did I mention how awesome she is?!?
But it’s not always fun and playing around on the rocks. Sometimes it's real. It's is survival. In survival, fear is there. Fear is a good trait to have.
We practice placing ourselves in an artificial stressful environment (think, the Mysore room, or climbing indoors) to prepare us for the real deal, like skin hungry rocks.
After all . .
'Practice and all is coming' -Guruji
We take comfort in that phrase. Practice and ALL is coming . . . I seldom hear, practice and stress is coming. Practice and fear is coming.
But they come.
And IF we talk about them, we only talk about them looking back in hindsight. We paint a pretty picture of how we overcame (BLANK) or we didn’t let (BLANK) control us. But, practice and ACTH is coming! (Remember, the hormone released during stress triggering the fights or flight) Practice and anxiety is coming.
My options include fighting. Standing my ground for what I hold valuable. Or running away and praying that I'm faster than what is out to get me.
In Mysore practice we go to that place of fear, every day. Our anxious minds race between thoughts; will I break, will I have the energy, did I eat too much last night, did I have a BM before class, can I do this and get to work on time, etc.
Outside of the practice, outside, away from the safety net, the anxiety my colored, gay, friend feels right now, that is real. It's the real skin hungry rock, and it hurts. The country he fled too now views him as a threat. To me, he is simply, my friend. And I have compassion for my friend and I wish to comfort him. And my friend who feels nothing except for fear, I want to hold her because it’s not all right.
Fear is there. Where is the comfort? Where is the breathing?
When we are afraid norepinephrine is released in the body and we begin the fight or flight response. Our bodies go into hyper stress mode.
We have a limited amount of time to make use of this response before it burns out and we have either made it, or made a meal for someone bigger than us.
The body cannot sustain functioning in a stressful environment. For one, digestion stops (SEE PREVIOUS ARTICLE) and if we don’t get the required nutrients, the body burns itself up.
If we don’t control this stress reaction it may develop into PTSD, numbing via any number of methods, emotional detachment, or lead to habits such as laziness and procrastination.
But when we are anxious or fearing, reading an article like this doesn't help when the ship is sinking.
Ashtanga Nurse RX:
REMOVE THE STIMULI* (Turn off the FaceBook/TV)
Only after the fear stimuli is removed and anxiety is moderated can we process and make appropriate decisions. Acting in fear is helpful to move away from the stimuli but once the stimuli is removed and we continue to act from a place of anxiety, we move into dangerous areas.
May I suggest reading Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron.
Then, choose to fight. Because you are a warrior. Because this practice isn't for the lazy one.
Keep up your practice. Maintain your health. Eat well. Hold your loved ones.
*Taken straight from the pages of Wilderness and rescue Medicine pp. 27–28
allow the patient to lie down, provide reassurance, and remove the stimulus for the occurrence of the reaction. In traditional shock cases, this is generally the relieving of pain from injuries or the stopping of blood loss. In an acute stress reaction, this may be pulling a rescuer away from the emergency to calm down, or blocking the sight of an injured friend from a patient.