Many of us have had feelings of anxiety and this is normal however when these feelings persist, happen for no reason or impact our regular activities in life it may be the sign of an anxiety condition. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released data in December 2018 that indicated that 13% or 3.2 million Australians had an anxiety-related condition, an increase from 11% in 2014-15. Data released in August 2020, as part of the ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, indicated that over two in five Australians reported feeling nervous (46 per cent); restless or fidgety (41 per cent) and that everything was an effort (41 per cent) at least some of the time in the previous four weeks. Beyond Blue states that anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia with 1 in 4 people likely to experience anxiety at some stage in their life.
Yoga can offer a popular and accessible intervention for anxiety particularly if the practices offered are down regulating such calming breath practices, slow, mindful movement, relaxation and mindfulness practices. A new study in August 2020 by the NYU School of Medicine found yoga improved symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder. Yoga was significantly more effective that standard psycho-education on stress management, but not as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which is the best practice treatment. Yoga is an under-researched intervention for anxiety however it can be a complementary practice to work alongside more traditional interventions under the guidance of a mental health professional.
Yogic philosophy describes three states or forces known as the gunas which include sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is balanced, a sense of equanimity while tamas is the mode of inertia or lethargy closely aligned to depression in western psychology. Rajas is the guna most similar to anxiety as it can include restlessness and agitation. In his book Yoga As Medicine Dr Timothy McCall states “One of the key yogic techniques used to counter anxiety is to focus on the breath.” I often see participants come along to my weekly Dru Yoga classes who cannot keep still, seem agitated and report they have a racing or monkey mind.
I find that the format of a Dru Yoga class guides in the direction of calm. A typical class starts with some activations including shaking the body, tapping or patting the body and swinging twists all done standing. This has the effect of burning off some of the stress chemicals by meeting the mood. The class then moves towards a standing meditation in tadasana (mountain posture) to emphasise feeling grounded. I find slow mindful practices with a focus on noticing or sensing the breath and gradually letting the breath lead the movement can support participants to move their physiology towards a more relaxed state. An example of this is the Dru Yoga flowing version of vrksasana (tree pose) which can be cued to feel into being more grounded like a tree or balancing the mind.
In my style of teaching yoga the pause is as important as the pose and there is a focus on gently lengthening the exhale. Kristine Kaoverii Weber in her online course The Science of Slow summarises that “slow, subtle yoga can help train the nervous system to find the optimal state of arousal in the window of tolerance.” Classes always finish with a fifteen minute guided relaxation, including progressive muscle relaxation and calming instrumental music for people to focus the mind on if they become distracted by to do lists or ruminating. I encourage participants to place a blanket over their body to support feeling more grounded and invite them to only close their eyes if they feel comfortable to do so during relaxation.
In my experience practicing and teaching yoga you need to meet the mood when working with anxiety and cannot expect people to settle directly into restorative practices, sitting in meditation or lying still for relaxation. Respecting the nervous system and guiding the participants toward a calmer place, is a key way to think about helping people cope with, manage, and ultimately, over time, reduce their anxiety symptoms.
Nicky Smith, of True Equanimity Yoga, is a qualified Dru Yoga teacher and a registered Level 1 teacher with Yoga Australia. She is currently completing a Dru Meditation teacher training course and has nearly completed Mental Health Aware Yoga training with Dr Lauren Tober to align her yoga teaching with her experience working in the mental health sector. Nicky’s yoga classes are focused on “innercise”, mental health and well being, rather than exercise or fitness based yoga. She resonates with the equanimity that Dru Yoga gives her as it balances all the layers of her being – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2018) National Health Survey 2017-2018.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2020) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey.
Beyond Blue. (2020) https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety
Simon, N.M., Hofmann, S.G., Rosenfielf, D, et al. (2021) Efficiacy of Yoga vs Cognitive Behavioural Therapy vs Stress Education for the Treatment of Generalised Anxiety Disorder: A Randomised Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry.
Dru Yoga (2020) Meditation Mastery, Level 1, Book 2. The Pranamaya Kosha.
McCall, T. Dr (2007) Yoga As Medicine: The Yogic Prescription For Health And Healing. Bantam, New York.
Kristine Kaoverii Weber (2018) The Science of Slow: A Step by Step Course for Yoga Professionals.