8 yoga poses to relieve anxiety

April 30, 2023 0 Comments

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I have suffered from generalized anxiety disorder most of my life. While I am a big believer in therapy and pharmacology, yoga is also a powerful tool. I notice a huge difference in my nervous system on the days I move and the days I don’t.

We often think of anxiety as fear of an unknown future. Dr. Becky Kennedy, author of The Good Inside, explains that anxiety is actually less about our fear of what might happen than our fear that we won’t be able to handle that circumstance. I love this reframing because it reminds us to reclaim our power. When I think about everything I’ve had to go through in life, I see how resilient I am. It gives me more confidence that I can handle anything that comes my way. This lesson is reinforced on my yoga mat where I can graciously explore my edges and learn how to get back up again and again if and when I fall. It is a place where I can face my greatest anxieties and fears head on.

Here’s an anxiety-free sequence of some of our favorite and most famous poses. Practicing yoga for anxiety can help us feel courageous and resilient again.

A woman in purple pants practices Balasana, Child's Pose
(Photo: Sara Ezrin)

1. Balasana (child’s pose)

When we feel anxious, there can be an impulse to curl up and hide. Freezing is one of our primary responses to an attack, so it makes sense that we feel this way. On more anxious days, I like to start with Child’s Pose because it embraces the “stilling” impulse. Instead of throwing my body into the gauntlet of discovery, I curl up to send a message to my body and nervous system that we meet where we are. Nothing is forced; nothing to be afraid of. This variation uses a rolled up blanket to create a sense of hold and encourage tight hip flexors to release. (A jolt in the upper thighs is a normal physical response to stress.)

As: Get on your knees. Bring your big toes together and spread your knees. Take a blanket or towel and make a small roll from one edge (about one inch in diameter) and place it in the crease where your thighs meet your pelvis. Allow the rest of the blanket to rest on your lap. Take a deep breath and as you exhale, curl up into Balasana pose. Extend your arms in front of you along your ears or back to your feet. You can place a block under your forehead. Stay here for 10 long breaths.

A dark haired woman in purple pants pauses between cat/cow poses
(Photo: Sara Ezrin)

2. Marjaryasana/Bitilasana (cat/cow pose)

This combination of poses has a number of specific benefits for this sequence. First, movement is a great way to ensure regular breathing. When we are anxious, we tend to hold our breath. Secondly, this is a familiar pose, because it is very often practiced in yoga classes. Familiarity can be comforting and supportive. But we’re going to add a third step for an extra edge. After completing a full round, pause with a neutral spine for a full breath. It symbolizes finding that place of presence between the future-oriented, open-minded Cow and the retreating, protective energy of the Cat.

As: From Child’s Pose, inhale and take a position on the table. For this exercise, keep your hands slightly in front of your shoulders so you can really feel the movement of your spine. As you inhale, lift your chest and bend into Cow. On exhalation, press your palms firmly into the floor and press your back to the Cat. Now move into a neutral spine position where you are not arched or rounded. Pause here for a full cycle of breathing. On the next breath, return to your dynamic cat/cow. Repeat this complete sequence (pausing between rounds) for five cycles.

Dark haired woman in purple pants kneels on yoga mat doing a low lunge while holding a yoga block in front of her
(Photo: Sara Ezrin)

3. Low lunge variation

Our bodies often communicate our feelings before we have a chance to process them. When we are anxious, it can seem like we are preparing for action. We may unconsciously puff our ribs forward and stick our chin out as if ready to pounce or flee (think fight or flight). By holding the block in front of you, you can bring your body back to center. This is an opportunity to practice bringing our front body to our back, integrating into the moment.

As: From the table foot, step your right foot to the front of the mat and align the front heel under the knee. Place your knee behind for comfort. Grab the block and lift your torso vertically. Hold the block between your palms and extend your arms in front of you, away from your body, in line with your chest and parallel to the floor. Use the exhalation to draw the front ribs back away from the block as if you can move the front of the body towards the spine. Extend your collarbones, relax your shoulders, and reach across the top of your skull. Do this for five breaths, keeping the chest block high. Place the block back on the floor and return to the table before repeating with your left foot forward.

A woman with dark hair practices plank pose.  Wearing purple pants and a gray tank top, she is stretched out on a blue yoga mat
(Photo: Sara Ezrin)

4. Beyond the bar

It can be easy to practice yoga in a quiet place, such as a yoga studio or on a mat at home. But what happens when we are in the real world and the intensity is heightened? Well, Plank offers us the best of both worlds. We can observe the same “pressing” of our front ribs against the spine that we practiced during the lunge, but at a much more intense moment. But since it’s still a yoga pose at the end of the day, we also know that the mat holds and protects us.

As: After getting off the table, walk your feet to the back of the mat, straightening your legs and getting into a plank position. If the bar seems too intense, lower the knees behind the pelvis in the supported version. Press your palms into the floor and feel the sensation of lifting the front of your body toward your back like you did in a low lunge. At the same time, pull the top of your head away from your heels to elongate your spine and soften any curves. Stay here for five to ten breaths.

A woman with dark hair practices the Warrior 2 pose with her arms around her.
(Photo: Sara Ezrin)

5. Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior Pose 2), variation

One of the key signs of anxiety is a desire to rely on yourself. From an evolutionary point of view, protecting the abdomen is a way to protect our most important organs, and we respect it. This variation of Warrior 2 encourages us to open up from within. We will wrap our arms around ourselves as a symbol of the comfort and protection we seek, but we will also work to find length and strength in the shape.

As: From the plank, bend your knees, bring your hands to the back of the mat and slowly rise up. Go to the middle of your mat and stand facing the long side with your feet a few feet apart. Turn the right leg out so that the toes are pointing away from the body, and turn the left foot and thigh slightly inward. As you exhale, bend your right leg, aligning the knee behind or above the ankle. If your knee bends far past your foot, lengthen your stance. Inhale and raise your arms in a T-shape. Exhale, round your spine and wrap your arms around your chest, crossing your elbows to hug yourself. Hold the form for five breaths, but use each breath as an opportunity to expand. After the last breath, release your hands, turn your legs parallel and stand on your left side.

A woman with dark hair practices Camel/Ustrasana pose.
(Photo: Sara Ezrin)

6. Ustrasana (Camel Pose)

Backbends such as Camel or Backbend, which involves bending backwards in a vertical position, can be some of the most powerful poses to teach us to believe in the unknown and in ourselves. They teach us to find balance so as not to fall. If we do fall, we believe we can get up and try again and still love ourselves.

As: After the Warrior 2 sequence, you can perform Surya Namaskara A from the front of the mat to help reset the body after such asymmetry. Otherwise, kneel straight for Ustrasana with your legs and feet hip-width apart. Bring your hands to either side of your sacrum at the top of your buttocks and point your fingertips down. This helps to open up the chest more by increasing the external rotation of our shoulder bones. To add more challenge to this Camel, close your eyes, or if that’s too uncomfortable, lower your eyelids and look at your cheeks. On inhalation, lengthen the spine from the tail to the crown; on the exhale, begin to arch back into camel pose. You can tilt your head back or keep your chin close to your chest if you feel discomfort in your neck. Breathe here for five full breaths. Keep your eyes closed as you press into your shins and inhale to lift your spine into a vertical position. Sit back on your heels and pause for a few breaths before repeating another round.

A woman with dark hair practices Baddha Konasana with a forward bend.  She is wearing purple pants and a gray tank top, sitting on a blue rug
(Photo: Sara Ezrin)

7. Baddha Konasana B (out of the restricted angle pose B)

Our heart is another source of courage. The Latin root of the word “courage” is cor-, which translates as “heart.” As the saying goes, courage is not the absence of fear, but doing something despite fear is an important adage to remember when we feel anxious. Practicing a more rounded version of Baddha Konasana allows us to look inside the symbolic cave of our heart. Many ancient teachings metaphorically speak of this space as containing an eternal flame. This flame can illuminate even the darkest paths we must walk. On a physical level, this pose relaxes all the muscles along the spine, upper back and neck that tend to contract when we are stressed.

As: Sit with your feet in front of you. Bend your knees, spread them wide to the sides and touch the soles of your feet together. Pull the heels to the pubic bone. While holding your legs with your hands, inhale, and as you exhale, round your spine so that you can touch your forehead to the bottom of your feet. Allow the roundness to come from the tailbone to the base of the skull. Stay here for 10 breaths, breathing into the back of your chest and upper spine. As you inhale, rise slowly. Bring your knees together and extend your legs straight.

A woman lies in Savasana, corpse pose, with a blue striped blanket covering her torso
(Photo: Sara Ezrin)

8. Savasana (corpse pose)

There can be a level of excitement when we are ready to face whatever comes our way. We don’t want to encourage that kind of energy that sometimes leads to premature decision-making. Using a blanket as a weighted anchor, this version of Savasana allows us to stop for a moment and stay in the present. By taking stillness after such a dynamic sequence, we can notice what it feels like to be ready to move without having to act.

As: Take the blanket and fold it so that it becomes a heavy square. If you have thin blankets or towels, you may need several to create some weight. Lie down and place a folded blanket on your chest. It should cover you from the shoulders to the waist or below. This will help to release the shoulders to the floor. Close your eyes or simply lower your eyelids and soften your gaze. Stay here for at least three minutes. Always rest longer if you can.

When you’re ready, remove the blanket, roll onto your side, and push yourself into a sitting position. Stop here in the moment and honor what has allowed you to do this practice today. Observe the results of your work.

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