Monday, 1 August 2016

Yoga for Anxiety & Stress

It is no secret that diagnosis of anxiety and stress is on the rise. The Anxiety UK website states on their homepage that "Almost one in five people feel anxious a lot or all the time" - shockingly that's 20% of our population... Either our lifestyles are becoming increasingly pressurised, or we are more equipped (and more willing) to diagnose such conditions - my guess would be that it's a mixture of both. Stress, although often not as extreme as anxiety, is something which is widespread in our society. I can almost guarantee that each and every person who reads this will be able to relate to feeling stressed...sadly it's become part of modern day life.

I have suffered with anxiety (and depression - but let's save that for another day!) since the age of 13. That's half of my life. It was at it's worst when I was 13-15 (brought on by being bullied at school) and then again from 18-23 (brought on by being in an emotionally abusive relationship). I have had a series of minor panic attacks (usually on crowded trains - I'm also rather claustrophobic!) and one more serious panic attack (brought on by my fear of bugs...luckily I can see the funny side to this story now!). And I'm not going to go into my personal experiences any deeper today, but what I can say hand-on-heart is that yoga has been a HUGE part of my healing process. I've also been spurred on to write this post as I personally know at least 5 people who suffer from anxiety - 2 of which have sought me out for private yoga lessons, and so this makes me realise there are people out there who seeking some guidance, and who are ready to stand up and give their anxiety the middle finger!

My opinion is that if you suffer from anxiety it's almost always going to bubbling away under the surface (I may be wrong, but this is my experience); however there are coping mechanisms you can learn and lifestyle changes you can make to enable you to function more "normally" (I use this in the lightest terms: what is normal anyway?!).

"Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured" ~ B. K. S. Iyengar. So, without further ado, here are my top yoga asanas (postures) and techniques for helping you to manage your anxiety and stress - I highly advise these are learned under instruction of a qualified yoga teacher.


Balasana - Child's Pose

Jarjar fancied joining in too! Except she was ready for Savasana before we'd even started...!

Why Child's Pose?:
  • Almost anyone can do it!
  • It's a calming pose, one which helps to make you feel grounded 
  • You can focus on your connections to the mat, and on the breath, to help calm anxiety and stress.
  • If you feel discomfort between the knees and/or heels place a blanket or block between them. The forehead can also be supported by a cushion or block
  • Feet together with tops of your feet resting on the mat, opening the knees as wide as feels comfortable to you, rest your bottom as close to your heels as you can. Stretch the arms away from you & gently press the palms of the hands into the mat
  • Deepen and slow your breaths - inhale to the count of 4, exhale to the count of 4
  • Stay for a minimum of 10 breaths.
Ado Mukha Svanasana - Downward Facing Dog

Why Downward Facing Dog?:
  • It's a great pose for waking up the nervous system - and although this might seem counterproductive (why would we want to wake up the nervous system when we feel anxious?), our anxiety can be brought on when the nervous system has weakened or confused it's "fight or flight" response, and so by "training it" in a positive pose such as DFD we are encouraging it to be stimulated in a healthy way
  • It builds strength and softness - something anyone dealing with stress and anxiety needs to build. You ARE strong enough to cope with what your facing, and you ARE soft enough to grant yourself grace when struggles come up. 
  • Prepare a strong base. Hands planted shoulder-distance apart, fingers spreading wide, pressing firmly through every part of your hand, with the elbow creases turning in to face one another. Your feet should be hip-distance apart
  • The important thing in this position is to have straightness in your back - NOT getting your feet flat to the mat! A bend in the knees can help to encourage a straighter spine if your hamstrings don't feel very open 
  • Soften your shoulders away from the ears 
  • Stay for a minimum of 5 breaths, a maximum of 15.
Vrksasana - Tree Pose

Why Tree Pose?:
  • It requires focus! And when we focus on something such as balancing it is much easier to calm any symptoms of anxiety and/or stress
  • You can challenge yourself by squinting or closing your eyes, and by adding that element of the unknown we become accustomed to putting ourselves in situations where we feel challenged. And we quickly learn that even if we fall, we can bounce back and try again. 
  • Strong foundation - spread the toes on your standing leg wide, making a wide base. Press through the foot into the floor & engage the muscles in your legs. 
  • Rest the other foot on your ankle, calf, or inner thigh - avoid the knee joint!!! (Unnecessary pressure on the knee joint is highly unadvisable). 
  • Relax your shoulders!
  • Hold for as many breaths as you can balance for!
Virabhadrasana 2 - Warrior 2

Why Warrior 2?:
  • It's a pose which requires us to embody strength. Virabhadra was one of Lord Shiva's strong and fearsome warriors - he could take on anything! And this is what we embody and embrace when we come to this asana. 
  • Ideally the thigh will be parallel to the mat (so deeper than in my photo), and the knee will be directly above the ankle. An easier version with the knee behind the line of the ankle - as in the above photo - is acceptable, as this is still safe. But you must NEVER bend the knee over the line of the ankle else you will put pressure on your knee joint
  • Imagine your arms are being pulled in opposite directions, but keep your shoulders relaxed!
  • Keep your body in the mid-line - i.e. not leaning forward, not leaning backwards
  • Engage the muscles on your back leg
  • Keep your gaze over your front middle finger
  • Hold for 5-15 breaths. 


Why Inversions?
  • It can be scary going up-side-down! And whenever we face something that scares us this helps to equip us with tools we can use when we come across a situation off the mat which brings up fear, anxiety or stress
  • Inversions are when the feet are above your heart. This helps to slow the heart rate and to regulate it. Something which may help in reducing your anxiety or stress, as it's common in these situations for heart rate to increase.
  • Please only practice shoulder stand and headstand (centre photo and far right photo) under guidance of a qualified yoga instructor unless you are advanced in your practice. The pose in the far left photo can be practiced by almost anyone
  • Avoid inversions if: you have low blood pressure or you are pregnant. Some people prefer to avoid shoulder stand and headstand if they are on the first three days of their cycle. (This list is not conclusive)
  • Hold for 10 breaths minimum. Your maximum will depend on your level and experience of practice - again, please seek guidance of a qualified yoga instructor. 
Savasana - Corpse Pose

Why Savasana?:
  • It's everyone's favourite pose!
  • Savasana requires us to surrender. To be present. To consciously rest. It is the perfect opportunity to relax and to give yourself space. 
  • Make sure you're comfortable! The traditional way to do Savasana is with legs extended, feet mat distance apart, toes falling to the sides. But if you have any pain in the lower back you can either wrap up another yoga mat and rest it underneath your knees, or you can bend your knees, plant them mat distance apart and then let them fall together to touch. Blankets are also a great way to ensure maximum comfort!
  • Focus on your breath. Focus on how your belly gently rises and falls. Focus on the feeling of the breath running in and out of your nose. Even repeat to yourself "I am aware of the inhale. I am aware of the exhale". By focusing on the breath, you will help your mind to stay present
  • Stay for a minimum of 5 minutes. No maximum length! 

Why Meditation?:
  • Meditation and mindfulness are often prescribed for people struggling with anxiety and stress. There are differences between the two (which I won't go into now), but in yoga we practice meditation
  • You are forced to focus on your mind. To turn inwardly. And often to people with anxiety this is a scary prospect. However this is why it must be done. As with inversions we must do things which scare us to be able to move past them. And sometimes we must let things come up - emotions and thoughts - to be able to deal with them properly. Mediation forces us to sit and face them, rather than just bumbling along trying to ignore them. Once we let something surface we can then let it go.
  • Sit comfortably! You can use blocks or bolsters to make your seated position more comfortable, or even rest against a wall. Just try to ensure your spine is straight
  • Eyes closed to block out any visual distractions
  • Visualise your shoulders, face and arms relaxing. Try to let go of any tension in these areas of the body
  • Focus the mind on something. It can be anything. Breath. A place. A person. A memory. But choose just one thing and focus on it
  • Start with short bursts - 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. And gradually over time you will be able to sit for longer. Set an alarm on your phone so you know when your time is up (else you'll just be sat wondering how long you've been there for and will be tempted to open your eyes to check). 
Nadi Shodhana - Channel Cleansing Breath

What on earth is my human doing now?!

Why Nadi Shodhana?:
  • It requires full attention on the breath, and as mentioned previously when we must focus on something fully, we are much less likely to be consumed by our anxiety and/or stress
  • Breath control is a well-known, solid technique for helping to deal with panic attacks and stressful situations (we all know the phrase: "Take a deep breath...")
  • Assume a seated position as outlined in the meditation section
  • Rest your right peace fingers on the bridge of your nose. As the breath commences you will use the thumb to plug the right nostril and the fourth finger to plug the left (when I say "plug" I mean to lightly block the entrance of your nostril - not to forcefully press the nasal passage in)
  • Close your eyes
  • Begin by closing the right nostril, leaving the left one open. Deepen the breath to a steady count - start with counting to 4 on the inhale and 4 on the exhale - 1 x inhale + 1 x exhale = 1 round. Repeat between 6-12 rounds. Repeat by closing the left nostril, leaving the right one open
  • Progress to alternate nostril breathing: inhale through the left nostril, exhale through the right nostril, inhale through the right nostril, exhale through the left nostril - this = 1 round. Repeat 12 rounds
  • I highly advise this is done under the guidance of a qualified yoga instructor.  
My parting message to anyone living with anxiety and/or stress is that you are not alone and it is nothing to be ashamed of. We need to create open channels of conversation around mental illnesses so that we can help to alleviate the stigma. And if you are in the midst of what seems like a never-ending cycle of anxiety and/or stress please know that there is light. This will not define you. You ARE strong enough to cope with it. 

If you are interested to find out more about any of the asanas, mediation or breathing techniques then please get in touch. And if you are local to Ascot then please know you are welcome to any of my classes (all levels welcome!), you can find out more about my schedule here. Or even enquire about private sessions if you're not sure a group class is for you. 

Love & light, 

Lucy x


  1. Love this - yoga has definitely helped me with anxiety, both by doing home practice and by being taught by some amazing teachers who have helped to put everything in perspective. x

    1. Thank you so much Lily <3 Yes, it's really helped me too! Are you going ahead with your teacher training? Sending love & light to you x