I consider myself so lucky to have stumbled upon yoga. It has improved and enhanced every area of my life, from managing anxiety, improving sleep and enhancing relationships, to maintaining a body that is comfortable, strong and agile and inspiring me towards a generally healthier lifestyle. I’m better at my job because I work more easily under pressure than I used to, and I’ll even go as far as saying it’s taught me to set healthy boundaries, make a full recovery from eating disorders, and empowered me to find – and use – my voice. Happily I don’t have to choose between the many life-enhancing tools which I have learnt during my decade-plus of practice, but if I was to forget everything I knew tomorrow and could remember only one thing, there is one technique which stands out for me – and one bonus piece of information which my studies led to. These two things together are based in hard scientific fact and will help anyone to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. Ready?
First of all, MOVE.
When you start to feel the creeping tight chest, shallow breath and feeling of dread or wanting to hide away that are so common of anxiety (or however yours may present), MOVE YOUR BODY. Your nervous system has become primed to fight or flee (or for some, freeze), and the fastest way to dissipate the feeling is to do what your body has prepared itself to do. It doesn’t matter what it is – jumping jacks on the spot, walk or run as fast as you can, dance around the room to an upbeat song – when you MOVE, you give those stress chemicals something to do and somewhere to go, and you break the vicious circle.
Then, BREATHE OUT FOR LONGER THAN YOU BREATHE IN. Yoga is famous for its breathing techniques, and whilst we work with different ratios of inhale to exhale to bring about different effects, calming the nervous system boils down to this. Start by breathing in for a count of 4, then out for the same. Then start to make the exhale a bit longer: in for 4, out for 5. If that feels ok, try in for 4, out for 6. As long as there’s no force or straining, you can go up to a maximum of inhale 4, exhale 8. This brings about an immediate activation of the relaxation response (the opposite of fight or flight) in the nervous system, and you trick your body – and by extension, your mind – into calming down. As an added bonus, the more you practise this technique at any time, the more you will reduce your baseline level of anxiety, and it becomes a very familiar and accessible tool that you have ready to deploy.
If you do both of these things, you will feel a reduction in your anxiety. If you’re in a situation where you can’t suddenly jump around to burn off the nervous energy, the breathing technique alone will still work brilliantly; but the two combined, in this order, are like magic.
And if I forget everything I ever learned tomorrow – please, please, remind me of that!