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Yoga and anxiety

On the occasion of International Yoga Day, let us explore “the concept of yoga” first. What is yoga? Yoga is often used synonymously as asana or even referred to as exercise. So mostly it is viewed as an exercise session to stretch your hamstrings, relieve back pain, and strengthen your core. Now don’t get me wrong, it does do all that. The point is, it is not ALL that it does. It is only our limited awareness of the profound scope of the practice that reduces yoga to an exercise. And then there is also the casual reference of “Yoga and Pranayama”, “Yoga and Meditation” without understanding that pranayama and meditation are all but different aspects of yoga practice.   So what is yoga? In the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, one of the most revered scriptures of yoga Maharishi Patanjali lays down the “Ashtanga Yoga” or the eight limbs of yoga which encompasses Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi. Asana (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises) and dhyana (meditation) are all but the different limbs of yoga practice.  
We live in our minds and thus a healthy mind is crucial to live a healthy and fulfilling life.
What we have to understand is that our mind-body-breath are all deeply connected. The body tenses in uncertainty, braces in threat, freezes in shock, and collapses in hopelessness. This wisdom of the inherent non-divisiveness of the body and mind forms the physiological, psychological, and spiritual underpinning of yoga. Our emotions like anxiety, fear, and stress remain deeply embedded in the body causing us to feel restless, scattered, agitated, anxious, and ungrounded.   The way asana works is somatopsychic. We work through the body to elicit a shift in the state of mind. Though we think of asanas as shapes we create with the body, the practice is the shift from shape of body to state of mind. Thus, the deep stretching offered by asana (posture) practice, combined with conscious even breathing facilitates a release of the tight grip of these tightly held emotions and helps create a harmonious stable state of mind for the practitioner. And the more stable and centered the mind is, the less restless and anxious it is prone to be.   Pranayama, the conscious working with Prana, the universal energy, through our breath is yet another powerful way to address anxiety and stress. The breath is the bridge between the mind and the body and has the ability to powerfully influence both. Today, even science, the power of the breath is recognized and accepted but even before that Maharishi Patanjali gave us this knowledge in the yoga sutras in 1.34. Long exhalations in particular are the key to activating the “relaxation response”. There are many pranayama techniques, like nadi shodana paranayama, chandra bhedana pranayama, bramhari pranayama, pranava pranayama, etc that teach us how to balance and lift our mind and our energies.   Dhyanam or meditation is another key tool to deal with anxiety. Research shows that through meditation, the emotional limbic center of the brain is less active. So setting aside 15-20 minutes a day to meditate reduces distractions, creates a quiet time for ourselves and helps grounds the mind. With regular practice, over a period of time, we feel balanced and centered and less anxious, overwhelmed, and depressed.   But while yoga offers many techniques, the key is “consistent practice” and to make it a part of our lives. I always tell my students that the commitment that we put into the practice is the grace we receive from it. As the pandemic calls on us to look deeply within ourselves and address the light and the shadows, let us embrace yoga as a way of life as we walk the path towards becoming more conscious evolved human beings.   Shailaja Menon is a certified 500-hr Manasa Yoga Teacher, Author “Yoga Shakti”, TV Host, and speaker with over 20 years of experience in the field of yoga.  
niyogibooks | 01-Jan-1900