How to pick the right style of yoga for your anxiety
Not all styles of yoga are ideal for anxiety. Some can even make it worse. Yoga is supposed to be a non-competitive activity that encourages balance and harmony in body and mind. However this is not always the case for everyone.
Firstly it’s important to remember that when yoga was established over 5000 years ago, people suffered from significantly less anxiety. That’s not to say that they didn’t have to deal with hunger, natural disasters, wars, social and religious identity,
and the usual struggles of day-to-day working and family life. However in today’s modern living, sensory stimulation and the constant influx and accessibility to global information, puts a different type of pressure on adults and children Today anxiety is one of the most prolific diagnoses worldwide.
Having worked with people suffering from anxiety from many cultures, and having suffered with it myself since childhood, it has become apparent that not all ‘styles’ of yoga work in its favor. In fact many people give up on yoga after the first class, because they found it ‘boring’.
Yoga is an individual practice that should be tailored to how you are feeling mentally and physically on any given day. But in order to start yoga, going to a group class or using You Tube, is the usual place to begin. In this case what type of class or video should you be looking for, and what is the best way to benefit from them to diminish your own personal anxieties?
Restorative & slow paced yoga classes
These types of classes may appear under names such as Restorative, Iyengar, Kundalini, Sivananda or Yin yoga. Hatha yoga classes, depending on who’s teaching them, may also be a slow paced class. These styles of yoga can still be mentally and physically challenging, and hugely beneficial to many people. However the anxious mind tends to wander when it is held in a position of stillness for a long period of time, or simply find it too difficult or boring. For example some poses may be held for 2-5 minutes which is not ideal for a newcomer to yoga with anxiety. Not only does it require strength and commitment, but it also requires the strong meditative ability to keep your focus on your breath and how your body is feeling. The objective of the yoga poses (asanas) is to achieve ‘sthira’ and ‘sukha’ (steadiness and ease), which is not easy for the anxious mind who often finds it difficult enough to sit still, let alone in a challenging yoga pose. Some of these more philosophical types of yoga veer away from the physical practice, incorporating yoga traditions such as mantra, scripture readings, chanting etc as well as a strong emphasis on long periods of meditation or breathing exercises. Again, these can be hugely beneficial and joyful to the more seasoned yoga practitioner, however it requires a lot of understanding and experience in the ancient teachings, philosophy, and more advanced objectives of yoga.
The basis of physical yoga lies in Patanjali’s Eight Limbed Path. This begins with moral do’s and don’ts (which are largely neglected in most yoga classes) before moving on to the more physical aspects of yoga poses and breathing exercises. From there the practice develops the ability to concentrate on one point, focus for long periods of time, leading to meditation and eventually enlightenment.
If the yoga practitioner does not spend enough time developing the physical limbs of the path (which can often take many many years) then they should not be expected to find the following limbs easy.
That’s to say that until you have flexibility and strength in both body and mind, it is a lot harder to sit in lotus pose for 30-90 minutes in silent meditation. Even 2 minutes can seem like a lifetime, and possibly damage your knees or hips! Sadly this is why many people who experience these types of yoga as a beginner, don’t return for finding it hard or ‘too boring’.
Structured yoga classes
Examples of structured yoga classes that have a specific and set sequence are Ashtanga, Bikram and Sivananda Yoga, however the latter can include mild variations. These classes have a specific sequence of poses that is not deviated from, is always the same, and may be split into beginners, intermediate or advanced. Ashtanga Yoga for instance, is split into the Primary, Secondary etc series, with a specific number of breaths and transitions for the poses. Bikram Yoga is not only a set sequence, guided by teachers with a specific script, but even the atmosphere of the class is conditioned by temperature and humidity. The strict repetition in every class, is not ideal mentally or physically for many people.
The structure and consistency of these types of yoga may seem more attractive to the anxious minds who want to know exactly what is coming up next, what’s expected of them, or what they’re working towards. However it can not only become an unhealthy crutch in your life but eventually become detrimental in your efforts to diminish your anxiety. Structured classes often attract people with an addictive personality, and attending these types of classes can become a new form of addiction, and therefore unhealthy psychologically. They will often induce a sense of competition and pressure among their practitioners, not necessary between them, but within themselves. This can end up putting more stress on an anxious person, especially if you feel pressure from the teacher or others around you.
So which yoga class SHOULD I take?!
10 Tips for picking the right live or video class for you:
- Opt for an unstructured class that varies it’s poses, and has a faster pace (around 5 breaths in each pose).
- Try classes that use the words ‘vinyasa’, ‘flow’ or ‘dynamic’ to describe them, that keep you moving instead of longer periods of stillness.
- Avoid very slow paced classes likely to feel boring and allow too much time for you to get distracted by your thoughts.
- One of the most important things is that you like the teacher and resonate with their style of teaching. They should be patient and flexible with your limitations.
- Make sure the teacher explains and allows for simpler modifications of any pose you’re not comfortable in.
- Listen to your body! If you’re not comfortable in a pose, back off. If the teacher tells you off or puts pressure on you, then it’s the wrong class!
- Whether a structured or unstructured style, make sure the teacher is understanding if you chose to come out of a pose early, rest in child’s pose, or try a more simple modification.
- Avoid classes that make you stay in forward bends for too long. Seated forward folds are the most likely poses where your mind will start to wander. If you find this happening, push yourself a little further into the pose and return the focus to your breathing, not the fluff on your yoga pants or why your toenail looks weird!
- Avoid classes where open back bends are the peak pose of the class, or they’re held for too long. Back bends have been known to push someone with emotional issues, depression, or heightened sensitivity, to tears during a class! Stretching and exposing the front of your body, as in Camel, Bridge or Wheel pose, should be avoided if you’re feeling psychologically low or sensitive.
- Remember to breathe deeply and mindfully! Not only should you be finding steadiness and ease in your poses but also in your breathing. You should never get out of breath, but should keep your focus on it throughout. Remember that deep breathing is the most beneficial thing you can do physically to lower your anxiety. So keep this in mind all the time, not just during your yoga class.
Poses I would advise to focus on are leg and arm balances, and variations on plank, warriors and sun salutation. Personally I found that vinyasa/flow yoga classes were the most beneficial for my anxiety when I started yoga at 14 years old. I was put off by other styles but I’m glad I stuck with it, or I wouldn’t be where I am today! (Not entirely free from anxieties or immune to having a bad day, but hey I’m only human!) As time went by and my practice furthered, I managed to appreciate other yoga styles and bring them into my own personal practice. But what I still find benefits me mentally and physically the most, are flowing, energetic moving meditations.
A yoga teacher should be there to serve those attending their class, not teach what suits or feels right for them.
Listen to your body, breathe deep, and smile more 🙂
Charlie began practicing yoga over 25 years ago and has been teaching for more than 14 years to people of all ages and abilities. She is the lead trainer on the Indiv Yoga 200 hrs & the RCYT Kids Yoga Alliance Teacher Training Courses, and has certified over 400 students worldwide.
Originally from London and having worked in New York and Lisbon after her Psychology degree, she has since settled in Switzerland with her husband, and dedicated her life to expanding her knowledge of the science of yoga, mindful meditation and better physical and mental health.
Over the years Charlie has trained with some of the most renowned yoga teachers around the world (David Swenson, Shiva Rea, Anne-Marie Newland, Leslie Kaminoff, Sadie Nardini, Sonia Sumar etc) certifying in Hatha, Sivanada, Ashtanga, Childrens and Family Yoga, Yoga for the Special Child, & Inner Engineering with Sadhguru. She has become highly respected for her successful work in yoga therapy, especially for Autism, ADHD and other behavioural and developmental syndromes. She has also talked at some of the biggest corporations in Switzerland and the annual SGIS (Swiss Group of International Schools) Conference on implementing Mindfulness in the work place and the education system.
Charlie holds the highest yoga qualifications as an ERYT500 (Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher), RCYT (Registered Children´s Yoga Teacher), RPYT (Registered Prenatal Yoga Teacher) and YCEP (Yoga Continued Education Provider) with the Yoga Alliance, and has developed Indiv Yoga™ to bring a more physiological, therapeutic and individual approach to yoga. Indiv Yoga™ Switzerland is a RYS (registered yoga school) and RCYS (registered children’s yoga school) providing Yoga Alliance teacher training certifications of the highest professional standards.
The focus of Indiv Yoga™ is to provide the benefits of yoga to every type of individual, using its teachings to achieve physical and mental balance, and diminish the anxieties of modern life for adults and children.