The ‘reliable’ source (deception)
I remember those times when not everything was on the internet; for more knowledge and inspiration people read books, or were waiting patiently for that first Monday when their favourite monthly magazine filled the newsstands. In those times I really enjoyed flicking through the pages of a crisp new Yoga Journal looking for Julie Gudmestad’s always insightful anatomy article followed by Sally Kempton’s inspiring words of wisdom. I would spend the next few days reading the articles which were, as I recall, both informative and inspiring.
Today everything can be found on the internet; an easier, faster way which goes hand in hand with our fast lives and social network addiction, providing more content all the time. And this quantity undoubtedly affects quality. Any post is a one day affair, the content must be filled in on daily bases - everything posted yesterday is already old news. The quantity is important in order to serve those who pay ads based on traffic and and not on good articles and inspiration.
Most of us are aware that there is so much wrong or misleading information on the internet, and we all have our favourite pages we go to looking for some good, reliable information. When it comes to yoga, I am sure most of you still rely on Yoga Journal to provide well written, accurate and inspirational articles. Personally, I stopped reading YJ for a number of reasons, but every ones in a while something from their FB page pops up on my timeline and draws my attention. Last week it was two articles. First one was this Yoga for anxiety article. It’s basically a bunch of asana photos put together in no particular order stating ‘’Learn about yoga poses that can help address both the symptoms and root causes of anxiety and panic attacks.” as google tagline. On facebook feed featuring the article there are many likes, tags and thank you comments because YJ readers don’t think twice when they see the info in their favourite journal. And yet, the feature has no text, sequence has no rhyme or reason (maybe it wasn’t meant to be a sequence?) and some of the proposed asanas up there can actually make anxiety worse. I am saying this not only as a yoga teacher, teacher trainer and a psychotherapy student, I am saying this as someone who has suffered from anxiety. But, I’ll come back to that.
Today anyone can make a webpage and post whatever they like resulting in a lot of misleading information and advice out there, much of which is copy / paste from a ‘reliable’ source. In yoga world, magazines like Yoga Journal with an estimated readership of 3.5 million last year are considered such source and should therefore be filled with valid information, especially concerning health. The information they provide gets quoted, copied and used for practice; most yoga students and teachers actually take for fact whatever is up there without questioning. This, of course, gives magazines such as YJ a certain responsibility I believe they should take more seriously.
Anxiety definition, symptoms and types
Anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense panic and fear that reach a peak within minutes and cause psychological, physiological, and behavioural changes. Depending on the root cause, they can come ‘out of nowhere’ or are triggered by a threat to wellbeing or survival, either actual or what is perceived as potential. The attack is characterized by increased arousal, expectancy, autonomic and neuroendocrine activation, and specific behavioural patterns. Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety, they can be milder or more extreme and can include trouble concentrating, heart palpitations (rapid heartbeat), hyperventilation, sweating, trembling, feeling of intense fear, sleep related problems etc. There are different types of anxiety including panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, OCD and PTSD. The physiology of each of there types is same; your body goes into the fight or flight mode and starts releasing adrenaline surge which causes everything else to heighten. But, the initial impulse or trigger, usually some kind of a fearful situation varies. Panic disorder is accompanied by a belief that 'something is physically wrong', while people with social anxiety know there is nothing physically wrong with them and that the fear comes from finding themselves in social situations. Hence, they will avoid such situations.
The exact cause of anxiety disorders is actually still unknown. Some studies suggest that they may be caused by problems in the functioning of brain circuits that regulate fear and other emotions. Anxiety can also be a symptom triggered by another medical condition, mostly involving a hormonal unbalance. However, science does agree that these types of disorders are closely related to stress and the (in)ability to deal with stressful situations.
Since there is no one type of anxiety, symptoms and triggers vary, and the cause is unknown, suggesting what can benefit symptom relief should be backed by some researched arguments or personal experience (which can also be just that - individual).
My anxiety story
About four years ago I also suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. If you knew me, and some of you do, you’d know why I say that this was the last thing I ever thought I would struggle with. But, I did. In my case, they were triggered by a few conditions I soon found out I have; Hashimoto’s (auto immune thyroid condition) and very low cortisol levels (adrenal fatigue). My symptoms included most of the ones mentioned. The more scary ones were heart palpitations which can be very strong (to the point where you think you're having a heart attack) and, even worst, an overwhelming fear of losing my mind. There were days when I was afraid to be left alone and, if my (now ex) boyfriend was out of town, I would go and stay with friends or family. In my case the attacks were very random; the first major one happened at a coffee shop when my friends had to call an ambulance. One happened just as I was starting to teach my usual morning class (one of my TT students who came to practice had to fill in for me as I couldn't continue). Walking my dog, resting at home, I’d never know. As I begun to understand what was happening, did some reading and research and found out that I won't lose my mind and that I can't die from this, they became less frequent and easier to control. Even though I do get that uncomfortable feeling sometimes, I know now what works for me to address it. I know that the worst is behind me as I am healing the conditions which triggered them as well as the root causes that caused the conditions. I realized there is no way around it. If you want help you must be willing to take full responsibility for your wellbeing. For me it was arming myself with knowledge and understanding, followed by asking for help (therapy), followed by accepting/ Integration (still working on that).
For many of you out there, it is not as simple as that and this is why I get annoyed when someone takes this lightly, simplifies and offers ‘help’ that is actually not helpful at all. We still don’t know so much about how our bodies and minds work and we can all agree that we are all different, so there is no formula or one size fits all type of advice. But, there are things we do know and we can always take it from there and focus on what we do know and not on what we don't. And researching, knowing and understanding helped me heal. I can only share whit you what I helped me in hope it may help some of you out there.
Yoga practices which helped me
The key word for me during this time was – grounding. In order to calm my nervous system which was easily agitated by stress (low cortisol means low ability to handle any kind of stress) I did a lot of different grounding techniques to calm my nervous system and heal my adrenals. As I said earlier I armed myself with understanding and, even though the part of the brain partially 'shuts off' in fight of flight mode, I taught myself steps I would do like a robot almost. Sit down or lie down, focus on the stability your body gives you and breathe. After a while I managed to feel the early onset of what could potentially become a full blown panic attack and believe was able to either stop it or make it less severe. I say believe because we don’t have an insight into a parallel universe so I don’t know what would have happened if I did nothing. Maybe just believing it would help – helped, who knows? I'm a very dynamic person. Fiery Sagittarius of Pitta constitution, I had to teach myself how to slow down, how to be still. My yoga practice during that time was very gentle, I meditated every day and spent more time resting. I needed to override my default systems in order to create different responses.
Here are some practices I believe helped me trough the most challenging (acute) period:
GROUNDING WITH ASANA
When you feel more stressed on a particular day and fear that stress might trigger your anxiety, instead of stressing your body more with intense yoga practice or running or something that has a potential to drain your energy, do a restorative, calming practice instead. We all know exercise helps and releases all those nice and yummy hormones, but make sure you pick the right type so it does release the hormones that will help, not the ones that will make it worst. If you’re know Prana Vayus think Apana, if you know elements think Earth, or if you understand Ayurveda, think Vata pacifying practice, if you understand how Autonomic nervous system works, think parasympathetic. Whatever works for you.
Standing asanas would include stable yet not too challenging asanas, ones you can easily hold for five breaths while feeling your body, and especially your feet and your legs supporting you. For some this will mean just standing in Tadasana with slightly bent knees, or Vrksasana, for some neutral Uttkatasana (not looking up, avoiding the spinal extension). All depends on what your regular practice is and what is challenging for you. Seated asanas would include mostly forward bends like Paschimottanasana, Yoni asana, Janu Sirsasana, Supta Kapotasana and restorative, grounding sequence like Balasana, prostration (one of my favorites!) Supta Baddha Konasana, and a long Shavasana.
AVOID vinyasas, deep spinal extensions (often called backbends) like the full wheel, Ustrasana etc. Avoid inversions and generally anything that will overstimulate your nervous system.
GROUNDING WITH BREATH
Pranayama is such a powerful tool which can help us control the body as well as, yogis believe, the mind. This is why it is considered an advanced practice. Advanced pranayama should not be practiced unless you are either working with a teacher (who knows what he/she is doing) or know what you are doing. BUT, even if you do know what you are doing, most advanced asana should be avoided in these conditions. They invite too much air and, some, too much fire. There is a reason why we need to spend time to do asana and learn how to ground before we go into more advanced practices.
However, there are some breathing techniques which can greatly really help and can be practiced daily anywhere. Inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth three to five times is very grounding and calming. Counting your inhale and longer exhale is also great. Start with 5:5 five breaths, than 5:6 five breaths, 5:7 five breaths, than go back to 5:6 for five and 5:5 to finish. You can try this before you find yourself in a situation that makes you anxious and we all find ourselves with a bit of a stage fright ones in a while. Ujjayi pranayama can also be good as a practice of concentration (in seated position, just listening for your breath for a few minutes).
CALMING WITH YOGA NIDRA, VISUALISATION OR MEDITATION
If you don’t know any visualisation or meditation techniques, you can always find good guided Yoga Nidra (on youtube for example), and use it as often as you need to. If you can find a Mindfulness meditation teacher this is a great technique to learn. Mediation techniques can really help with anxiety - you can find much research to back this claim, but what's equally important, it will teach you how to be present and benefit your overall health.
Nutrition has a lot to do with our body chemistry and our body chemistry can greatly affect our moods. Avoiding stimulating food and beverage is always a good idea, especially if you suffer an onset of anxiety. Caffeine, alcohol, sugar rich foods etc. should be avoided. Spending time in nature; walking in the woods, gardening etc. can be very healing. We all know exercise is one of the best ways to keep our body and mind healthy so do something for your self every day. A more gentle yoga class, a walk or a swim perhaps.
And last but not least – therapy. I believe we all need a good therapist to help us go trough some more difficult times. Understanding that everything has a root cause which, very often, is not something we did ‘wrong’ and that whatever we are going through is only a part of a very long journey called life we are all a part of - can be empowering. Understanding your Self, your goods and bads, is a step closer to forgiveness and acceptance, and only when we can forgive and accept we can really love. And when we can really love, well… we can all heal. And finally be truly free.
If there is anything you don’t quite understand in this article, or feel you would benefit from me writing more about any of these practices, please doesn’t hesitate to contact me.