I read recently that one in four people will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their life. This shocks me, but doesn’t surprise me, as I speak to people all the time whom ask how yoga can help them, or a loved one, manage stress and anxiety. So I wanted to write a little bit about it for anyone that may be wondering the same thing.
My yoga journey began in 2015 when I was trying to figure out how to manage stress, anxiety and severe panic attacks due to an intense and demanding job in London and also the passing of my cousin. I had to quit my job and move back home to the island and for a while, all i could leave the house for was my yoga class. 1 hour in the day when my thoughts subsided and I felt peace and calm in my mind and body.
More recently I started practicing Yin Yoga on YouTube, finding it was my go to when I felt particularly anxious or fatigued (I will write about yoga and chronic illness soon) and I have been lucky enough to train with International Yin Yoga Teacher Trainer Annie Au in Sri Lanka February 2018.
Since the course ended I have really been reflecting on how this gentle practice can improve our ability to deal with discomfort both physically and emotionally.
So what is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a state of agitation or hyper-arousal that is fuelled by adrenalin and cortisol.
These chemicals cause changes in the body that is often referred to as our ‘fight & flight’ response.
When we are in a stressful situation an extra shot of adrenaline is released and pumped around the body. This response is powerful and vital for survival.
Evolutionarily speaking our ‘fight or flight’ response would kick in when faced with a sabour tooth tiger and the physiological change would aid us in surviving by either outrunning, fighting or hiding from the tiger.
Nowadays, this response has its place in enabling us to complete projects in time for deadline, finish a challenging 10k race or save someone in a life threatening situation.
However, most people find themselves in an almost constant state of stress. As intelligent as our bodies are they do not know how to differentiate between stress caused by an unpaid bill or a sabor tooth tiger – so the same response is activated in the body.
This means we have a continuous stream of adrenaline and cortisol in our system and over time these otherwise life-saving hormones can degrade the health of the body and the mind leading to anxiety, worry, panic and fatigue.
So what is Yin yoga?
Yin is a gentle and slow form of yoga, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s easy.
In a typical 60 minute class you will only do a handful of postures however, they are held for a long time, some as long as 10 minutes!
The atmosphere in a Yin class is very conducive to relaxation, often accompanied by soft lighting and gentle music.
The postures are all passive, i.e. you don’t engage any muscles to try and push yourself further into the posture; you simply allow gravity to do the work for you. This allows you to access deeper layers of connective tissue called fascia, which is hugely beneficial for flexibility. In this post, however, I want to focus more on the psychological benefits.
If you’re a fidget like me, after about 2 minutes your mind will start telling you it’s time to get out of the position, but that’s when your resolve has to kick in! For the final 3 minutes or so you will probably be in a lot of discomfort (but absolutely no pain – otherwise you should exit the posture).
When you feel discomfort you will likely want to readjust your position or maybe tense another muscle to distract you from the sensation. You might even be tempted to hold your breath through it.
The physical and psychological benefits of Yin yoga will only start to fully reveal themselves to you once you learn to remain still in the postures for long periods of time. So once you have found a vaguely comfortable (okay, bearable) position, you should commit 100% to stay there to the end.
Why would you put yourself through that?
Whilst there are physical benefits of stretching the deep layers of connective tissue (fascia) in your body, let’s think about the psychological impact of “sitting with discomfort” as I like to call it.
Our minds are programmed to avoid discomfort. Most of the time this is a good thing; it can prevent us from physical and emotional harm.
But for some of us suffering from mental health issues (rumination, worry, stress, anxiety) the mind can start to overreact when it encounters discomfort, often to the point where it impacts our daily life.
For example, one of my most frequent anxiety symptoms was tightness in my chest, short shallow breathes and pulsing tingles in my hands.
This tingling in my hands was the same sensation that I felt when I first went bungee jumping and I was terrified. My whole body was telling me not to jump of that bridge and I could feel the adrenaline coursing down my arms and into my hands. I really didn’t like the sensation and I’ll never forget realising that my body was responding as if this situation really was life or death.
Whilst feeling the constriction and pulsing tingles was uncomfortable and annoying, the sensation itself was harmless. The situations when I felt this anxiety rise were never life or death.
But my mind didn’t like to be uncomfortable and so it would overreact, trying to conjure up ways of avoiding the feeling, creating resistance in my entire body. Cue a string of panicked thoughts along the lines of “oh my god my chest is tightening, how do I get rid of it, the tingles are pulsing, why has it come back, why does this keep happening to me, I don’t want to feel like this, what if I never get rid of it, will this keep happening forever”.
These panicked thoughts would create more stress and tension and then more sensations would follow – a lump in my throat, feeling hot and flushed, mind racing even faster until I was overcome with total panic and I would loose control.
What would happen if, instead of trying to move away from that sensation of discomfort (which clearly creates tension and resistance in my body and mind) I actually just sat there and observed it? What would happen if I allowed the discomfort to be there and just watched what happened? Can’t be any worse than the way I was dealing with it before, right?
Well, I’ll tell you what happened! Learning to watch the constriction of my chest or the tingles begin to appear, and not resist the discomfort, has meant that the sensation slowly start to dissolve!
Another way I like to look at this: Imagine your anxiety (those uncomfortable sensations) as a child version of yourself (about 3 years old) crying because he/she is upset or scared about something. Would you greet a poor, crying baby by pushing it away, being nasty and trying to just shut it up aggressively?! No!! You would pick them up, hold them in your arms, rock them gently to soothe them.
If we can learn a way to reposition our relationship with physical discomfort during a yoga class, we start to retrain our response to discomfort which we can carry with us off the matt. We can use the same techniques to deal with emotional discomfort in a more positive way.
When I came across Yin Yoga a few months ago I wish I had known about it when I was really struggling with debilitating anxiety attacks. But that thought has inspired this post!
For anyone struggling with worries, stress or anxiety, the best advice I can give you from experience is to learn to become comfortable in discomfort. Life will always be full of ups and downs so if you can become comfortable with uncomfortable sensations, you’ll soon start to find that things don’t faze you as much anymore. Yin yoga is a great way to learn and practice this technique.
Not to mention the practice is so insanely relaxing, it leaves your whole body feeling like it’s melting into the floor.
Yin Yoga Classes:
Monday 10-11.15am Shine OM
Tuesday 7.30-8.30 pm The Studio at KEB