Anxiety From a Yogic Perspective                                                                                                               Dec. 2012


Everyone has experienced anxiety. It shows up with a range of physical symptoms – racing heart, tense muscles, lightheadedness, sweaty palms; a range of thoughts – over-estimating danger, under-estimating your ability to cope, worries, feeling alone in your thoughts, and catastrophic thoughts; and a range of moods like nervousness, irritability and panic.  It can also create a range of behaviours like avoiding situations where anxiety might occur, and trying to do things perfectly or trying to control events to prevent perceived danger.

Sometimes the thinking is that anxiety is just fear, but fear is the physical response to an external threat. It’s an instinctual, life preserving response to danger. Anxiety is not a response to imminent danger. It’s associated with memories of fear, anticipation of fear, and perhaps a biological predisposition.

Our perception of an event or experience, powerfully affects our emotional, behavioural and physiological responses to it.


From my experience, the ancient wisdom traditions provide powerful practices for us that elicit a response in our nervous system and engages that part of us that can feel centred, at ease, stable, grounded and mindfully in the moment.

One of the problems with anxiety is that it can be so consuming that you focus only on the symptoms of anxiety and lose sight of the root cause. If you lose track of what’s causing your anxiety, it becomes more difficult to take action to alleviate it.

There are many books and workbooks to help with anxiety. I would suggest looking into them, including “Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart” by Tara Bennett-Goleman, and “Mind Over Mood” by Dennis Greenberger & Christine Padesky.


Because of its focus on tuning into our inner states, yoga can help you get beneath the surface of anxiety to figure out what might be triggering it, such as unresolved conflicts or habitual thought patterns.

Yoga, tai chi, meditation and various practices from the east have known for more than two thousand years what is being ‘scientifically’ proven today: meditation practices relax the nervous system and can even ‘rewire’ us into a more resilient and optimistic way of being. We can begin to feel more empowered around what we choose to think about; our perceptions begin to shift out of a one track approach and deeply entrenched reactions to things.

But these practices are not magic pills. There is no instant gratification which has become the drug of choice in our culture. These practices of breathing, meditation and yoga take commitment and patience before their treasures are felt.

Yoga is often thought of in the west as a physical practice, and is often taught that way, but yoga is much more than that. At its root, it is the healing of the disillusionment of separateness. The breathwork, called pranayama comes from the word Prana – the animating principal of the universe; undivided wholeness, and the word Yama – to move with. So pranayama is to be actively living in and nurtured by the divine inherent in the universe which infuses the bodymind with prana, which flows in the breath. It is something that we are – abiding in our True Nature of undivided Wholeness.


I have had many people in my practice over the past 28 years who have come because of anxiety, depression, or they are navigating an illness. I create practices accordingly for each of them. Everyone who has anxiety, breathes shallowly and feels disconnected. They’ve unconsciously cut themselves off from the flow of the Life Force and from their true nature.

There are a number of easy breath and awareness practices that can benefit anyone tremendously when attended to on a daily basis.

With anxiety, the connection between mind and breath is very evident. During anxious or fearful moments, breathing is disturbed in a wide variety of ways. Anxious breathing occurs mostly in the upper chest and doesn’t fully engage the diaphragm – your main respiratory muscle. With deeper (below the chest) breath, the respiratory rate is slowed and tends to promote calmness. Rapid, anxious breathing on the other hand, serves to further activate the sympathetic nervous system, causing the release of stress hormones. Plus, breathing quickly makes you expel more carbon dioxide, which also tends to put you on edge.

Beyond awareness of your breath, yoga also teaches awareness of thought patterns. With practice, one can detect the first glimmers of anxiety and intervene with a particular breath technique.

Below are a few exercises to get you on the path:


  1. The Thought Tamer – Inhale into your lower ribs and exhale through your mouth for a longer amount of time than your inhale. For example, inhale for 4 counts and exhale for 6,7, or 8 counts. Count the in breath & the out breath in your head (focuses brain) and repeat at least 10 times. Can be done anywhere, even in the grocery line.


  1. Calming Breath – Place your tongue lightly on the roof of your mouth at the ridge of your upper palate. Inhale from the lower rib area for a count of 4, hold breath gently for a count of 7 (less if 7 is too long), then exhale softly through your mouth and around your tongue for a count of 6, 7, 8 or 9. Repeat at least 4 times. Practice seated.


  1. Wave Breath – This is best learned with a teacher, but you can give it a go. Lie down comfortably. Inhale from the base of your spine up to your heart for a count of 4, 5 or 6. Fill your torso 3 dimensionally as you breathe in and think of it as a wave of breath, water or light that fills from the base of you to the chest & upper back. Exhale from the upper area all the way back down to the base and when you’ve exhaled fully, hold the breath out just for a heartbeat or two. If you have an ocean sound track, that is a great addition to this practice. Continue for 5 to 15 minutes.


  1. Breath Mantra – there is a mantra from the Sanskrit that is SoHum. It roughly translates to mean that there is an identity we have that knows ourselves to be more than our everyday thoughts, worries, likes, dislikes and wanting. It means I Am, and the intent in chanting it is that we return to our undivided wholeness. Sit or lie down, on the in breath in your mind chant So and on the out breath chant Hum in your mind. Imagine the chant is deep in your heart and resounding through your whole body. Even ‘hear it’ as a resonant presence, for it is the sound of the breath.


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