For many of us, it is helpful to know how to move through and shift the intense energy of anxiety and panic when it occurs. Regardless of the reason for your anxiety or panic attacks, I find that they are often a symptom of intense stress and fearful thinking about the future. As someone who experiences generalized anxiety most of the time, which can, at times, lead to intense panic, I need tools and tricks to try in the moment. After 12 years of practicing and studying yoga, I have a few favorite postures I like to use for anxiety.
It is important to remember that there is no “one size fits all” approach to anything, especially when we are dealing with anxiety and panic. These sensations, thoughts and feelings can come on for no logical reason and it can be very frustrating. I get it. It helps me to see all of the sensations, thoughts and feelings as energy moving around my body and trying to get out, but it is stuck. Body movement, through exercise, stretching or yoga can help release, or at least lessen, the intensity of the energy so you can get in touch with what is really going on and make a game plan to bring yourself back into balance.
Preparation for the Postures
I recommend doing quite a bit of stretching or the use of a foam roller prior to going into these postures. This will help you get the full benefits of the postures and your hips will be a bit more open. If you are feeling a lot of anxiety or panic it is very helpful to do some type of higher intensity exercise, even just brisk walking for at least a half a mile can work, prior to these postures.
My regimen for really tough days involves a 2 mile power walk (at least a 17 minute mile), followed by 15 minutes of core and lower body exercises, then 15 minutes of stretching and using the foam roller on my low back, IT band, hips and thighs. I find when I do all of this, my body and mind melts into these postures. I also find that if I go straight into the postures without doing some form of more rigorous exercise first, the energy is still too intense and I have a hard time shifting the cycle of negative thinking.
Play with the postures and see how your body reacts to the them. Hold the postures for as long as is comfortable while practicing deep, low-belly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Deep breathing low in your belly is as important, if not more important, than the postures themselves. The below is not necessarily a sequence, you can practice them in this order, or any order that you choose. You can also pick and choose which postures you do or do not want to try. The order below is the order that I tend to follow. Every day your body feels different so please be open to changing things up as needed from day to day.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Benefits: This comforting posture stretches and opens the hips and low back, which often hold tension when we are anxious.
Do: Feel the deep belly breath expanding into your lower back. Hold the posture for a minimum of 3 inhales and exhales. You can keep your arms stretched forward like the pictures below or bring them down by your sides.
Don’t: Don’t abuse your knees. If sitting like this hurts your knees, use a block under your pelvis. Don’t tense up your jaw, neck or shoulders. Keep everything relaxed.
Benefits: This posture is great for opening the heart and stretching the sternum and upper rib joints, which often carry a lot of tension when we are anxious.
Do: Focus on lifting the sternum, or heart center, upward while engaging your core muscles and pressing your hips forward. Keep your hips in alignment with your knees. You can keep your hands on your low back, bring your palms to your thighs or, if you feel comfortable, bring you hands down to your heels, as shown in the pictures below.
Don’t: Don’t crunch into your lower back, but keep your spine long and imagine you are trying to touch the ceiling with your chest. You do not have to bend back very far to get the benefits of the posture. The focus is more about lifting up than bending back.
Floor Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
Benefits: This posture helps relieve tension in the low back and stretches the shoulder and chest. I feel a good stretch in my IT band, hip and glutes in this posture.
Do: Keep your bent knee connected to the floor and allow your opposite shoulder to come off the floor, if needed. There are many variations to this posture, but in this example I am keeping my bent knee on the floor and letting my opposite shoulder come up if needed. Practice deep belly breathing and hold the posture for a minimum of 3 inhales and exhales on each side.
Don’t: Don’t try to force the twist. Let it unfold slowly and deepen a little more with each deep belly breath.
Cow Face (Gomukhasana)
Benefits: This posture will help stretch and open your hips and low back. If you incorporate the arm variation, you will also help open up your shoulders and get a nice stretch in your arms. The combination of this intense stretching and deep belly breathing can provide stillness of the mind. The hips often hold many years of accumulated stress and this posture can help release that over time.
Do: Accept your hips as they are and use a block under your sit bones if needed. Practice deep belly breathing and hold the posture for a minimum of 3 inhales and exhales on each side. You an focus on the full posture (1st and 2nd picture) or focus only on the lower body (3rd and 4th picture). Feel free to use blocks and for a deeper hip and low back stretch you can lean forward, but remember to keep your back straight.
Don’t: Don’t rush the posture. It takes a long time for the hips to open up and it is common for people to elevate their hips or stay up on their knees with blankets or blocks. I personally spent years sitting on a block before I ever felt comfortable lowering my hips to the floor.
Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
Benefits: This posture decompresses the lower spine, stretches the hamstrings and increases blood flow to the head. The combination of these three benefits with deep belly breathing relieves tension and stress.
Do: Keep your knees slightly bent and let your arms relax. Feel free to try out different arm variations, as shown in the pictures below. Use blocks if you need to. Let gravity do the work as you open your lower back. Let your neck and head relax. Practice deep belly breathing and hold the posture for a minimum of 3 inhales and exhales. Feel the breath expand your lower back.
Don’t: Don’t lock or hyper-extend your knees. The focus is more on the back and less on the hamstrings. I prefer to keep my knees slightly bent, as shown in photos 3 and 4 below.
Please note: I am not implying that these postures are the “best” postures for relieving anxiety and panic, nor can I promise that you will have a positive experience each time that you use them. These are simply the postures that seem to help me the most. What I can say is that if you are breathing deeply and moving your body in a safe and supportive way, you will see some type of benefit. I encourage you to not get attached to the anxiety or panic “leaving” your body, but instead try to use the postures to connect with the source of why you are feeling anxious so you can understand yourself a little bit more. Often I sit in meditation for 20 minutes after completing these postures to let my body fully relax and continue the deep belly breathing.