Yoga For Anxiety, Part 1: Mindfulness

By: Laura Kacere, MA, LPC

You don’t have to be able to touch your toes to receive the benefits of this 5,000 year old practice. In fact, while yoga tends to be considered a form of physical exercise in the U.S., yoga has always been, at its core, a mental and spiritual practice, with the bulk of the work taking place in the mind. And it’s good for your mental health: increasing research is showing the benefits of yoga in relieving stress and anxiety, as well as depression, post-traumatic stress, and more.

The three parts of this series will include the introductory parts of yoga: mindfulness, breathing, and movement. Although they can each be challenging in their own way, they are also accessible to most people. Mindfulness, or present moment awareness, is one thing you can start practicing right now, alongside psychotherapy, to help manage your anxiety.

We hear the word mindfulness in many different contexts these days, so much so that it may be confusing to pin down what it actually means. Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition is well regarded, and I think, easiest to understand: Mindfulness simply means “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, and without judgment, to the present moment.”

Sounds simple enough, right? But in today’s world of technology, we often find more ways to distract ourselves from the present moment than to actually tune into it. It can be even harder for those struggling with anxiety – when you experience anxiety, you may find yourself ruminating over events of the past, or worrying about potential events in the future. Bringing your awareness to the present moment, even just for a few minutes, may feel counter to your typical patterns (in a good way!) and can be incredibly beneficial. It can feel a bit weird at first, but see if can try this practice of bringing your awareness to this moment here in front of you.

Start by taking a moment and connecting with your senses. It can be as simple as noticing the colors of the trees as you walk down the sidewalk, or noticing the feeling of the hot water on your hands as you wash dishes, and breathing in a smell that you enjoy...anything to bring you fully into this moment right here.

The next step is to try this present moment awareness with your thoughts and feelings – noticing, without judgment, a rising feeling of sadness, frustration, joy, or worried thoughts. By recognizing these thoughts and feelings as they arise, you can start to separate from them a bit, and even allow them to pass you by, or flow through you like a wave, or float away like leaves flowing down a stream. You are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings, but it is okay to have them. This is often the hardest part – the non-judgment. Can you notice those thoughts and feelings without criticizing yourself for having them? Or perhaps just notice that critical voice, without identifying with it? Can you even introduce some gentle self-compassion for yourself alongside your awareness?

When it comes to the practice of mindfulness, especially mindfulness meditation, the most common thing I hear people say is, “I’m not doing this right.” Be patient with yourself. You will, inevitably, get caught up in a past moment, a thought, a feeling, a storyline – the point is not to not have these thoughts, but to gently bring yourself back to the present moment each time you notice them, to let it move on and begin again.

Mindfulness is an active and lifelong practice, not something you can master or achieve. But over time, with patient practice, mindfulness creates space to let go of our tight hold on our worries and thoughts, as well as of the constant distractions and avoidance strategies we use to keep ourselves out of the present moment, and it brings us into it. As scary as the present moment can seem, when we meet it head on, just as it is, we may find that we stop fighting with it, arguing with our thoughts and emotions. When we stop trying to control everything, we can start to build acceptance, and with acceptance, you may find that you’re better able to soften and open up to the beauty of the moment right in front you.

Learn more about mindfulness in Jon Kabat Zinn’s book, Wherever You Go, There You Are and explore Kristen Neff’s mindful self-compassion exercises here.  And stay tuned for Part 2 of Yoga for Anxiety: the Breath.