Yoga for Anxiety, Part 3: The Poses

By: Laura Kacere, MA, LPC

Yoga asana is one of the 8 limbs of yoga, and refers to the physical poses. While most of the other limbs of yoga focus on meditation, it can often be difficult to calm the mind while the body holds anxious or stressed energy. In a yoga practice, the poses are often used with the intention of energizing or calming the body first in order to set the stage for the deep focus of meditation.

Yoga poses are able to have a deep effect on the body’s relationship to the mind and to emotional balance. They have shown to decrease physiological arousal, reduce heart rate and blood pressure, and ease respiration. They also increase heart rate variability, which shows the body’s ability to respond to stress in a healthy way.

Setting time aside to practice yoga can be enormously helpful in reconnecting yourself, tuning into your body’s needs, and decreasing your anxious thoughts and sensations.

The poses that tend to be most effective for reducing anxiety are also the most calming, and can be beneficial to do in the evening, especially if you struggle with racing thoughts and anxious energy as you wind down to go to sleep. You may notice, however, that when you try these slower poses, your anxious mind races. This can be the perfect moment to practice breathing and mindfulness, explored in my previous posts. You may also find that a more active and faster-paced yoga practice works better for you, and that’s okay.  There are many different ways to practice the physical poses of yoga, so explore different yoga styles and see what works for you. Just make sure to continue to practice breathe awareness and mindfulness as you move through the poses.

As with any kind of physical movement, consult your doctor if you’re unsure about doing these poses, or attend a yoga studio in your area to get assistance from a trained instructor. Listen to your body, and if any of these poses cause discomfort or pain, or you feel lightheaded or out of breath, move out of the pose immediately. If you are pregnant, consult your doctor before beginning this practice, and consider taking a pre-natal yoga class in order to know which poses are most beneficial for you.

Seated forward fold in a chair

Do this forward fold in a chair, like at your desk or at a table. Doing the pose seated, as opposed to standing (described in the next section) can be a safer way to practice if you have back problems, or have tight hamstrings, and is accessible to everyone, regardless of your flexibility level. It can also be a great pose to do while at work or school during the day, when you feel stressed or anxious. This pose can be energizing as it reverses the blood flow to your head, yet promotes deep relaxation by allowing your spine to lengthen and your neck and shoulders to relax.

Sit toward the edge of your chair with your legs in front of you, knees bent, and your feet firmly planted on the floor. Start with your hands on your knees, and take a slow, long inhale through the nose. As you exhale, move your hands forward and down your legs, allowing your belly to come forward toward your thighs. Keep your seat in the chair and your feet on the ground as you move your hands to your ankles or the ground, and allow your head to relax and hang over the knees. Relax your neck and shoulders, and breath slowly through the nose, allowing the spine to lengthen, and the head to hang heavy. You might even close your eyes. Stay here for a few breaths, and when you’re ready to come out, rise back up as slowly as you can, staying firmly grounded in the feet, and allowing your head to come up last. Take a few deep breaths once you rise back up to your seat, and notice any changes in the body and mind.

Standing forward fold

For a deeper stretch in the legs, try this pose standing.  Start with your feet firmly rooted on the floor and hips distance apart. Bend your knees slightly, fold forward at your hips and bring your torso slowly down toward your legs. If balance is difficult here, place your hand on a chair or a wall as you come forward into the fold. Make sure to keep the legs slightly bent, at least in beginning, so that you don’t stretch too deeply in the lower back.

Bring a little more weight into the heels, as it is natural to move weight forward into the torso when folding forward. With the feet rooted down, allow the neck and head to relax. If you feel steady, bring your hands to opposite elbows and rock gently from side to side. Allow the spine and chest to lengthen as you inhale and exhale slowly through the nose. If it feels okay, you can start to straighten the legs. Allow the crown of the head to point down toward the ground as you lengthen and soften the spine with each breath.

To come out of the fold, release the arms and root the feet down into the ground, knees slightly bent, as you very slowly rise up. If you move too quickly, you may find yourself with a headache, so rise up as slowly as you can, and take a deep full breath once you’re back to standing.

Legs-Up-The-Wall pose

This is my favorite pose, and is a great one to do at night before bed. It takes very little work or energy, and yet has tremendous benefits; it is said to be good not only for stress and anxiety, but also for insomnia, headaches, lower-back pain, and menstrual cramps. Where the forward folds increase blood circulation to the head and torso, this pose inverts our legs and pelvis, energizing and refreshing those areas of the body.

Start by sitting on the floor next to a sturdy wall. Sit close enough that you’re seated almost right up against the wall, and then with one smooth movement, swing the legs up against the wall as you bring your back to the floor. Your body should make a right angle now, with your seat against the wall, or a few inches away, your legs vertical, and souls of the feet facing the ceiling. Your back, shoulders, and head should be completely supported by the ground so that you can completely relax. There are ways to modify this pose with pillows, blankets, and even a chair if you would like more support. If you start to experience any pain or tingling in your legs or knees, come out of the pose. But if you feel comfortable, you can stay in this pose for 5-8 minutes. Try practicing mindfulness in this pose, allowing the body to relax and the mind to be still.

When you’re ready to get out of the pose, bring your knees into your torso and gently roll to one side. Stay here for a few breaths, and then use both hands to push yourself up to a seat.

Child’s pose

This pose is one that can generate feelings of safety and groundedness, and is one of the most commonly used poses for anxiety. Start by coming to the floor on your hands and knees, with your toes un-tucked and knees slightly apart. Sit back onto your heels. If this is uncomfortable for your knees, you can bring a blanket in between your thighs and shins. You can also place a long pillow under the torso and beneath your seat for even more support in this pose.

Walk your hands forward and bring your forehead down to the ground or to a blanket. You can keep your arms stretched out in front of you, or bring them by your side with the tops of your hands on the ground by your heels. Breathe slowly and deeply through your nose and relax into the pose.  Let your spine stretch with this poses, allowing your back to act like a shell that feels protective and safe. Stay in the pose for a minute or two, as feels comfortable.

Tree pose

Balance requires concentration, focus, and a lot of awareness of your body in space, which can often allow you to let go of any other anxious chatter going on in your head. It can be easy in balancing poses to get frustrated with yourself when it gets hard. Tree pose is one of the most commonly-practiced standing balance poses. See if you can try this pose without judgment; if you fall out of the pose, notice the thoughts that might try to tell you you’re not doing well. See if you can let those thoughts go, and gently move yourself back into the pose.

Start by standing with your feet hip distance apart and pressing firmly into the ground. Before beginning a standing balance pose, I often lift all 10 toes off the ground and stretch them wide before placing them back on the ground, attempting to take as much floor space as possible. Notice the support of the ground beneath your feet, and take a few slow breaths here to establish balance. Then slowly lift your left knee, bringing your left foot off the ground, and turn your left knee out, opening your hip. Rest the soul of your left foot either just below the right knee or on the inner right thigh. Your right thigh can then push back, engaging the strength of right leg by lifting the kneecap if you can.

Bring your hands, palms together, at your heart, and bring your gaze to one thing in front of you that isn’t moving. Keep your visual focus on this one thing, and notice if you’ve stopped breathing. Take a few breaths in this pose. When you’re ready to come down, gently lower your left leg, and bring your foot back to the ground, toes facing forward. Take a long slow breath here before switching to the other leg.

For more poses for anxiety, explore this great list of poses on Yoga Journal.