Yoga and Anxiety - an interview of open questions and curious answers

I was recently interviewed by a journalist who was interested in the link between yoga and mental health, specifically anxiety. Below is the transcript of our interview, which traverses my early years of yoga practice, and into research of yoga and mental health, as well as my approach to teaching the Yoga for Anxiety and Depression Course, and how to choose a yoga practice that's right for you.....

1. What inspired/motivated you to start practising yoga and open your practice?

I began practising yoga in late primary school. I was an anxious kid and I read (in the back of a ‘reader’s digest encyclopaedia of natural health’ book that my Nan gave Mum for Christmas) that yoga is good for anxiety and overall health. I then found a kids yoga class in Katoomba, near where I grew up, and asked if I could go. Once I began, I was hooked. Most of my high school years were spent at yoga classes and by the time I was seventeen I began my first yoga teacher training. To me, it’s the best medicine for everything, but particularly anxiety and other challenging moods including grief, and depression.

2. In conjunction with correct treatment do you think yoga can be helpful for people suffering from depression?

Most definitely (you may like to listen to me speak at length on these questions on a podcast interview I did in 2016 which can be found at episode 7 here). The body of research surrounding the efficacy of yoga for depression is growing, with researchers around the world finding positive outcomes for all sorts of populations of people practising yoga. These studies indicate that yoga has a profound effect on multiple systems in the body including the nervous system. The practice itself helps to alleviate immediate symptoms of anxiety and depression, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-relax response) in the body, whilst simultaneously vitalising our muscles and circulation, which enhances feelings of vitality in the body and mind. In terms of long-term benefits, yoga allows us the space to develop a safer inner environment for ourselves. In yogic philosophy this is sometimes known as developing our awareness of our ‘calm abiding centre’, which is stable and supportive, and can be relied upon to bear with us through difficult emotions.

3. Are you aware of any other courses similar to yours, are you looking to expand beyond the Illawarra region?

I have occasionally seen similar courses to the 8-week Yoga for Anxiety and Depression course that I developed and run in the Illawarra, so it’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for anyone in your local area who may be offering their own take on these teachings. However, I get a lot of enquiries from people who would love to access the course but can’t find anything similar in their area. I plan to spend much of 2019 traveling around Australia, taking this course to various locations as a shorter workshop version, developing an online course, and also training yoga teachers in how to teach the 8-week course. There is such high demand for this course in our communities, and many yoga teachers understandably don’t feel confident to run programs that directly address mental health and yoga, so that’s something I intend to address in my future work.

4. What is your favourite thing about yoga?

Where to begin?! I particularly love that when we practice yoga with a spirit of kindness and curiosity, then we can safely bring ALL of ourselves to the yoga mat. What I mean by this is that there are so many spaces in our lives where we need to reign ourselves in, be good citizens, put on a brave face etc. On the yoga mat, we can choose to connect with our whole complex, messy, glorious selves, and find a space to unravel, re-connect and refresh that can leave us with inner perspective and peace that are rare and precious in the midst of modern life.

Since mental health issues invariably create a sense of disconnection with life, and can bring shame with that, I especially love that yogic philosophy assumes that we are all already well and whole and sane.

From this perspective, any issues, ‘disorders’ and other difficulties we are facing are a product of the confusion of being alive as furless mammals on a planet that no one remembers asking to arrive on! According to yoga, at our core we remain well, whole, and full of vitality. The practice of yoga then becomes a tool for removing the fog that blocks this basic awareness of our own innate health. I love this idea, and find it very soothing to my own mental health and overall sense of connection with life.

5. You run a number of courses for anxiety & depression could you tell me some more about this?

I currently run an 8-week course on Yoga for Anxiety and Depression in the Illawarra. I also teach courses on this subject on yoga teacher trainings, and specialise in yoga for trauma, positive body image, and eating disorders. As mentioned earlier, I will be taking these courses around Australia in 2019 with the intention being to share the courses as widely as possible, and train more yoga teachers to be confident sharing yoga for mental health and body-positive yoga – which directly relates to anxiety for many people, especially women.

The 8-week course on Yoga for Anxiety and Depression is really a smorgasbord of yoga practices, with each week exploring a key theme related to yoga for mental health, and exploring a particular area of research in relation to this. Each week runs sort of like a mini-workshop, with topics ranging from yoga for anxiety, depression, stress and burnout prevention, grief and crisis, playfulness and connection, trauma, and yoga’s perspective on happiness. I am a firm believer that yoga can support each of us with our mental health, but that the particular method of yoga practice that will support us best is difficult to prescribe, so each week we practice different yoga methods such as more dynamic postures, or more restorative focus etc, with each person encouraged to explore what feels most supportive and then pursue this beyond the course. I have a strong relationship with the yoga teachers in my community, and provide recommendations to students who express an enjoyment of a particular style, to point them towards where they can find other classes to practice this way. I also provide handouts to encourage home practice.

6. How do the benefits of yoga differ to those of aerobic exercise when it comes to stress and anxiety?

On the one hand, I believe that ‘medicine is medicine’. By which I mean that surfing or running or walking at sunset etc may be the most appropriate self-care practice for a person. I’m absolutely non-prescriptive. Having said that, yoga provides a unique blend of being simultaneously relaxing and invigorating, which is one of the reasons is provides such a precious respite for so many people, and one of the key motivators for so many people to keep returning to the mat. As Andrew Solomon said on his Ted talk about depression, “the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality”. Yoga is a very welcoming way to connect with the embodiment of this vitality, which makes it unique from other forms of movement.

Also important I feel is that yoga provides what Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression calls ‘moral-nets’. That is, yoga has such a robust philosophy and structure and depth of meaning, that it can replenish our sense of connection to life as a fulfilling and valuable experience, even in the midst of anxiety or depression, and this, unlike other forms of movement, can give us a re-kindling of connection to something larger than ourselves which can inform our lives, a compass to live by which is sorely missing for many of us in modern life.

7. How often should someone practise yoga to gain a benefit?

Ideally, some kind of practice daily is supportive. The reasons for this are many, however one key point is that the more often we practice, the more we are going to benefit from the effect on our nervous system, which allows us to move through our life in a calmer way, and respond to life’s challenges and our own emotions from a stable place, connected to our own wisdom, rather than reacting from fear and anxiety. How much practice each of us require in order to reap the benefits is again up to the individual to discern, and generally cannot be prescribed. Some people find that five minutes of yoga twice daily feels best, while others enjoy half an hour in the mornings and others like one or two classes per week to be best. The main issue for me is that the person remains interested in what FEELS like a supportive practice through really listening to themselves, rather than trying to impose ideas of what practice ‘should’ be like, from the basis of the mind. Having a 1:1 session with a yoga therapist can be really helpful to create an appropriate home practice.

8. Are there any specific poses you recommend most for stress/anxiety?

I see yoga for stress as quite distinct to yoga for anxiety. Stress is a response to immediate and explainable pressures to accomplish things or respond to life’s challenges that can be named and are specific – though often overwhelming. Anxiety as I understand and experience it, is more free-floating. That is, it has no specific cause and no specific endpoint. It’s like a low drone that sometimes peaks to the point of panic. For this reason, it can be helpful to distinguish whether we’re feeling over-stressed and depleted, or anxious and wound up about non-specific things that seem to whir on and on forever and leave us frazzled. If stress and risk of burnout is on the cards, then a more restorative yoga practice can be immensely supportive and nourishing. If however, we’re feeling super-anxious, a restorative practice with its long holds may leave us whirring in our heads and even more anxious! In this case, we want to move the body in gentle, rhythmic ways that ground the person in the body using muscle awareness and steady movement without too much focus on the breath, which can trigger panic) and then gradually bring the body towards short periods of restful stillness, rather than very long holds. In the end, experimentation and curiosity are the tools that best serve us in finding what works for each of us. There are so many different ways to practice. What you want to look for is a method of practice that leaves you feeling simultaneously calm, rested, and energised. When you finish a class or practice feeling this way, you’ll know that that’s an appropriate practice for you at that time.

If you're interested in exploring Yoga for Anxiety and Depression, I'm running a retreat in September from the 7th-9th, just south of Sydney. Join me and a group of other amazing people. Spots are already booking quickly. Learn more about the retreat here, and the 8-week Yoga for Anxiety and Depression course here.

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