Shortly after the coronavirus escalated in the United States, Harvard Medical School recommended yoga and meditation to help cope with anxiety associated with the pandemic. I want to share six practices I’ve found to be helpful in quelling anxiety as well as share a bit about the yogic philosophy behind these exercises for those who wish to dig deeper. If you prefer to get right to the practice, feel free to skip ahead.
Gunas: Tomas, Rajas and Sattva
In yogic philosophy, everything you can see or touch in the physical world is composed of three interwoven strands called gunas. Tomas is the guna with a lethargic, inert or dark energy. Rajas is passion, high energy, perhaps with a scattering of chaos. Sattva is the fertile middle ground between the two, a space which promotes health, healing, learning and mindfulness.
Consider the gunas symbolized by the reflection of a full moon above a lake. Tomas has no reflection as the lake water is too muddy and dark clouds shield the moon. Rajas: skies and water are clear but a strong wind blows, rippling the lake, the reflected moonlight splinters in the water. Sattva: a full moon reflected in still waters. While Tomas shares attributes of depression, Rajas can resemble anxiety. Sattva is a place of well being and “zone of tolerance” for mental health. Depression and anxiety are an expected part of every healthy human’s existence and can exist within Sattva’s “zone” to some extent. Dancing over the line is fine, but it’s best not to dwell there.
Doshas: Vata, Pita and Kapha
Of the three body types–or doshas–in Ayurveda, Rajas aligns most closely with the Vata dosha, represented by the air element. If this air element is too much and Vata becomes unbalanced, anxiety can result. Everyone has all three doshas as part of their constitution, with the other doshas being Pita (fire element) and Kapha (earth element). No matter which dosha is most prevalent in one’s being, we all feel anxiety.
If we move this ancient philosophy into the Western model of understanding health, we can begin to see how the Rajas and Vata might trigger the sympathetic nervous system, commonly referred to as “flight, fright or freeze.” Although a necessary part of the nervous system, we only really want to “hang” here when necessary, as the body does best when the sympathetic, or “rest and digest” system, is more active.
Even before the spread of the coronavirus, I was of firm belief that we’re living in an age of anxiety. Western Civilization (which noted yogi Ghandi once said he considered “a good idea”) can be hectic and stressful. Many of us keep extremely busy schedules and sense we never have enough time to accomplish what we want. With new ways of communicating, twenty-four hour news cycles and the advent of social media, we are faced with new and sudden demands for constantly being “on.” Your next email, text or Instagram notification is always a ding away. Somewhere Pavlov’s dog is laughing. What is lost here is an undemanding, Sattva-like space that once existed between things, moments, events. Other than youth this might be the only thing I miss about the 90’s.
I consider myself fortunate for rarely feeling anxiety, however there have been several days during this pandemic when my stress has drastically spiked. It feels like trying to fly a kite while a speeding train splits through my mind and all the monkeys declare war, throwing feces everywhere. This is not my ideal way to spend a morning. (Note to self: bananas, need more bananas.)
Anyway, with those battle scars somewhat fresh I thought I’d share some practices and tips that may help with anxiety. Grounding practices focused on one’s connection to the earth may help when Rajas is too strong or Vata becomes too unbalanced. A sense of grounded connection with the earth can help those with Vata dispositions. This connection might feel especially severed now when we consider the coronavirus has come from this earth, which usually provides a sense of safety, security and sustainability. In a sense, we may feel as if the rug has been pulled from beneath our feet. Sometimes I am reminded that yoga is not all rainbows and unicorns. Earth can have her dark moments too. Perhaps an important thing to consider during all of this is having a sense that the universe still has our back.
Practice #1: Lowering the forehead
As a yoga teacher, I often say that the breath is the quickest way to calm the nervous system. However, lowering the forehead may provide even quicker access to the sympathetic nervous system. Polyvagal Theory suggests that the nervous system has a direct link to social interaction and expressions displayed on the face. The nerves of the face are the ones closest to the brain, so our reactions to external stimuli are first displayed here. If one were to become surprised or shocked, the lines on the forehead wrinkle as the brow rises. Arching eyebrows can raise the breath into the chest and trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Congruently, lowering the brow can naturally bring the breath back into the belly and foster the sympathetic nervous system. (If you are already experiencing heightened anxiety, I suggest skipping the brow raising part of the exercise below.)
Practice: Sit with calm and ease. Notice where you feel your breath and see if you can bring the energy of the breath into the space of the belly for several rounds of breath. Place a palm on your forehead (only touch your face in the safe space of your home, washing your hands before and after this practice) and gently lift the skin on the forehead in an upward direction and hold. Notice. Most likely, your breath has risen into the upper chest. Whatever else you feel here is likely the effects of the sympathetic nervous system engaged. Now pull the hand down lowering forehead flesh and notice what you notice. Most likely the breath has lowered back to the space of the belly. Whatever else you feel is likely the effect of engaging the sympathetic nervous system, where we want to spend most of our time. Spend some time breathing easily with the forehead gently pulled down.
Practice #2: Breathing into the belly
Breathing techniques and pranayamas can help with anxiety. Whenever we practice with the breath we want to make sure we can do it calmly without effort. If anxiety or frustration arises even with calming breath work, I suggest abandoning the practice and returning to a more natural breath. For some, the seat of anxiety may reside in the area of the belly (think “butterflies in the stomach”). This can lead to tight muscles of the abdomen with tension and energetic blockages in the area of the third chakra. Sympathetic nervous system responses shut off the digestive system as the body thinks it has more important and pressing things to do. Overextending our welcome in the sympathetic nervous system can ultimately lead to digestive issues.
Practice: Sit well or lay in constructive rest (knees bent and feet on mat/floor). Place your hands on your belly. Inhale naturally, allowing the belly to expand. Upon exhalation, allow the belly to slowly move back toward the spine. With your next inhalation, sense the organs of your lower torso expand and fill with vitality and new energy. As you exhale, feel a sense of relaxation and nourishment as areas of tension near the belly ease. Notice the slow, rhythmic motion of the breath as you continue to breathe, sensing as the lower organs gently massage with the breath. If you’re comfortable, extend the duration of your exhalation so that it is longer than your inhalation. As our heart rate and blood pressure rise with every inhalation, we can encourage the benefits of the sympathetic nervous system by extending our exhalations, lowering our heart rate and blood pressure.
If extending the exhalation brings anxiety or dis-ease, stay with a breath that has equal length inhalation and exhalation. Find a count that works best for you. For me, a 1-1 count seems to trigger a sense of anxiety, but start with whatever seems sustainable to you. See if you can eventually work up to a 5-5 count. If 5-5 is too much, come back to 4-4. Once you find your count, you may expand the practice by working with extending the exhalation. Anxiety is commonly linked to a fear of the future, focusing on your breath directly links you to the present moment.
Perhaps consider how you are in the present moment. Is there a roof over your head? Food in the fridge? Are you surrounded by loved ones or pets during the lockdown? If we stay in the present and have a sense of gratitude, the mind is less likely to wander the treacherous minefield of the future. Can we find a sense of contentment in the here and now? Remember, the future has yet to happen. Our possibilities remain limitless. We can only breathe in the present.
Practice #3: Make an intention
An intention for your practice that focuses on always being aware of which part of your body is in contact with the mat (which we can consider as a connection with Earth) can be beneficial for all practitioners, especially those that might be more Vata in nature. Let this intention become a tether for your practice, noticing where you are rooted to the earth during every pose. Vatas may sometimes desire a fast and active practice, perhaps “meeting themselves where they are,” hoping to exhaust themselves so they can eventually rest in savasana. Remember we wish to relax in yoga, not collapse. A slow and steady practice may be most beneficial for the Vata in all of us.
Practice #4: Grounding
Stand in mountain pose while gently squeezing a yoga block between the thighs. This may be enough. If so inclined, try a slow sun salutation (or modified one without downward dog) while keeping the block in place. Don’t worry if it feels awkward or if the block falls to the ground at any point or if the feet feel too close during downward dog. Remember it’s a practice, not a perfection. Stomping the feet while in mountain pose creates resiliency for the skeletal system (where a sense of safety generally resides) and can help the feet feel extra connected to the mat.
Practice #5: Bone meditation
Recent studies have shown that the first place in the body that reacts to stress is the bones. (Think “feeling it in the bones.”) We might think of the bones as somewhat static in nature, but when the skeletal system feels threatened, the bones react first by flooding the blood system with an enzyme that triggers the adrenal glands. Finding comfort and ease in our bones can be grounding and promote health in our entire being.
Practice: Sit with Ahdi mudra, gesture of primordial stillness, with the thumbs tucked inside gently closed fists. Rest the fists on the thighs, slightly move the elbows away from the torso, creating space under the arms and allow the shoulders to rest down. Notice where you feel the breath. Notice your “sitz” bones (the “loopy bones“ at the bottom of the pelvis). Feel their connection upon whatever you are sitting. Notice the bones of the pelvis spread wide with your inhalation, especially at the sacrum (the five fused vertebrae of the pelvis). Keep the width at the sacrum as you exhale, sensing the hip joints gently moving toward each other. Allow the breath to fill at the belly and sense the energy of the breath move in a downward direction, filling the pelvis and coating the bones of the pelvis, legs and feet, as well as all the muscles, ligaments and tendons of the lower body, bringing a sense of ease to all parts of the lower body. Notice yourself grounded from the waist down, finding stillness. Imagine yourself journeying barefooted into a wilderness area, the earth cool and supporting every step along your journey. Perhaps you find a hollowed tree and continue your meditation seated in the safety and comfort of the tree.
Practice #6: Earthing
Allow yourself the pleasure of walking barefoot in nature. Sense how the terrain feels beneath your feet. Perhaps add a walking meditation with the use of mantra. Spending time in nature can be beneficial for the immune system. If you feel uneasy about going to a public park at this time, consider your yard as a safe space and practice there. Plant a garden while barefoot.
Other calming practices include using weighted blankets across the lap while seated. Coloring, perhaps using mandalas, can help focus the mind and strengthen concentration. Humming can help tone the Vagus nerve (stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system), as can splashing cold water on the face or body. If you don’t feel comfortable humming in your house, fearing your house mate/s might think you’ve lost it, consider humming while driving.
Dan Weiseman is a PYR Ambassador who can sometimes be found doing somatic practices on river rocks or walking backward in woodlands. He’ll begin teaching a bi-weekly restorative class on Mondays in June. Visit our schedule to register!