Learning to manage and moderate one’s fears and anxieties needn’t involve strapping on a parachute, cold quitting a job, or bare-knuckle boxing in a back alley. In fact, it may be best to begin by quietly watching those anxieties at the other end of the spectrum, the one’s so subtle that conscious awareness of them can be blotted out by the noise of living–but which nevertheless have a physiological impact.
The ability to quietly and non-judgmentally witness one’s emotional state–as is taught in yoga and related practices such as Buddhist meditation–is crucial (and, in my opinion, is one of the most valuable lessons that these systems have to teach.) Crushing or repressing emotions is a demonstrably losing strategy. At best these feelings are tamped into one’s subconscious mind, still adversely affecting one’s outlook and, therefore, indirectly casting a pall over one’s life.
You’ll note that I’ve mentioned courage and moderating fear, but have not mentioned defeating emotions or quelling fear. Wrongly, our archetypes of fearlessness are characters like John McClane (i.e. the “Die Hard” movies), Katniss Everdeen (i.e.”The Hunger Games” trilogy), or Yoda (i.e. the “Star Wars” movies.) But neurologists who study patients whose brains have been damaged such that they are literally fearless tell us that the defining characteristic of such individuals is “paralysis by analysis.” In other words, Sheldon Cooper (i.e. “Big-Bang Theory”) is a more apt model. Also, the fearless tend to live short lives because they eventually do something fatally inadvisable.
We need our fear. However, while fear can keep us from doing stupid things, it can also turn us into the worst version of ourselves. Therefore, our fear needs to be moderated with courage and reason (to these, some would add “faith.”)
You may note that I tend toward the intermediate / advanced with the practices I mention. This is, in part, because that’s probably more likely the point at which one is ready to take this on. In beginning a practice, one may have one’s hands full to grasp the basics of alignment and breath.
Without further ado, here are a few yoga practices that I’ve used to help me witness my anxieties and learn to moderate them:
1.) Nauli (and other external breath retention [i.e. bāhya kumbhaka] techniques.): Breath retention can produce a subtle anxiety, even when one has full control of the timing of release and the next breath. In fact, subtle anxiety may cause one to have a less robust retention than one might otherwise. Truth be told, this practice has probably been more fundamental than any of the āsana practices that will follow, for me personally.
Note: external retentions are relatively advanced practice and should only be added to one’s sadhana after one has been taught by an experienced teacher and is somewhat experienced with pranayama.
2.) Eyes closed: This is particularly effective with Surya Namaskara (Sun salutations), standing poses, and–at an advanced level–balancing poses. One should make sure that ones balance is solid throughout before attempting with one’s eyes closed. We have redundant systems to help achieve balance (i.e. inner ear, proprioceptive, and visual), but–for the sighted–going without vision can be nerve wracking.
ashwa sanchalanasana in Surya Namaskara
3.) Inversions: Inversions are meant to be calming because when the blood pressure to the head increases, it triggers reactions in the body to reduce it. However, it may take some time before that promised is reached. I’ve done a more extensive post on inversions that can be read here.
4.) Standing Back-bends: (Ardha Chakrasana / Urdhva Triangmuktasana / full Urdhva Dhanurasana) Simple back-bending can create the feeling that one is about to fall back onto one’s head. One may want to begin with a simple back-bend as one might do in Surya Namaskara before advancing to the complete Urdhva Dhanurasana in which one moves into a wheel pose (Chakrasana) from a standing position. (Urdhva Triangmuktasana is an intermediary in which one’s knees are more deeply bent, and one reaches back towards one’s Achilles tendon.)
5.) Standing Balances: Depending on one’s level, anything from tree pose (vrksasana) to bound twisted half-moon pose (baddha parivrtta ardha chandrasana) may be applicable. I’ve shown the unbound version of the latter (parivrtta ardha chandrasana.) Twisting and balancing at the same time provides a great challenge, if one is already confident with balances generally.
parivrtta ardha chandrasana