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Yoga practice is a holistic and generally therapeutic practice in itself, but some yoga poses boost energy while others calm energy. This means different movements affect the nervous system in different ways because they impact different organs and systems.
Basic yoga practices are available and beneficial for everyone. Practicing yoga has been shown to relieve anxiety and depression, particularly through performing the poses and breathing practices. (1)
It should be noted that, in some people, some breathing and meditation practices can actually increase symptoms of their condition such as anxiety and depression, so you should be aware of how you’re feeling and not get discouraged.
If you do not improve or feel worse, it is simply a sign to seek the help of a qualified and experienced yoga instructor or to get appropriate counseling in addition to your yoga practice.
When and How to Practice Yoga
Your practice depends on what you want to achieve. For most people, relieving stress or balancing energy is enough. Traditionally, yoga is practiced in the early morning and on an empty stomach, but it can be practiced any time of day (and at least 3 hours after a meal or 1 hour after a snack).
Some poses and breathing practices are stimulating, such as standing poses and backbends, and are better done early in the day or when needing a boost so as not to negatively affect sleep. Other poses have a calming eﬀect, such as forward bends and inversions.
Anxiety, depression, and other mental suffering are generally due to negative conditioned thinking or some sort of hormonal imbalance, (2) so you may want to do things that will nourish the nervous and endocrine systems as well as shed light on unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving.
For instance, if you are feeling lethargic and down, you want to perform poses that are uplifting and open you up rather than keep you closed down.
Here are some invigorating and warming breathing practices and yoga poses:
1. Kapalbhati or bhastrika
- Close your eyes and let your body relax.
- Draw in a deep breath through both nostrils to fill up your chest.
- Expel the breath with force by contracting your abdominal muscles, and then relax again.
- Keep doing this passive inhalation and active exhalation in rapid succession until you complete 30 breaths. This entire set will constitute one round of kapalbhati.
- Practice deep breathing for a while.
- Do 2 more rounds of kapalbhati, each followed by deep breathing.
2. Virabhadrasana I (warrior I)
- Stand straight with your feet placed hip-width apart, arms by your side, and your body facing the front of the yoga mat.
- Move your left foot a big step back such that it is pointing 45° to the left of your body while maintaining the same distance between your feet.
- Bend your right knee and thigh, exerting all your body weight on the front heel and big toe while pressing the left foot into the ground from the outer heel.
- Square your buttocks, and make sure the bent knee is directly above the ankle.
- Take a deep breath, and raise your arms straight and broaden your shoulder blades.
- Hold this pose for 5–15 breaths.
- Release the pose with an inhalation, pushing your weight on the back heel as you straighten the front leg and bring down your arms.
- Move the back foot forward to come back to the starting position.
- Repeat the same pose on the other side.
3. Bhujangasana (cobra pose)
- Lie flat on your stomach with your legs stretched straight and joined together.
- Put your hands beneath your shoulders with palms on the ground and elbows bent upward.
- Push your thighs, belly, and the tops of your feet into the ground.
- Take a deep breath, and gradually lift your torso with the support of your arms, squeezing your shoulder blades closer together.
- Push back your tailbone and the top of your head as much as you can without straining.
- Stay in this position for 1 minute.
- With an exhale, slowly drop your torso back to the ground and place your hands beside you.
- Rest in this position for 1 minute or so, and then repeat the whole exercise a couple of times.
4. Setu bandha sarvangasana (bridge pose)
- Lie flat on your back, and place your feet 10–12 inches away from your hips.
- Keep your arms by your sides, with your palms down.
- Inhale and exert pressure on your feet, gently lifting your lower, middle, and upper back.
- Keep your thighs parallel to the floor, and align your knees to your ankles.
- Maintain this position for 30–60 seconds, taking deep breaths.
- With an exhale, gently bring your upper body back to the floor.
5. Ustrasana (camel pose)
- Kneel down on a yoga mat and place your hands on your hips. If needed, you can use a cushion under your knees.
- Keep your knees aligned with your shoulders. The soles of your feet should be facing upward.
- Inhale and draw your tailbone toward your pubic bone. At the same time, arch your back and slide your palms over your feet until your arms are straight.
- Keep your neck in a neutral position. Stay in the position for a few minutes, while breathing in and out.
- Exhale and gently return to your initial position.
6. Adho mukha vrksasana (handstand)
- Start with the downward-facing dog pose.
- Move your feet a little closer to your hands such that they fall below the midline of the body.
- Spread out your fingers and press your palms firmly into the mat to get a good grip as you slowly raise your heels above the ground.
- Slowly raise one leg in the air (whichever you find more comfortable) while bending the knee of the other one and pressing the ball of its foot for support.
- Raise the ball of the grounded foot to come up on your toes.
- Deeply bend the knee to make a light kick and pull the grounded foot off the floor.
- Shift your weight onto your hands and slowly straighten the bent leg, raising it to the sky.
- Balance your body by firmly pressing down your hands and engaging your abs and glutes.
- Stay in this position for as many deep breaths as you can.
- To come out of the pose, slowly lower one leg, followed by the other.
7. Salamba sirsasana (headstand)
- Start on all fours, assuming a tabletop position facing the wall, maintaining a distance of about a foot and a half between your elbows and the wall.
- Bend your elbows to place your forearms on the ground such that your hands are placed straight in front of you.
- Put the top of your head on the ground and interlock your hands over the back of your head.
- Raise your posterior into a downward-facing dog position, and move your feet as close to your elbows as possible.
- Slowly lift one foot off the ground and engage your core muscles to pull one knee into the chest, followed by the other knee.
- Using your abdominal muscles, gradually elevate both legs toward the ceiling. You can even rest your ankles against the wall for added support until you gain proper body balance.
- The pose requires your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles to fall in a straight line and your body weight to be dispersed across your forearms and shoulders. Hold it for 1–2 minutes as your head should not feel too much pressure.
- Do the same steps in reverse order to come out of the pose. Slowly drop one knee into your chest, followed by the other, and then bring them to the ground.
8. Salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand)
- Lie flat on your back with your shoulders aligned, knees bent, and feet on the ground.
- Raise your hips off the mat to move into the bridge pose.
- Stretch your arms on the ground, placing your palms down and your hands as close to your heels as possible.
- Firmly push down into your palms to lift onto the balls of your feet, and slowly raise one leg in the air.
- Bend your elbows and put your hands on your lower back, creating a shelf.
- Lift your other leg. If you feel wobbly, move your hands further up the back for greater support. You should feel your chest closing in toward the chin to facilitate opening the upper back.
- Move your hips and feet in the opposite direction to straighten the body.
- Maintain this pose for up to 10 breaths.
- Slowly bring your feet back over your head to return to the starting position.
Yoga Poses for Relieving Anxiety
If you’re feeling anxious, unfocused, or scattered, postures and practices that require focus and inward attention are recommended to steady the nervous system and become more aware of what you need to accept and nurture yourself in the moment.
Ujjayi breathing (breathing in and out evenly for 4 counts or more each) is an excellent way to focus inward because you can hear the breath and concentrate on the evenness and equanimity. Adding gentle movement on the inhale and exhale adds another layer of concentration.
Also, just as you might sing to or bounce a crying baby to soothe its distress, vibration is calming to the anxious mind. Chanting a simple mantra such as “om shanti shanti shanti” or “so hum” can be incredibly helpful as it drowns out the thoughts and stimulates the vagus nerve, which is connected to the parasympathetic (relaxing/passive) aspect of the autonomic nervous system. (3)
Bhramari pranayama, also known as the humming or bumblebee breath, can also be particularly grounding and soothing by itself or as the beginning of a meditation practice.
Hot yoga is doing yoga postures in an artificially heated room to induce sweating, thereby detoxifying the body. Hot yoga is not considered as a true yoga practice – it can increase anxiety, anger, and heart troubles and can be dehydrating, except for kapha individuals.
True yoga involves breathing to purify the body, as it stimulates blood flow and oxygenates the blood and is thus purifying. Hot yoga is a trend, whereas regular yoga is an age-old philosophy and practice.
If you are experiencing acute anxiety, the following poses may provide immediate relief:
1. Adho mukha savasana (downward-facing dog)
- Crouch on all fours to form a table such that your back forms the tabletop and your limbs form the legs of the table. Spread your fingers to get a firm grip on the mat. Make sure that your hands are placed shoulder-distance apart parallel to each other and the insides of your elbows are facing each other.
- With an exhale, raise your hips while straightening your knees and elbows to twist your body into an inverted V-shape.
- Keep your hands shoulder-distance apart and your feet hip-width apart, parallel to each other with toes pointing straight forward.
- Press your palms into the floor, widen your shoulder blades, and lengthen your neck by touching the ears to the inside of your arms.
- Stay in this downward-facing dog pose for several long deep breaths, gazing toward the navel.
- Exhale and bend your knees to come back to the starting tabletop pose, and relax before repeating it.
2. Balasana (child’s pose)
- Sit on your heels with your hips touching them.
- Gently bend forward to drop your forehead to the ground while keeping your arms beside your body with hands on the floor and palms toward the ceiling. If this is too uncomfortable, you can put one fist on top of another and place your forehead on them.
- Gently push your chest into your thighs, and hold this position for several breaths.
- To release the pose, gradually straighten your back and come up to sit on the heels again.
- Relax and repeat.
Other poses for anxiety reduction include Adho Mukha Virasana (similar to the child’s pose with arms extended), Paschimottanasana, Viparita Karani (lying on the back with legs up the wall with perhaps a heavy blanket or sandbag on the torso or feet), and Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulderstand).
Writing all your anxious thoughts down is also a supremely beneficial cure for anxiety and is a meditative practice as well.
Meditation for Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression often get put together, and sometimes people flip back and forth between the two, but these conditions are very different and need different treatments.
Meditation for anxiety might involve mantra, bumblebee breathing, or trataka (gazing at the flame of a candle for a period of time), whereas meditation for depression might include mindful movement such as walking, more vigorous asanas, and, if practicing seated meditation, keeping the eyes open.
Yoga is the most practical thing that you can do because it involves paying attention to the reality of your experience (of your own body, thoughts, emotions, and breath) and learning how to respond in a way that is ultimately most beneficial to your overall well-being.
Find a qualified teacher, experiment with different practices, find a different teacher if the one you have is not serving you, and keep practicing even during the tough times. Find what works and stick to it.
A little bit every day, even as little as 3 mindful breaths with your hand on your heart in the morning and at night are enough to start. Take time for yourself, get the care you need, have faith in the practice, and you will come out on the upside.