Is Anxiety Inherently bad?

What is anxiety?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting up to 40 million (18%) of the population aged 18 and older, while lifetime prevalence affect up to 28.8% of the US population (1). 

In Ayurveda, a sister science of yoga and what can be considered as Traditional Indian Medicine, anxiety is an imbalance in one's constitution. In particular, it is an imbalance of the air and ether elements in one's body, causing a whirlwind of emotions, sense of instability, and restlessness.

However, being anxious occasionally is part of everyday life. Anxiety, characterized by "uneasiness of mind or brooding fear about some contingency" (2), is a very primal physiological effect that helped hunter-gatherers decide whether an area is safe to venture in. Our heart rate increases, our pupils dilate, blood sugar rises, our stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin increase, and our muscles tense all in preparation to tackle the potential threat. Anxiety allows us to anticipate, and therefore prepare, for difficulties ahead of us (2). 

Today, the effects of mild anxiety keep us on top of deadlines, prepare us for the job interview, guide us to walk on well-lit streets rather than dark alleys, and maintain our alertness as we bike down a busy road. Being anxious is a survival mechanism that is built within our system, and it is not inherently bad. After the deadline or the potential danger is over, the body returns to a state of homeostasis where heart rate and blood sugar levels drop back to normal, muscles relax, and less stress hormones circulate the system. 

 

Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic Nervous System

The problem is with anxiety today is that the body doesn't always get the chance to return to a state of homeostasis--the body literally does not get a chance to take a breath. 

Instead, we are constantly being fed situations that require the effects of anxiety: we need adrenalin, higher blood sugar, and increased attention to get us through the mountain of tasks each day. With technology, it is almost impossible to disassociate from work, even right up till the minute before we hit the bed. To put it more scientifically, our nervous system is constantly in the sympathetic state, or more commonly known as fight-or-flight. 

As mentioned above, being in fight-or-flight is not inherently good nor bad. There always comes a time when we need it, and frankly, it can very much save our lives. Problems arise when we don't give our nervous system the chance to switch over to the parasympathetic state, or more commonly known as rest-and-digest. The parasympathetic nervous system plays a huge role in aiding muscle relaxation, digestion, salivation, sexual arousal, urination, and defecation (3), all of which are crucial in maintaining a healthy body and healthy reproduction of offsprings.   

 

Symptoms of elevated sympathetic activity

To be balanced individuals and to sustain good mental health, we need a healthy mix of both the fight-or-flight state and the rest-and-digest state. However, the list of downstream effects due to long-term activation of the sympathetic system and the commonalities of these symptoms tell us that the state of our nervous system as a general population is almost always tipped towards the sympathetic mode. Some of these downstream effects are:

  • Anxiety 
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Hyperventilating 
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension (note: muscular pain in the body is due to chronic muscular tension)

 

How yoga therapy helps

Now that you have an idea how on earth anxiety survived evolution, since to most people, it seemed like an unwanted, inconvenient, and perhaps even life-altering condition, let's explore how yoga therapy can help. 

1. Asanas (Postures)

Specific yoga postures and techniques are gentle and slow enough to not cause additional exasperation of anxiety, while invigorating enough to relieve tension and restlessness from the adrenalin build-up. Certain yoga asanas, breathing, and specific use of props are designed to help the body and the mind feel grounded. Examples of these are supine poses with heavy-weighted blankets, standing poses with longer holds, and the practice of long exhalations. Additionally, the practice of yoga requires mindful movements, which can help bring an individual's focus from worrying to the movements of her physical body. When comparing the effects of yoga for anxiety verses other activities (aerobics, walking, and social games), yoga participants experienced the most benefits over the course of intervention (6).

2. Pranayama (Breathing practices)

Yes, we breathe everyday, but most of us breathe unconsciously and improperly. The practice of pranayama, or yoga breathing techniques, is said to increase one's life force, or prana, help balance one's constitution (remember that anxiety is an imbalance of the air and ether element), balance mental activity, and improve communication between the left and right brain hemispheres. In one Tedx Talk given by radiation oncologist researcher Sundar Balasubramanian, he discusses his findings that after pranayama practice, nerve growth factors, along with many other enzymes and hormones, are found with increased saliva production. These nerve growth factors are proteins that "help the neurons, the nerve cells, to grow, survive, withstand stress, and live longer (5)." Furthermore, controlled and conscious breathing practices have been shown to decrease heart rate and respiratory rate, while increasing parasympathetic activity (7).  

3. Relaxation

As mentioned above, true relaxation is something only a handful of individuals experience, especially when the state of busyness is praised in our society. Fortunately, the combined effects of gentle asana practice and pranayama is relaxation -- a state of reduced sympathetic activity and increased parasympathetic activity.  In addition, guided awareness and guided meditation are some of the wonderful yoga relaxation techniques that can also help manage anxiety. 

 

Conclusion

If you occasionally experience feelings of anxiety around deadlines, public speaking, going out with a new date, starting a new job, etc, rest be assured that these sensations are a normal part of daily living. If you experience chronic anxiety, please consult with your physician if you haven't done so already. Whether you experience occasional anxiety or live with it, specific yoga, breathing and relaxation techniques are not only practical, but are tremendously beneficial, for managing symptoms. If you would like to speak with me further on how yoga therapy may help and develop a specific protocol for your symptoms, you can set up a free consultation with me

While yoga therapy can help manage our woes, aches, and symptoms, it is helpful to remember that the purpose of yoga is to remove any obstacles standing in our way of finding that equilibrium in which our body and mind are at ease. When the body and mind are aligned and at ease, then we can present our best selves to our family, friends, and community. 

 

References

  1. "Anxiety Disorder." National Institute of Mental Health. Mar 2016. Web. 16          May 2017. <https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-              
         disorders/index.shtml>.
  2. "Anxious." Webster-Merriam Dictionary. Web. 15 May 2017.    
         <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anxious>.
  3. Grohol, John M. "Anxiety Disorders." Psych Central. Web. 18 May 2017.  
         <https://psychcentral.com/disorders/anxiety/>.
  4. Hansen, Fawne. "Fight or flight vs Rest and digest." The Adrenal Fatigue
         Solution.
    24 Jun. 2015. Web. 18 May 2017.
         <https://adrenalfatiguesolution.com/fight-or-flight-vs-rest-and-
         digest/>.
  5. Sundar Balasubramanian. "The Science of Yoga Breathing." Tedx
         Charlston. 
    Youtube.com. 19 May 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/
         watch?v=aIfwbEvXtwo>.
  6. Bonura KB and Pargman D. "The effects of yoga versus  exercise on stress,
         anxiety, and depression in older adults." International Journal of Yoga
        Therapy. 
    No 19 (2009): 79-89. 
  7. Upadhyay DK et al. "Effect of alternate nostril breathing exercise on
         cardiorespiratory functions." Index Medicus for South-East Asia Region. 15        Mar, 2008. <http://imsear.hellis.org/handle/123456789/46689>.
     

4 Steps to Feel More "In Sync" This Autumn

If you're in San Francisco, you probably know for a fact that we don't feel the effects of the different seasons much, but I know you all felt the following phenomenon - the days are shorter, night comes faster, and waking up in the mornings seems to be a little harder than usual. 

Our bodies are set to cyclical natures, much like the cyclical natures of day and night, the waxing and waning moon, the incoming and receding tide, summer and winter. In fact, almost all metabolic processes within our bodies are cyclical, working in feedback loops that are triggered or stopped by internal and external (environmental) cues. 

Trees and flowers follow the cyclical patterns of Nature, animals follow the cyclical patterns of Nature, and even in agricultural cultures, the cyclical patterns are observed. However, those of us living in more urban environments seem to want to defy the forces of Nature. In late autumn and winter, a time for rest and reflection of the year, most people push themselves harder and harder to finish projects before the year's end. In addition, festivities that require output of energy that are placed closely one after the other - Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year - put further stress on the body and the mind when it is a time for withdrawing and conserving our energies. 

The Yogic sciences place great emphases on following these internal and external cycles. The ancient scriptures detail specific times to rise, to meditate, to eat, to sleep, and even to engage in sexual activities. Diseases arise when we become out of sync with these patterns - when we continue to work and exercise hard when the body wants to rest, when we consume a cold juice on a chilly, windy day, when we sleep at 2am and rise at 10am, and when we eat a large, heavy meal at 9pm. 

If you've been feeling "out of sync" of some sorts recently, I suggest you consider the following steps to help you come back "in sync." Even when seasons are not as clearly defined here in the Bay Area, our bodies ingrained wisdom still follow a pattern, and these practices will help guide you back to the beat. 
 

1. Go to bed between 10pm-11pm. I can already hear some of you saying, "But that's impossible! I have to do X, Y, and Z before bed. There is no way I can get to bed before 11pm!" Well, I urge you to look a little more closely at your evening routine. How much of it is spent aimlessly browsing through social media or replying to emails that are not important? How much of it is spent watching 2, 3, or even 4 episodes of your favorite TV shows? I enjoy TV shows and social media browsing just as much as the next person since it gives my brain a time to be "switched off" or change focus, but I have a hard-stop for all screen-related things by 9pm, an hour before my usual bedtime (so if you are aiming to sleep by 11pm, switch off your TV and phones by 10pm). Yes, that might mean I am sometimes left in suspense after one episode of a TV show, but I never regret it after I switch off my TV and opt for some quality down-time. Usually that means a book, some journaling, a long shower, a mini facial, and/or light stretching/restorative yoga. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to an hour to get back in touch with your body and your body's internal clock to help you get into a deeper, restful sleep. 

2. Opt for soups, stews, and lighter fares for dinner. One of the biggest mistakes people make is having their largest meals at night. Having a large meal at night is not inherently "bad," but the bigger mistake is having a large meal way too late. Ideally, you'd want to finish eating at least 2-3 hours before bedtime to give your body time to digest your food. When you sleep, your body should NOT be predominantly focused on still digesting your last meal. Rather, your body should be focused on digesting and eliminating your emotional and mental imprints from the day. If you've seen the movie Inside Out, you would have seen that during sleep, our brain is actively processing the experiences and memories of the day - keeping ones that are important and eliminating those that are not. In addition to this "brain cleansing" activity, the rest of your organs are being repaired and maintained in preparation for the next day. Therefore, if for the first 2-3 hours of your sleep your body is still trying to digest physical bits of food, you are inherently taking away precious organ repair time. Soups and light stews are great in that a) they are easier to digest, and b) they are grounding in nature, which can help put the body into a more relaxed mode. 

3. Balance your intense workouts with grounding practices. I know many people feel obligated to workout more around the holiday season to "make up" for the large quantities of food and calories consumed around this time of year. However, as I've mentioned above, the body and mind are not primed for intense output of energy in late autumn and early winter. Excessive exercise and activities can ultimately burn you out at this time of the year when your body and mind crave more rest. So if you want to keep up with your workout regime, I highly encourage you to balance that with restorative yoga practices and meditation

4. Reflect and express gratitude. Last and final step that I think everybody should practice all the time regardless of time of the year is to reflect on your accomplishments and express gratitude. The human brain is wired to focus more on faults and negativities, which can bring on a whole 'nother baggage of problems with overall well-being when left unchecked. Whether you want to spend 5 minutes before bed to mentally list your top achievements and grateful moments of the day or physically write them down, you'll be amazed that all this time you haven't been giving yourself the credit you deserve! If you're looking for a more structured approach to starting and ending your day with gratitude, I highly recommend the Five Minute Journal

As with all goal attainments, the most important thing is to take small steps at a time. Try just ONE THING from the list above for at least 3 weeks and observe how that feels in your body and mind. Do you feel more rested? Do you feel more connected with your energy? If not, try another suggestion from the list and repeat. Once you find one thing that works and that you feel really good about, you'd naturally want to continue with this new habit and perhaps even try another one. 

If you'd like some help establishing a home yoga, nutrition, and lifestyle routine, you can set up a complimentary consultation with me to see how we can work together to help you create a life and body that you feel confident and connected with. I also invite you to attend my upcoming Holiday De-Stress Restorative Yoga Workshop to help you get started on a grounding autumn/winter routine. 

What is yoga to you?

In America alone, more than 36 million people practice yoga. From Vinyasa to Power yoga, Hatha to Iyengar yoga, Bikram to Ashtanga yoga, Jivamukti to Sivananda yoga, and Restorative to Yin yoga, we are exposed to a variety of schools of yoga in the States. However, how much do we really know what yoga is about and why we practice it?

Just by simple conversations with some of my students and people I meet, I hear just as many responses as to why they practice yoga to the number yoga poses there are:

“It makes me feel energized and wakes me up in the morning."

“It’s a good workout. I have gotten stronger with yoga.”

“I feel calmer throughout the day when I’m at work."

“I don’t get angry as often anymore. I am more patient."

“My body just feels really good after yoga!"

“I feel so relaxed after Restorative yoga - my tension just melts away."

“I’d come in with aches and pains in my body. But after yoga, these aches are gone!"

“I feel more clear-headed after yoga."

These are just some of the examples of responses I hear. 

It is great that many people feel the physical and mental benefits of yoga, but let’s take a little deeper look to the definition of yoga according to the Yoga Sutras.

yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah

"Yoga is the cessation of mind-fluctuations."

This is the most standardized translation of what yoga is. 

Here is another translation, my favorite one, in fact:

“Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart."

Citta is the individual consciousness that exists within all of us. Vrtti is the projected modifications of this consciousness that stirs our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. 

Nischala Joy Devi describes the meaning of “consciousness” best:

Chit is pure universal consciousness and chitta is the same consciousness individually expressed. Chit is the ocean of consciousness, vast and unlimited. At birth each of us gathers a small quantity of this vastness and encases it in the temple of our heart, as chitta, individual consciousness. Held for many years, it remains unchanged. Then, at the end of our life, it is released back into the ocean of consciousness; the recognition of oneness causes the chitta to instantaneously unite with the chit. 

Therefore, the intention and purpose of yoga is to unite our individual consciousness to the universal consciousness. That is being proven a challenge as we get drawn over and over again to the external, material world. We then start to identify and attach ourselves to the material things, titles, and projected beliefs that make us believe that we are separate from one another rather than unified because we all came from this single, vast pool of consciousness. 

Let’s take the example of a can of soda. Most of us would not associate the fluids of the soda with the vast ocean of water on Earth. However, soda water is ultimately one and the same as the ocean water, albeit being a little tainted and processed by human machines and ingredients. 

Similarly, just because we may wear different clothes, work at different jobs bearing different titles, hold different religious or political beliefs, doesn’t mean that we are not the same as one another. Within each of us is a drop of pure, pristine consciousness from the ocean of chit

yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah

“Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart."

Ultimately, yoga is about being comfortable in our own bodies, calm in our minds, and peaceful in our spirits so that we can return to being that pure, pristine drop of water, untainted by sugar, coloring, and other agents. When we can see that we are this pristine drop of consciousness in ourselves and in others, then we understand that there is no separation in this world. And that is yoga.  

Slow is the new black

Some of you have been with me since the beginning of my teaching career a few years ago. You probably knew me as the Ashtanga/Vinyasa/Power yoga teacher who is bendy like a spider and strong as an ox. I enjoyed fast-paced classes and practices that brew up a sweat, and would get totally bored in a gentle or restorative yoga class.

Looking at me now, you see the total opposite. A few months ago, I ditched all the power/vinyasa classes I'm teaching (well, save one at a corporate location), and started teaching only Restorative Yoga or Ageless/Senior Yoga. I'm now an advocate of the S L O W movement -- slow lifestyle, slow yoga, slow eating, etc.

My personal practice and teaching philosophy have shifted ever since I discovered the beauty of S L O W I N G  D O W N. 

It was not easy to teach myself to slow down, having been a perfectionist all my life. I'd feel guilty if I were idle, because there was always something else I could do to make my practice, my teaching, my business better, faster, stronger. 

Why is it so hard for us to slow down, to give ourselves a break, to RELAX? 

To relax is something so innate, so intuitive, and yet, I find myself, among the majority of others, having trouble relaxing.

Emotional ups and downs, over-reacting, restless but exhausted, trouble sleeping, weak immune system, digestion discomforts...all of these are signs of an imbalanced nervous system whose switch is always on the FLIGHT-OR-FLIGHT (sympathetic) mode. 

After some observation and self-inquiry, I've narrowed down to two reasons - one conscious and one subconscious - why it was so hard for me to just...RELAX.



1) I didn't give myself the permission to relax or slow down. 

This was my conscious reason. Being an entrepreneur, I was afraid to slow down! There are always classes and sequences to create, tasks to complete, ideas to execute, newsletter posts to write, and social media accounts to handle. I had vague goals of my business in mind, but they were so non-specific that I couldn't clearly map out plans of attack. Ultimately, I was just running around in circles, trying anything and everything. Then there was my fast-paced personal yoga practice. I stuck to a strict 6-days a week, 2.5 hours a day of intense, vigorous yoga practice. I was almost afraid to skip out on a day because a) I might "lose" some of my flexibility, and b) I might gain weight. 

I lived under this constant fear that other "people" (and I still don't know exactly who these "people" are. Other Yoga teachers? Health/Wellness coaches? Nutritionists?) would excel further ahead of me if I didn't keep burning fuel and keep going. I kept comparing myself to other yoga teachers and nutritionists, and if they had something I didn't have (e.g., more readers, more beautiful posts and pictures, more students), I'd try to get exactly that. I wanted their success, but it never worked because I tried to achieve the success THEIR way, and not my OWN way.

And so I kept pushing and pushing, kept doing and doing. 

Guess what? It led to no good. 

In fact, the fast lifestyle brought me these: constant bloating, restless sleep, constant muscle fatigue, injuries (from ego-driving mindset in my yoga practice), skin breakouts, and mood swings. 

When I started to slow down and gave myself permission to be imperfect, however, I gained more energy, slept better, digested more smoothly, had less breakouts, and evened out my temper and mood. Furthermore, it brought me another level of clarity about myself, and ultimately, my goals, my message, and what I can authentically offer to the world through my services. Slowing down actually gave me more  S P A C E  for creativity and energy in thoughts, speech, and action.



2) My body's DIMMER switch was sticky/broken.

This was the subconscious reason why I couldn't relax. You know those nights when you are just so darn exhausted, but no matter how much you try, your brain still keeps rerunning stories from the day or tries to create new ones? What happens after is a restless night's sleep or worse, insomnia. You then wake up the next day feeling worse than the previous night, but you still have that deadline to meet, so you push your body to power through another day. Because you're meeting a deadline, you work late into the night, when you can finally tuck in again, somehow your body won't let you do that. The cycle then starts again. You see, when you live your life in chronic stress (even if it's low-level), the body gets accustomed into thinking that you need to be prepared to fight-or-flight anytime. Your body perceives stress the same way, regardless of whether it is running from the saber-tooth tiger or running to meet the deadline. The body won't let you fully rest because it thinks the tiger (project deadline) is going to jump at you anytime. It tries to hold the dimmer switch towards ON as long as possible. 

This was what happened to me. My body was so used to being in the fight-or-flight state that it's forgotten how to move into the rest-and-digest state anymore!

My dimmer switch was broken. 

(SIDE NOTE: Notice I did not say on/off switch, but a "dimmer" switch. This is because in reality, the body and brain are working very hard at night while you sleep to repair any damages in the body that have resulted from living life. Our body and brain do not just switch ON or OFF, but rather DIM at night so that there are still a little energy and activity going on for repair and maintenance.)

To recalibrate it, I had to set boundaries around my routine. I need to let my body know WHEN it is time to sleep and WHEN it is time to wake. For some time, I adhered strictly to no TV and minimal smartphone interactions up to 1.5 hours before bedtime. I'd shut off the overhead lights and used salt lamps and/or candles to create dim mood lights. I'd read light, fiction novels to shift my brain from the logical, masculine, driven mode, to a more creative, quieter, and feminine mode. I let my body know to start dimming. 

Your body LOVES routines and regulations. That's how your body knows that it is safe. When the body feels safe, then it would allow itself to rest (read: sleep). 

 

Putting it into practice

I know, I know. The practice of slowing down is easier said than done. But I challenge you to start thinking about the two points I stated above. Do they apply to you? If so, where are some areas in your life that you can insert a little breathing space?

Perhaps getting in one full, conscious inhale and long exhale upon waking, before your meeting, before you step into the house after a long day at walk, before your meals?

Perhaps shutting off your computer, TV, and phone after 8pm, and actually spend some quality time with your family?

Perhaps challenging yourself to find "good enough" rather than "perfection?"

You can also hop on over to my Instagram page to see my collection of Restorative Yoga poses, or click here for a guided meditation (great for before bed or if you just had a sh*tty day and need time for yourself!). 

How the sutras are helping me through this political chaos

Normally I don't follow the politics too closely nor do I talk about them openly unless someone asks (in which case I'd just shrug my shoulders and give a polite smile). However, as I delve deeper into the Yoga Sutras (think of it as the holy book of scriptures, the study of the human mind/psyche, the code of conduct in living, and the study of yoga practice, all combined into 196 concise lines of poetry) in my Yoga Therapy training course, I came upon one gold nugget of a sutra that I believe we can all use a little bit more of in the midst of this political chaos and the tension building up towards the election. 

Yoga Sutras I.33:

Maitri karuna muditopekshanam sukha duhka punyapunya vishayanam bhavanatas citta prashadanam
"To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes: kindness to those who are happy, compassion for those who are less fortunate, honor for those who embody noble qualities, equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values."
(Translation by Nishala Joy Devi)

The last phrase, in particular, is one that surfaces in my practice again and again recently: "equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values."

I thought about how to apply this particular sutra to the ups and downs of the political chaos we are in right now: the bad-mouthing, the tension, the "I'm-right-and-you're-wrong's." 

And don't for even a second think I don't criticize the "wrong party." 

I am just like the rest of you. I watch TV and listen to the radio. I hear biases, I see subjectivity. I hold my own personal beliefs of what needs to be done for this country, and disgust at those who can't seem to pierce through their own ignorance.

Example:

Just the other day my husband and I were watching a short clip of Trump's tour at a red state. I watched in disbelief as the crowds cheered on some absurd words that Trump said. 

"I can't believe how stupid and ignorant these people have to be to follow along every word that Trump says!" I said to my husband.

Yes, me, the "yogi." I said that.

He quickly turned around, looked at me, and replied (paraphrased here): "I don't think it's right to call them stupid, because you don't know where they're coming from, what obstacles they've faced and are facing. You don't understand the belief system they've been brought up in, and it is not their fault that they are surrounded with this belief system. They have fears just like we do, but their fears are different from ours, and they are responding to Trump because he speaks their language, he understands their fears and is providing solutions, albeit not the most logical ones." 

Surprised and amused at his remark, I blinked a few times before I asked: "Are you sure you've never read the Yoga Sutras? Because you literally took a particular sutra out of the book and applied it in this real-life situation. While I was sitting here retorting and blaming, you were speaking like a true yogi, with compassion, equanimity, and objectivity."

Curious enough, my husband pulls that number quite often on me. He'd pull something right out of the sutras, though he had never read them, and use them on my judgmental, self-pitying nature. 

Ever since that incident, I pay more attention to my thoughts and words regarding the political mess. Discrimination is what drove this country into separation; let's not practice that anymore. Instead, hold equanimity, space, and equal consciousness for all. We don't know the opposing party's whole story just as they don't wholly know ours. Our hurt, fear, and miscommunication have cut so deep that it will take a long, long time to bridge this gap, but it's never too late. We can start with:

Equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values.