I have often heard the promise that yoga can help reduce anxiety and so when, almost 2 years ago, I started experiencing anxiety myself I naturally turned to yoga seeking comfort, support and regulation. But what I found surprised me.
Firstly, just getting myself to a yoga class during a period of anxiety was almost impossible. On top of this, when I experience anxiety the sensations in my body are overwhelming. My stomach feels either hollow or heavy, or a confusing combination of the two. My heart races. There is sometimes a tightness in my chest. And so, with my personal yoga and meditation practices always having been focused on sensations within my body, the idea of bringing more awareness to these sensations during a period of anxiety was…. well… anxiety provoking.
The times when I have made it to a class, I have found some comfort in siting in a meditation form at the beginning of the session (There is a sense of home I feel here. A topic for another time). However, as soon as the teacher comes near me during the practice my body tenses and my anxiety rises. When my body is in a hyperarousal state (aka. anxiety) and I am experiencing sensations such as shaking, trembling, tightness or discomfort, having someone’s hands on my body creates a tension in my muscles which increases the sense of powerlessness over my bodily sensations and exacerbates the mental and emotional anxiety connected to these sensations.
The question of physical assists
Enter Trauma Sensitive Yoga, specifically TCTSY* (Missed my blog about trauma sensitive yoga? You can check it out here!). In TCTSY, we do not do physical assists. When facilitating a TCTSY session (or any yoga class nowadays) I never place my hands on a student’s body for any reason. This is based not only in the knowledge that trauma survivors have difficulty localising skin contact and can be hypersensitive to physical contact but also because feedback from students at the Trauma Centre in the USA and around the world has told us that,
“when you place your hands on me, I feel like I have to do it your way”
-Trauma Sensitive Yoga Student
If that wasn’t a clear enough message for me not to touch my students then I don’t know what would have been. But my own lived experiences of anxiety and yoga backed this up for me (and even broadened its scope of relevance).
It is too much, too overwhelming, too anxiety provoking to have someone’s hands on me when I am not feeling grounded myself.
Coming back to the present moment
I feel so grateful to have been completing my TCTSY certification at a time when my anxiety was at its absolute peak. It was during this period when I had the opportunity to explore TCTSY as a practice to help manage my anxiety. And what I found was that, remarkably, it helped me to regulate. It helped me to manage the overwhelming sensations. It helped to bring me back to the present moment. It is possible that during these sessions, while bringing my awareness to my body in the present moment, the cognitive part of my brain, which (whether I was aware of it or not) was in the state of worrying about the future, began to settle more easily into the present.
But what if the present moment doesn’t feel accessible?
The opportunity for a present moment experience was just one component that worked some of the time. But sometimes this didn’t feel available to me. It was also, and often more importantly, about the power of knowing I had the choice over what I wanted to do. When in the moment of overwhelming physical sensations, actually bringing an awareness to what is happening in my body is often too much for me to tolerate. Through my own practice of hatha yoga, Vipassana mediation and trauma sensitive yoga, I have developed an intimate connection to my body and awareness of what my body is communicating with me. However, these experiences of anxiety can overwhelm my ability to stay in the present moment and I have often sought to find ways not to feel these sensations. For me, it is empowering to know that I have that choice, I have the choice to not feel, to not bring my awareness to the sensations in my body.
And this, quite simply, is why trauma sensitive yoga (TCTSY) has been the only yoga approach that has supported my self-regulation and grounding during times of anxiety. It is the focus on using your body to have a present moment experience. But it is also the awareness that you have choice - you are in control of your own body and you can choose what you want to do with it. As we develop the ability not only to notice the sensations arising in our bodies but also how we want to respond to these sensations, we may begin to embody our emotions and feelings, perhaps shifting away from the cognitive aspect of these emotions. As we develop the capacity to take effective action based on our lived experiences, the overwhelming nature of physical sensations such as anxiety may, at times, be lessened and we may be able increase our sense of empowerment and control over our bodies.
*TCTSY = Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga
Common strategies for regulating anxiety symptoms are often focused on using the breath. For me, my breath is at times either overwhelming or inaccessible for me. It’s all about finding a variety of tools to self-regulate because firstly, just because it worked for you doesn’t mean it will work for me. And secondly, just because it worked for me yesterday doesn’t mean it will work today.
Want some ideas of grounding and self-regulation strategies?
You can get 5 new ideas here!
This week I have started a 6 week yoga program for people living with anxiety to share this practice in the hope that it may offer others some peace and ease. During this program we will explore using the body as a tool for self-regulation and grounding. Would you like to join the program? Read more here.
It is important to note, that although a yoga practice may assist practitioners to self-regulate, TCTSY is not outcomes driven and emotional regulation may be viewed as a secondary outcome of the practice. The focus of TCTSY is to provide participants with the space and opportunity to have a present moment experience based on the sensations in the body which may in turn assist with self-regulation.