Tapas New Year!

New Year’s Resolutions, remember those? We’re a month into 2017 already, approaching the point where good intentions might be starting to ebb. So here’s how the yogic practice of tapas, the yogic ethos of ‘fiery cleansing’, can re-energise your efforts to bring your aspirations to fruition, and invigorate you, inside out.

Forget New Year’s Resolutions. And maybe allow those small plates of delicious Spanish food to take a side step for a moment… (you can have them back later) while we look at how an ancient yogic practice can help bring you closer to realising your highest self.

New Year, Same Old You?

Image Credit: Brigitte Tohm via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Brigitte Tohm via Unsplash.

The start of a new year is always a seductive prospect. Our collective faith in self-betterment usually has our minds whirring in early January, as we find ourselves either inspired to venture out bravely into a dry, cigarette- or meat-free month, make to-do lists, bucket lists, life-goal lists… or, fatigued by the constant pressure to improve on last year, resolving to make no resolutions at all and just continue on our own course, finding our own way. For those of us with self-reflexive tendencies, the start of a new year can be a perplexing time. Most of us want to move forwards and do our best; to be, discover, experience more. The real challenge for us all is making solid, sustainable, long-term positive choices. This is where tapas can help.

So, What Can Yoga Offer Us?

Undoubtedly a yoga practice can help you see more clearly where you are and where you want to be. Whilst self-acceptance in one’s present state usually has to form some part of any initiative to change, there is also a healthy vim and vigour to be found in really working for it, an energy and drive that can help maintain your momentum for those times when the going gets tough. Known for its thorough advice on how to follow a self-transformative path, the Yoga Sutras refers to this kind of energy as tapas.

Patatas Bravas Aside, What Is Tapas?

Tapas is one of the five Niyamas, or observances, which can, if adhered to, lead to personal development at a profound level. Some see it as an integral, ongoing step on a yogi or yogini’s spiritual journey. Tapas translates literally as ‘self-discipline’, ‘right effort’, or ‘internal fire’, and there is also a connotation of cleansing to it. It is through tapas that we find the energy required to change undesirable habits, adopt better ones, and see more clearly the truth of our lives amidst the (beautiful) craziness.

Different people will interpret it differently, but broadly speaking, tapas is a kind of resolve that runs deeper than any individual resolution – it is much more about attitude than result. Part of the wisdom of tapas teaches us that if you focus on cultivating the necessary mindset, habits and practices to achieve a particular goal, (rather than getting hung up on the goal itself), you are much more likely to evolve sustainably towards it.

So What Does Tapas Involve?

Image Credit: Dave Contrerast via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Dave Contrerast via Unsplash.

Tapas involves willingness to work, enthusiasm, commitment and a sense of momentum to carry you through the ‘fiery cleansing’ which is its process. And of course the hard work itself. We might first of all think of this happening on the mat – through steamy vinyasas, perhaps, or long holds in challenging asanas.

The primary meaning of tapas, however, does not refer to work done on the mat, but work done internally, on the self. But given that the philosophy of yoga always plays out on the mat, we start to see that our attitudes in our asana practice are fundamentally part of our lives, just as our words and actions off the mat are part of our yoga practice. If we are willing to work; if we are enthusiastic; committed and conscientious in our practice, we may become so in life. And vice versa.

So How Do You Embody Tapas?

In the Yoga Sutras, tapas is presented as a method by which to purify the self of behaviours that inhibit us from living as well as we might. It’s worth noting that tapas is not a highway to achieving worldly goods, prestige, or any kind of life hack or shortcut at all – that is not what is meant by ‘living well’ here – but it is a route to inner contentment through the application of earnest effort.

Tapas can be hugely powerful – it can change lives. In fact we might even say that making resolutions without tapas is a highway to nowhere – because unless we understand that the impetus for change must come from a place of deep willingness within, we sign ourselves up to the disappointment that usually is the result of externally sought change, either through desire alone; envy; fantasy; or a mix of all three.

There Are Boundaries

Tapas sits within the context of the Yamas and the other Niyamas, of course, which keep things in perspective. It’s all too easy for that fiery energy to get a little aggressive, especially if you’re a feisty type of person. Like anything, an excess of tapas isn’t good for you. Tapas can cease to be beneficial when one’s resolve to change comes from a place of hatred or violence towards oneself.

If you’re thinking ‘I must change because I am fundamentally not good enough as I am, or as I perceive myself to be’, and you pursue change aggressively as a way to punish the self you undervalue in its present state, you violate the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence.

You also stop being true to yourself (satya) and limit your capacity to practice contentment with your lot (santosa). In the grand scheme, you undercut yourself thinking this way, and your goals shrink further away onto the horizon. So the preparation for Tapas, you could say, then, is acceptance, truth, kindness towards oneself, from which threshold the power to transform is almost without limit.

What Does Tapas Look Like?

Image Credit: Blake Lisk via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Blake Lisk via Unsplash.

Tapas on the mat and tapas in your life are non-separable.  Part of it is looking for the opportunities with which your life and your yoga present you in which you might practice it. Tapas looks like not giving up in the face of discomfort.

Tapas is being able to delay gratification by diminishing impulsive reactions which could threaten an overarching ambition. Tapas is seeking truth within oneself, committing to yoga’s request for self-study (svadhyaya) and then committing to letting that truth (satya) govern your interactions with others.

Tapas is having the guts to be really honest with yourself, the courage to stick to positive intentions arising out of that honesty, and then working to the best of your ability with respect for yourself and all beings to act in accordance with your positive intentions.

What Are The Rewards?

One way of looking at tapas is to see it as a process by which we can find our common humanity – life challenges us all, regardless of who we are. So if we as individuals can commit to living as well as we can – in earnest and with respect for the experience of all beings – we are also committing to living to the best of our ability for the collective.

This brings us to a kind of tapas known as sattvic tapas, which is where the practice of tapas starts to fall away from the ego’s attachment to results, and funnily enough is where the best ‘results’ may to be found. Sattvic tapas, which we feel when we feel connected, becomes a unifying kind of effort, which itself transforms the experience of hard graft into something joyful.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s commentaries on the Yoga Sutras call on the image of a lake to make this point. There are so many tiny waves on the surface of the lake; if each wave thinks of itself independently, it is being foolish and isolationist, because all waves rise and subside into each other only a short while later. If we think of consciousness in similar terms, individual lives occur as waves through an ocean, each rising briefly before falling back into the rest.

To practice sattvic tapas, then, is to work and yet to find solace in the knowledge that you are working with everyone else. When we work together and in the true spirit of tapas – with commitment, energy, honesty, and with fire in our bellies – anything is possible.

So much of it comes down to how you frame things, to your perspective. So instead of making a series of difficult-to-keep New Year’s resolutions, why not allow 2017 to be a year of tapas? Perhaps that way you can have your tortilla and eat it….

This Winter: Eating Seasonally

Eating seasonally in the winter is important for your health and the environment. During this winter season nature produces food that contains the exact nutrients that your body requires for this time. By listening to what your body needs and eating accordingly, you will be able to protect yourself against the lethargy that often comes with winter.

Image Credit: Maria Mekht via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Maria Mekht via Unsplash.

From the New Year until the official end of winter on March 20th, you have a new opportunity to start fresh and improve your health and energy levels.

Winter is known as a particularly risky time to contracts coughs and colds. The increased exposure to germs from more time spent in enclosed spaces and increased use of heaters doesn’t help. Reduced sunshine and lower temperatures only add to the effect. All of this means that you are more prone to a dryer respiratory system, which makes you more susceptible to illness.

An impaired immune systems will also result in you feeling lethargic and drowsy, which brings your mood down. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom! The good news is that there are plenty of ways to adjust your food and drink intake to make sure you’re healthy in winter.

How To Keep Healthy In Winter

The best way to do this is to boost your immune system naturally and power your body with nutritionally-dense foods.

During winter months we tend to naturally crave richer, warmer and heavier foods. Due to the weather conditions, there are fewer fresh fruits and vegetables available, and we tend to consume more cooked foods, teas and soups to maintain our body temperature.

Within this context it’s easy to fall for sugary drinks and snacks, yet keeping consumption to a minimum will help you feel good. To avoid these cravings it is crucial to balance your diet and include seasonal produce.

Small changes are all that’s required – check these six foods that you can cut out of your diet, and see which healthier ones you can replace them with to improve your health:


6 Healthy Food Choices For Winter

Cut Out: Hot Sugary Drinks

Caramel lattes, mochas, hot chocolates, hot mulled fruits and chais from your usual coffee shop are all shockingly high in sugar. Most of these drinks can contain up to 25 teaspoons of refined sugar! These are one of the most common temptations you can encounter. They are also one of the greatest diet mistakes you can make during the winter months. They have high amount of sugar and a lack of nutritious input for our bodies. These drinks will spike your blood glucose level and then bring it crashing down. You’ll feel sleepy and groggy after drinking them and you’ll be hungrier sooner than you expect. This could result in you eating more than your body needs.

Go For: Hot Cocoa

You can still retain the enjoyment and warm comfort of a hot drink by going for pure cocoa powder. Adding a few tablespoons with a dash of cinnamon and ginger to a hot cup of almond milk means you’ll get a protein-balanced drink. You’ll also receive the anti-inflammatory benefits of ginger and the glucose-absorption properties of cinnamon. Cheers!

Cut Out: Pastries and Pies

A slice of warm pie and other tempting pastries seem to be an unavoidable temptation that pops up everywhere you go this season. Avoid these type of cravings and enjoy something that nourishes you and also satisfies your palette by opting for root-vegetables.

Go For: Root Vegetables

Sweet potatoes are a healthy alternative rich in fibre that digest gradually, giving you a steady source of energy. You can boil them, bake them or even place them in the microwave for a few minutes until they are tender. Add pieces of pineapple for extra sweetness, almonds for some protein and a dash of cinnamon for extra flavour.

Cut Out: Unseasonal Fruit and Vegetables

Exotic and unseasonal fruit that has travelled a long way to get to your table. They not only increase your carbon footprint but it is also more likely to contain fewer nutrients due to its extended exposure to travel.

Nature also provides you with the specific nutrients your body needs according to each season. Going against this could make you nutrient deficient, making you more susceptible to winter sickness.

Go For: Seasonal Fruit and Vegetables

Image Credit: Chloe Ridgway via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Chloe Ridgway via Unsplash.

During the winter months bite into apples, blood oranges, clementines and lemons. Also, oranges, passion fruit, pears and pineapple. You could try pomegranate, satsumas and tangerines. Vegetables with high content Vitamin C cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower are associated with enhanced immune function.

Other vegetables that are abundant this season and that contain the nutrients that you need are: beetroot, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower and celeriac. Also try celery, chicory, horseradish and Jerusalem artichoke. Other foods include kale, kohlrabi, leeks, parsnips and potatoes. Finally try salsify, shallots, swede, truffles and turnips.

Check out this seasonal calendar to find out what type of fruits and vegetables are at their best when you go grocery shopping.

Cut Out: Creamy Soups

Creams contain a high amount of saturated fats and are usually high in sodium. This combination can make you feel heavy and drowsy.

Go For: Plain Soups

Choosing a soup over a vegetable cream can give you nourishment but also a steady level of energy to keep you mood up through the cold months. All of the seasonal vegetables can be a great addition to a hot soup with lemon and chilli for an extra touch of vitamin C.

Cut Out: Salad In A Bag

Since it is not the season for lettuce and other typical greens you may find in your usual packed salad. The nutrient content in these foods tends to be lower. As a consequence you may be obtaining a lower nutrient density in your salads.

Go For: Kale

Image Credit: Maria Mekht via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Maria Mekht via Unsplash.

Kale is one of the freshest types of produce you will find during this season. It’s packed with nutrients such as iron and vitamin B complex. You can add it to your salad, as a side or to your soup.

To sum up, in order to keep your energy levels up, avoid winter colds and still enjoy delicious foods. Try to replace high sugary and fatty foods for less processed alternatives. Taking the time to find out what is in season and eating accordingly, will greatly benefit your body. You’ll receive all the nutrients, minerals and trace elements that your body needs at this time of the year. The environment will also benefit from you eating seasonally. So why don’t you give it a try? We’d love to hear how you get on!

Featured Graduate: Sæunn Rut

Ahead of our first Charity Yoga Class, we sat down with Sæunn Rut, who will be leading it.  We spoke about balancing work, yoga and life (especially amongst the busy-ness of London!) and her dream of setting up a yoga retreats in her home country of Iceland. 

YogaLondon (YL): What is your favourite thing about practising yoga?sajarut_2

Sæunn Rut (SR): My favourite thing about the yoga is the sense of peace you feel when you practice. No matter what else is going on in your life, you can always find solace on the mat. Yes, some days you’ll bring your emotions there, but the flow will help you work though them to find stillness.

I’ve always kept busy – before getting into yoga I did a lot of dancing. After finishing a dance degree but deciding not to pursue it further I was looking for a new, perhaps less competitive form of movement – enter yoga.

YL: What made you choose a YogaLondon teacher training?

SR: When choosing my yoga teacher training course I was looking for a course that was flexible enough to fit around my work schedule and came with good recommendations. I already knew I wanted to do a teacher training course in vinyasa flow as I like the freedom of it, so YogaLondon’s approach of ‘no cookie-cutter teachers’ really appealed to me.

YL: How was transitioning from yoga student to yoga teacher?

SR: It’s been very exciting and I definitely feel that I am still learning and growing, and I hope to continue to do so. Since becoming a teacher my self practice has become a lot stronger. During the course I started overanalysing any class I went to, so self practice became more key.  Since graduating though I have found that I have slowly started to enjoy going to classes again.

YL: What was the hardest moment in your journey to become a yoga teacher? What’s your best memory?

sajarut_6SR: There were definitely some hard moments, I opted for the 4 month course which got together on weekends and balancing that with work was definitely hard at times. So was going from the busy London mindset to the more serene setting of the Buddhist centre in Bermondsey. But all of this was also part of what made it so great, being able to incorporate all the teachings we learnt in our actual day-to-day lives.

It’s too hard to choose a best memory I think! I was surrounded by such wonderful people who were always so supportive and lovely. So I guess that’s the best memory – the people.

My advice to my pre-yoga teacher self, is to just do it!

YL: What can we find you doing now? Do you have any projects on the go? What’s the dream?

SR: Currently I am hoping to fit in some classes around my work schedule but the dream is definitely to set up yoga retreats in my home country of Iceland.

YL: What should people expect when they come to your class?

You can expect a good balance of hard work, smiles and stillness in my classes.

YogaLondon Charity Classes run regularly at our Bermondsey location from 6.30pm. If you have any questions about the class, or you’re a graduate interested in teaching one of our Charity Classes, please get in touch.

Applying the lessons of pregnancy yoga into our practice

Poppy Pickles recalls her introduction to yoga through antenatal yoga, and reflects that the lessons she learnt then are still useful in her practice today.  From the beginnings of getting to know her body from the inside out, to the practical implications post-pregnancy, many lessons can be learned from pregnancy yoga. 

Image Credit: Marcos Moraes via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Marcos Moraes via Unsplash.

The very first yoga class I ever attended was a pregnancy yoga class. It was set in the crypt of a church and was a calm, safe space, guided by an experienced and caring teacher, Lolly Stirk, one of the founding members of Yogabirth. In those lessons the outside world receded, and I began to get in touch with my body and the little body growing within it.

Antenatal yoga was an incredible way of preparing for labour. Whilst I felt a lot of anxiety around labour and birth, yoga prepared my body and allowed my mind to take a step back, allowing my body to do the job it does naturally. I was lucky enough to have a straightforward labour and my son was born with hardly any medical intervention.

Once I fell pregnant again I felt compelled to go to pregnancy yoga classes again, and found it was even more beneficial the second time round, when running around after a toddler gave me even less time to connect with my pregnancy.

Once my children were a bit older I was drawn back to yoga as a way of reclaiming my body, and since then it has become an integral part of my life. But while thinking back to those early days of yoga, I began to think that the lessons of pregnancy yoga shouldn’t be limited to the brief nine months of pregnancy. Pregnancy yoga isn’t just a preparation for childbirth, but a preparation for the rest of your yoga practice. Here are five lessons I learnt from pregnancy yoga that I still value and use in my yoga practice today.

Trust In Your Body

The number one lesson of pregnancy yoga for me was learning to trust in my body. As intellectual Western creatures we tend to distrust our bodies, and look to medical science to explain our bodies to us. But as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘There is more wisdom in your body than your deepest philosophy”.  It’s just that before you can access that deeply instinctive wisdom, the conscious mind has to take a step back, which is not something it’s used to doing.

Yoga holds the key to learning this difficult art. By constantly bringing the mind back to the body in ever more subtle ways, we learn to tame the monkey mind.  This is crucial for labour, when the body has to release itself to the waves of contractions without being limited by fear or any external pressure.

It’s also a lesson that we need to keep re-learning over and over again. As a yoga teacher trainee I’m constantly being told to come out of my head and into my body – for example, rather than constantly taking notes, instead repeat what I’m taught with my body. Unless we bring yoga into our bodies, we don’t ever really learn.

Create Space To Rest

Image Credit: Chris Abney via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Chris Abney via Unsplash.

The antenatal yoga classes I went to were like external wombs of care. When preparing for the journey of motherhood we need to create safe spaces in the packed schedules of our modern lives for conscious rest.

Post-birth, and long into the adventure of parenthood, making space in my schedule for physical and mental rest, either through a restorative yoga practice, or a short pranayama practice is a saving grace in my life.

Also, being on a yoga teacher training course puts huge demands on my body.  The temptation is there to push the body to its limits, to keep progressing.  But, as the yoga teacher and author Bobby Clennell says, ‘an overzealous and aggressive yoga practice can strain the body just as much as working out on machines in the gym.’

Use the Breath

The breath is a lifeline during labour, a tool for enduring the contractions, a way of softening the body and a natural, life-affirming rhythm.

At a recent yoga class, we spent the lesson concentrating purely on the breath. We moved into Warrior 2, and then focused on the breath, and found that we could stay in the pose for far longer than usual. The breath had softened our body, and taken our minds away from the perceived pain of holding the pose…

Stop Thinking

Image Credit: Agnieszka P via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Agnieszka P via Unsplash.

…Which leads me onto the next useful lesson –  to stop thinking.

This is really the flip side of trusting your body, but it bears repeating.  As B.K.S. Iyengar puts it in his book ‘Light on Life’:

‘So often what prevents us from living an admirable life is the chattering of our minds, which pester us with long outdated doubts and despair.’

In labour the mind needs to take a step back in order to let the body take charge.  In my daily yoga practice the conscious mind presents all sorts of criticisms, anxieties, distractions and inane chatter. By using the breath as a guide you can bring the attention to one point in the body – pratyahara, or one-pointed attention. This is the next stage in the journey of yoga.

Labour and enjoyment are not two words that you’d usually put together. But pregnancy yoga gave me a positive childbirth.  The emphasis was on the joy of the miraculous transformation from pregnant woman to mother and child, rather than the pain of contractions. Of course, it doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games, and there were parts of the labour that were distinctly un-enjoyable, but I was focused enough on the present moment to really experience childbirth.

The same can be said for yoga! Especially while doing the yoga teacher training course. There are parts of it that are hard, painful, scary. But there is real joy too, if you can be in the present moment long enough to find it.

Yoga For Anxiety And Panic Attacks

In a world of ever-increasing anxiety, what does yoga have to offer? Nearly one in five people in the UK experienced anxiety in 2013-14, and record levels of anxiety are being reported in teenagers. So can yoga for anxiety and panic attacks really help, and if so, how?

Image Credit: Milad a Vigerova via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Milad a Vigerova via Unsplash.

As most of us are aware, the mind and the body are not separable. Our conscious experience is fundamentally an embodied one. Different states of mind bring about different physiological states, while changes in our physiological state can have a profound effect on our state of mind. Anxiety is a physical and psychological phenomenon and as such, it can be significantly alleviated by yoga.

An anxious mind makes for an anxious body, and if the body becomes habitually used to the physicality of anxiety – which can range from held tension to hyperventilation – it can further entrench anxiety in the mind. Mind and body truly set each other off. Yoga works wonders on anxiety because it understands this – when we set a good pattern going physically, the mind also benefits; when we establish healthy thought processes and mental well being, our bodies can’t help but respond.

What Exactly Is Anxiety? 

The easiest way to understand anxiety is along a spectrum. Whether or not we have experience of something we’d classify as mental illness, we all experience anxiety, to a certain extent. It is a natural reaction to some of the challenges of everyday life, and sometimes the bio-chemistry behind it can actually help us. We have evolved to experience fear as a mechanism for self-protection.

Broadly speaking, as a species, it has motivated us to prevail, or to get out of the way. Butterflies in the stomach caused by adrenaline before an exam or public speaking can work in our favour, preparing us with that little extra edge offered by the activation of our ‘fight or flight’ mode, helping us to perform to our optimum.

Sometimes this response doesn’t help, however. A racing pulse, the inability to think clearly through mental overdrive, a clenched feeling in the forehead, jaw or throat all may be prompted by a fear of attack, or fear of failure – we naturally tense up, mentally and physically, to brace for impact.

But when this happens in anticipation of something that doesn’t actually require this degree of reactivity (deciding what to have for lunch for example, or how to phrase a difficult email), it might not help us. It might actually make things harder, giving our brain and body more to process than necessary.

Symptoms Of Anxiety

Sometimes this can culminate in a tension headache, the feeling of emotional strain, or low mood, all of which paradoxically do not enhance our performance at all, despite our body’s best evolutionary intentions! At a psychoanalytic level, anxiety often has to do with how we perceive threat in the world and what activates fundamental insecurities or fears we may have learnt through conditioning.

The symptoms listed above might all fall within the range of everyday instances of anxiety: they are unpleasant but generally transient experiences. Anxiety when it gets out of control, or habitual, however, can be more deeply disorienting and distressing, and this is when it is classified as a clinical problem. In its most extreme physical expression, anxiety can manifest as a panic attack.

As anyone who has had a panic attack will know, the physical symptoms can feel so intense and alarming that anxiety is not the first thing you might suspect could be behind what is happening to your body. Legitimate feelings accompanying an attack can be fear of collapse or death.

Sometimes experiencing a flood of neurological information reporting such physical distress can convince the panicking mind that the body is having a heart attack, a stroke, or experiencing aggressive bouts of an underlying serious physical illness. Many of these symptoms are caused by hyperventilation, which is a common physical occurrence during an attack, nasty because it often escalates without the person being fully consciously aware that their breathing has become rapid and shallow, depriving the brain of oxygen. This can cause dizziness, confusion, nausea, tingling and a host of other unpleasant side effects.

The Vital Question: Can Yoga Really Help With All Of This?

Image Credit: Practical Cures via Flickr.
Image Credit: Practical Cures via Flickr.

The answer is firstly, YES. Yes, yes and yes. Yoga addresses the inseparable dual dimensions – mental and physical – of anxiety. Because yoga integrates mind and body intelligently, and with synchronisation between the two as its goal, it holds great power to reconnect the mind and body, allowing them to once again work in harmony.

Harmony is everywhere in nature, and it is naturally ideal for us to live mentally and physically connected. In that sense the practice of yoga is simply harnessing the power of our nature and helping us to work with, instead of against, the power of our minds and bodies.

Quite literally, yoga can re-calibrate psycho-physiological patterns of distress by reprogramming our minds. It does this by working with our physical experience in the here and now. If the matrix of anxiety relies on a projection of a fearful future, yoga saps the power of this by bringing the practitioner directly into the present.

Sounds Good….How Does Yoga Help With Anxiety? 

By slowing the mind down to the rate of the breath, as the mind is gently invited to notice a calm breath established by exercises freeing the diaphragm to express itself naturally and without tension. Once a regular, deepened breath has been cultivated, movement can be introduced and synchronised with it, which allows the mind to come more fully into conscious awareness of the present moment, in which it might start to be able to let go of some of the fear in which anxiety finds its roots.

Anxiety is usually associated with a fear of things to come and whether these be quite immediate or further ahead of us, it often relates to a fear that the future will take us out of where we feel comfortable and in control. The anxious mind has a tendency to race ahead – sometimes even years ahead! – of where we happen to be, filling us with doubt, uncertainty, confusion and the emotional discomfort those mind states often generate. But by bringing the mind into the immediate present (in which the body has no choice but to function and live), yoga can start to challenge and break down anxious cycles of thought.

It works because the mind is plastic, or mouldable, just like the body. Just like lifting weights will change the shape of your biceps, meditation – which, at its heart is what yoga really is – will change the circuitry of your brain. I know this to be true from my own experience, but if you’re looking for harder evidence, Neuroscience has proven time and again that thought patterns are physiological. (1)

Though these patterns are frequently more complex than our current understanding of their chemical and electrical intricacies can fully comprehend, even simply having this knowledge gives us huge power to harness yoga’s simple wisdom. When we do so, we can bring about in ourselves palpable positive change. All we really need is a mind, a body, patience and practice.

What Types Of Yoga Are Best For Anxiety?

Yoga calms the nervous system and some practices actively focus on this. So if you are looking at yoga as an antidote to anxiety, perhaps consider restorative yoga, which works deeply with finding physical release in the body through the breath.

Yin yoga works similarly, but at greater depth with channels of energy according to Chinese medicine and acupuncture’s meridian system. Hatha yoga and most flow classes also tend to build in a relaxation to practice, as well as the breath work, or pranayama which is essential to uniting breath and body – which is the original Sanskrit meaning of the word yoga.

Yoga Poses For Anxiety 

Image Credit: Anne Wu via Unsplash.
Image Credit: Anne Wu via Unsplash.

Generally, the benefits of yoga practice accumulate over time, but it’s also very likely you will feel immediately better after one visit to the mat! It’s a win-win, really. If you want to feel an instant sense of calm, perhaps adopt one of the following positions, and listen to your breath, deepening it into your diaphragm and allowing the lower belly to rise and fall as you do so.

Child’s pose

Supine twists


And if you’re curious about how anxiety has brought this yogini full circle into teaching, here is my story…

For most of my life I have struggled with anxiety. It has manifested itself in obsessive thought patterns pertaining to different areas of my life, but consistently has focused around being good enough. As young child, a health scare that zapped my confidence when I was nine years old made me desperate to prove, at a fundamental level, that I was able. That I would be ok. I never told anyone how terrified I was of not making it – essentially, of dying – but every trip to hospital and every invasive investigation made that fear very real. It stayed with me a long time after I got better, but if I said it out loud it seemed it would make it more likely to happen. So I didn’t, and it stayed on this inside.

To manage it, I became a perfectionist, and quickly got addicted to being the high-achiever that perfectionism enabled me to be. My need to be ok quickly had become a need to be the best, and it was never satisfied. So naturally, I excelled. When I satisfied my unforgiving academic goals at 18, gaining 100% in several A levels and a place at Cambridge to read English, my perfectionism needed something else to turn to. So it turned to food.

Now I needed to be perfectly slim, perfectly attractive as well as bright, because now that I was surrounded by brainboxes, simply being a nerd didn’t distinguish me as being more than just OK. I spent three years telling anyone who noticed I didn’t eat much that the reason I was skinny was because I was busy and exercising, but in reality I was subsisting on a few hundred calories a day.

Once I’d graduated I thought it would all go away – I had told myself it was the pressure of academia, that was all. It didn’t go away. Yes, it fluctuated, but since I was still living in a perpetually fearful future of my own projection – that I would never feel fundamentally OK within myself – it didn’t.

Next up it invaded my need to plan out a career and around that time major depression set in. By this point I was so depleted, mentally and physically, by being perpetually anxious, that everything I turned my hand to seemed to fall to pieces. Work, friendships, relationships. It felt like the sh*t was hitting the fan big time. I had to face up,finally, to really not having felt ok at all since I was little.

The unexplained gastric illness I had had for nearly a year when I was nine was eventually discovered to be a rare intestinal infection, and was cured by chance by intravenous antibiotics I was given for a kidney infection which I also contracted at the same time. Physically I had a clean bill of health, but my anxious brain had stored up all those patterns of fear, and sure enough they expressed themselves much later on.

When I took up yoga, though, it generated a feeling so deeply restorative that it somehow undercut all of this. I knew – in a very physical sense – that it had the power to heal me. It was something I felt at a level deeper than anxiety, and in fact, vitally, deeper than fear.

That’s why the I often describe my passion for yoga as a kind of faith. It’s not a religious faith but an experiential faith in nature, in biology and in the primal body-mind continuum, and its innate intelligence. Yoga ignited (as the tiniest ember to start with) a spark of faith in my mind-body connection that knew it could mend. My spirit and my zest for life started to reawaken when I understood that in yoga there is always a chance to heal the wounds of anxiety, if you give yourself one.

1. The Neuroscience of Changing Toxic Thinking Patterns, PsychCentral http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2011/08/the-neuroscience-of-changing-toxic-thinking-or-behavior-patterns/