Yoga to Fight Anxiety, Enhance Sleep, and Sharpen Focus
Rebecca Robin, IIN Content Editor
A regular yoga practice can have profound effects on your mind, body, and soul.
The building blocks of yoga include asanas – or poses – each of which enhance your flexibility and breathing quality, especially as you connect them to create a flow. As you move through a flow and hold these different yoga postures, you transfer focus and attention to the body and your breath. This can not only help relieve physical tension but allow you to practice proactively calming yourself down, whether before a busy workday or in preparation for a good night’s sleep.
IIN graduate Claudine Lafond is a yoga and meditation coach who found her passion in mindful movement during a visit to Bali. Since then, she has sought every opportunity to learn and explore Kripalu yoga, Forrest, Hatha, vinyasa, and Yoga Nidra. She and her husband, Honza, created a new branch of acroyoga called acrovinyasa, which simplifies the acrobatics of the acroyoga practice, making it accessible for nearly anyone. Read on for some info from her new comprehensive guide, The Healing Power of Yoga.
Yoga as a method to relieve anxiety
Yoga incorporates meditation and breathing, relieving chronic stress patterns. Anxiety stems from the amygdala, the almond-shaped section of nervous tissue located in your brain’s temporal lobe. This area of the brain is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, helping it respond to external stimuli and process emotions and behavior. As you encounter stressors in day-to-day life, breathing and meditation can help your heart rate and blood pressure normalize. Diaphragmatic breathing is a deep breathing technique that can regulate involuntary bodily functions and ease symptoms of chronic stress.
Yoga can also amplify a greater awareness of your inner body sensations called interoception. This self-awareness allows your body to detect the early signs of anxiety before it kicks in. You can then assess the reason you are feeling anxious and mindfully return to a calmer state of reality.
To reduce anxiety, try this pose:
- Balasana (Child Pose)
This pose is best when your head feels heavy, your back feels tense, or your breath feels hurried and shallow. Simply kneel down and shift your weight back to your heels, stretching your knees as wide apart as is comfortable for your body. If available, use a block underneath your forehead to lengthen the side of the neck. If it feels good, massage your frontal lobe side to side to reduce tension. Lengthen your arms alongside you or reach forward. Keep your shoulders and jaw super relaxed, and stay in the pose for 5 to 10 nice long breaths.
Yoga to optimize and enhance your sleep hygiene
A good night’s sleep is vital for your mind and body to restore and heal. When you stick to a regular sleep routine, the body’s circadian rhythm remains in alignment with your body’s overall function, allowing you to get the most out of your waking and sleeping hours. Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga, tells us that the late-night hours between 10pm and 2am are guided by the Pitta dosha, which allows us to digest all things from food to information to emotions. When you skip sleep during this time, you miss an important opportunity to maximize this digestion potential.
A good night’s rest – or lack thereof – affects how you relate to the world and the type of energy that you bring into every corner of your life. You probably know what you feel like the day after a poor night’s sleep – irritable, sluggish, and quick to react, especially negatively. Getting proper sleep and the energy it provides you is needed to replenish your brain power and tackle all your responsibilities during the day.
To enhance your sleep quality, try this pose:
- Ardha Bhekasana (Half Frog Pose)
Lie on your belly, with pillows under the belly if you want. Extend one leg out to the side, and bend your knee at a 90-degree angle so it’s even with your hip. Invite the opposite leg to straighten and extend it out behind you. Allow your head to turn and rest in the direction of your bent leg. Relax your belly, eyes, and jaw. Focus your attention on the nostrils, and bask in the simplicity of your breath pulsing in and out of your body.
Yoga as a means to improve concentration, steadiness, and focus
There are so many distractions throughout the day that can pull your focus from the present moment. The breathing aspect of yoga can strengthen your mind in order to tackle these distractions and create a sense of mindfulness that permeates your entire body.
Your mind can be trained by finding asanas that integrate meditation, clarity, and focus. Just like any other learned skill, you can train the mind by integrating a daily breathing exercise.
To increase clarity and focus, try these poses:
- Garudasana (Eagle Pose)
From a standing position, bend your knees slightly, lift your left foot up, and cross your left thigh over the right while balancing on your right foot. Point your left toes toward the floor, press the foot back, and then hook the top of the foot behind the right calf. Stretch your arms straight forward, parallel to the floor, and cross your arms in front of you so that the right arm is above the left, then bend your elbows. Snug the right elbow into the crook of the left, and raise the forearms perpendicular to the floor. The backs of your hands should face each other. Stay for at least five breaths, while fixing your gaze on one spot that isn’t moving. Unwind the legs and arms gracefully and repeat on the other side (legs and arms reversed). Enjoy the process of falling, too! Focus and concentration can be very fickle, so be easy with yourself!
- Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
Lie flat on your back. Bring the soles of your feet together with legs bent. Place a pillow under both thighs and an optional pillow behind the head, folding the pillows in any way you need to get the most support and comfort. Place your hands on your stomach and close your eyes as you release your jaw. Then simply bring awareness to your hands resting on your belly. Focus on feeling the rise and fall of your torso with each slow and deep breath in and out.
Keeping the flow alive throughout your day
The benefits of a yoga flow extend to all areas beyond your mat. A good flow is a means of self-care, energizing the body and giving you the strength to take on challenges throughout your day. Nowadays, we all need to remember to take time to destress, nourish ourselves, rest deeply, and concentrate on the present moment.
In the yoga tradition, the mind is said to begin in the heart. In Ayurveda, the root of the mind lives within the heart, and this extends to include the whole body. Buddhists also speak of meditating from the “heart mind.” By dropping into the mind of your heart, you can move through each posture with intention and focus. From there, you can move into a still place where nothing else exists – catching a glimpse of true peace.
A yoga practice can be a key source of primary food, nourishing your life with physical and mental sustenance. In honor of International Yoga Day, we teamed up with Claudine Lafond of YogaBeyond to share how yoga can help heal from the inside out, relieving stress and anxiety and improving focus.