In September 2022, just last month as of this writing, the US Services Preventative Task Force, a panel of medical experts, recommended anxiety screening for all adults under 65. Reported anxiety has been steadily increasing over the last decade, and the pandemic saw an even greater jump. Moreover, reported anxiety doesn’t include the many people who may not report it or even know that their angst or discomfort is indeed anxiety.
Reported anxiety is at unprecedented levels, and while as yoga facilitators we may long to facilitate stillness, I would argue that an even more meaningful aspiration might be to facilitate inclusion.
Anxiety can potentially cause racing, uncontrollable thoughts as well as physical agitation. People who experience several types of anxiety may avoid yoga or meditation classes because their experience of anxiety feels magnified while they are in the company of people who are seemingly able to sit or lie still with their eyes closed and drift into Nirvana.
Here are three simple, effective tips for yoga teachers and class facilitators to create a more supportive space for yoga practitioners who experience anxiety while on the mat.
Tip 1: Remind all yoga practitioners in your class that they can leave at any time. While this may seem obvious to some, or rude to others, the ability to leave when one is in discomfort is a powerful act of self agency, and when it’s invited, it creates a space that can feel especially supportive.
Tip 2: Consider offering alternatives to stillness for those for whom stillness is not currently accessible. This can include gently rocking the body back-and-forth during meditation or savasana, running thumbs along fingertips, or simply finding another small, supportive movement. Offering this invitation verbally and regularly in portions of class that specify stillness helps normalize an inability to be physically still.
Tip 3: To help those with racing thoughts, invite your yoga practitioners during a silent phase of meditation or savasana, to silently repeat a simple mantra on the inhale and exhale. It could be something that is special to them, an affirmation, or a simple mantra such as “Om.” Many traditions have their own mantra recommendations, and tossing out a couple of possibilities can help. The primary objective is to normalize an inability to empty the mind. As yoga facilitators, many of us normalize this anyway, but often people who experience anxiety still feel overcome by more thoughts, more frequently than their yoga peers.
People who experience anxiety can benefit greatly from yoga and meditation, and we can support them on the mat not only with our loving yogi hearts, but with simple, effective tips to enhance their practice.