Teaching Yoga for Anxiety: Do's and Dont's
What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. What has worked for you doesn’t necessarily work for your students, clients, or patients. I believe that this is THE most important thing to understand when working with students experiencing mental health challenges.
There are so many great therapies and practices out there, but not all work for everyone. Teaching what has worked for you, and teaching from your own experience, is SO valuable.
But sometimes we forget that what has worked for us may not work for someone else.
For example, while kundalini yoga is great, it can create nervous system imbalances in a highly sensitive person (HSP). And while I’m a big fan of restorative yoga, I have clients that I sent to vinyasa yoga instead.
If we want to make a difference to more people—even if it’s just by referring them to someone more qualified—it’s important to educate ourselves. We need to understand a wider perspective of being, thinking, and feeling than our own.
That’s the difference between a teacher and a therapist. You move from teaching something that you believe in−to being able to see and understand someone’s symptoms and guide them towards what’s best for them.
Educating yourself on the different ways in which people experience and express anxiety not only helps you tailor your therapy and advise better, but also allows you to make the best referrals.
Most importantly, it prevents you from projecting your personal experiences and preferences onto your students and clients.
“We are all incredibly unique and it’s hard to know how our student or client really feels—even if you think you do.”
So the best way to get to know someone, and what their struggles are, is to listen. To listen not only with our ears but also with our mind, heart AND body. It’s incredible how much information we can pick up on if we learn how to truly listen and attune to someone. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you will know what to do with that information though. A student may be telling you that they feel anxious, but that doesn’t say anything about what lies at the root of their anxiety or about what they need.
I remember participating in a colleague’s yoga for anxiety class. We started the class by lying down on our backs. Basically, you’re telling someone who feels agitated and unsafe to lie down (submit) in a super vulnerable position. It’s a recipe for more anxiety!
I understand his misconception. If someone feels anxious, we should help them calm down, right? And the best way to calm down is by doing something calming, like slow deep breathing, a restorative or yin pose, shavasana, or guided relaxation. Well, here’s the mistake. We make an assumption (based on our own needs and experiences) as to what will make our student or client feel calm and centered.
Starting close to the ground with a slow and meditative approach works for certain types of anxiety. It works for the HSP, for someone who feels exhausted, burnt-out, scattered, and overstimulated. This is an airy type of anxiety that usually responds well to relaxation, grounding, and somatic integration. It may be a nightmare though for someone who is agitated and restless. These are often the successful type-A personalities, but it may also be the over-worked mom who tries to keep everything under control. Someone who is more fired-up like this may struggle to connect to themselves, really drop into an experience, and may even find it hard to close their eyes. They may leave a yin class feeling more agitated and even frustrated and angry—while underneath wondering whether something is wrong with them.
“Starting close to the ground can be great for some types of anxiety, but a nightmare for others.”
Even though we are all incredibly unique, we have a lot in common too. By studying the different typologies and archetypes of people and their symptoms, we start to recognize how these energies also move through us. As we become more aware of these subtle shifts inside of us, it becomes easier to recognize these patterns in others too.
So if you thought that guided relaxation and nadishodhana pranayama are great practices to reduce anxiety, think again.
Anxiety doesn’t define a person, nor does it say anything about the ways in which that person experiences anxiety. Do they feel restless? Ungrounded? Or do they have a tendency to freeze? Depending on how a person feels anxious and how they respond to anxiety, they will benefit from different practices.
True healing never comes from a one-size-fits-all approach.
As a yoga teacher and therapist, you can only guide your student or client if you:
- know what symptoms to look out for
- understand what the different symptoms of anxiety mean
- what practices pacify the different symptoms of anxiety
Deniz Aydoslu, MA, is an advanced certified yoga and meditation teacher and expert in the therapeutic application of yoga and somatics for mental health. She helps women heal emotionally and restore their connection to Spirit by integrating the body, heart, inner child, and soul into a meaningful whole. She offers deeply transformative work as well as simple tools to improve well-being, creativity, and productivity through fun, easy, and nourishing self-care tools.
As an experienced yoga and meditation teacher, somatic educator, and shamanic psychotherapy practitioner, she infuses her work with the healing power of love and the value of nature as medicine.