Yoga philosophy offers methods to manage both healthy anxiety, and anxiety disorders. Fear is a natural fight-or-flight response. It safeguards us and those we care for; however, for some of us, anxiety is a disease. Anxiety disorders can show up in our lives as:
- Overly stressful feelings or responses to ordinary circumstances
- Stress which persists regardless of any cause we can point to
- Our stress leading to other issues like depression, suicidality or substance abuse
Yoga and Healthy Anxiety
Life-and-death situations are few and far between for most of us in the modern, industrialized world. But however rare these instances are, they are the reason we’re set up to release stress hormones. Yogis prepare themselves for life-and-death situations in multiple ways, such as by:
- Regularly contemplating our eternality as souls
- Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
- Practicing yoga both within and outside our comfort zones
Bhagavad-gita 6.11-12 gives a number of recommendations for putting together a safe yoga setup. In a sacred space, various natural meditation aids help us practice yoga with a tranquil mind. These recommendations are perfect for when we have the luxury of a peaceful situation.
Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.23.6 shows how yoga can be practiced outside our comfort zone. To do this, we practice yoga in purposefully challenging situations. Practicing in these tough circumstances builds up the grit we’ll need to concentrate our minds even at the time of death.
By these and other yoga procedures, we cultivate the inner strength to face justifiably fearful situations. Because death can come at any moment, yoga is a constant practice, and is performed in diverse settings. The big idea is to fall back on yoga, when we need it most.
nehabhikrama-naso ‘sti pratyavayo na vidyate
sv-alpam apy asya dharmasya trayate mahato bhayat
In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear. (Bhagavad-gita, 2.40)
Yoga and Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are referred to in the ancient Sanskrit language as bhaya-pravana, which means to be inclined toward fear. A fearful disposition can be eased through yoga practice. Harvard physician Herbert Benson MD, uses mantra and pratyahara in his stress treatments.
Mantra is a targeted chant or prayer which is repeated. These repetitions can be silent or vocalized, and they help deliver the mind from anxiety. Pratyahara is the process of withdrawing our attention from the thoughts which distract our meditation, and then calmly returning to focus:
yato yato niscalati manas cancalam asthiram
tatas tato niyamyaitad atmany eva vasam nayet
From wherever the mind wanders due to its flickering and unsteady nature, one must certainly withdraw it and bring it back under the control of the self. (Bhagavad-gita, 6.26)
A calm, focused mind is important for meditation on the Absolute Truth. It’s important to remember that the aim of yoga philosophy is reviving our inner joy as souls in relation to the Absolute Truth. Strong motivation is required to stay on top of anxiety disorders.
Anxiety and the Mode of Passion
Bhagavad-gita 18.38 explains how the mode of passion contributes to anxiety:
That happiness which is derived from contact of the senses with their objects and which appears like nectar at first but poison at the end is said to be of the nature of passion.
This verse tells us that exploiting the energy of the Absolute Truth leads to dissatisfaction. Impending dissatisfaction contributes to anxiety. Rising to the mode of goodness helps alleviate this anxiety. Spiritual satisfaction is then possible by connecting with the Absolute Truth, or God.
Reinstating this joyful relationship is the goal of yoga practice, as taught by Krishna in Bhagavad-gita 6.47:
yoginam api sarvesham mad-gatenantaratmana
sraddhavan bhajate yo mam sa me yuktatamo matah
Of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.
Even as we work toward the long-term goal of overcoming the mode of passion, we can mitigate the suffering it causes us right now. To do this, yogis remember that our efforts don’t produce results independently. There are five factors of action; it’s not all on us:
adhishthanam tatha karta karanam ca prithag-vidham
vividhas ca prithak ceshta daivam caivatra pancamam
The place of action [the body], the performer, the various senses, the many different kinds of endeavor, and ultimately the Absolute Truth—these are the five factors of action. (Bhagavad-gita, 18.14)
Here’s a final meditation on balancing due diligence and dependence on the Absolute Truth:
yoga-sthah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya
siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga ucyate
Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga. (Bhagavad-gita, 2.48)
Realizing that Krishna is ultimately in control of what happens in our life can help us let go of the deep-seated anxiety that prevents us from enjoying our spiritual life and the many wonderful opportunities it offers.