Anxiety is something we all have to go through in life. It is a part of our daily experience, a part of the dual nature of existence-pleasure and pain, light and dark, relaxation and tension. However, most of us are not taught to handle it properly when it crops up. Therefore, we suffer from its effects which include many forms of psychosomatic and degenerative diseases as well as neurosis and psychosis. Scientists are showing that yoga can help us to reach the core of our anxiety, thereby dissolving it.
Yoga alleviates the effects of stress and tension on the body, mind and lifestyle. Through its practical, easily applied and efficacious techniques it allows us room to move, to see life from another angle, to see just exactly what is happening when we get anxious. A new attitude is induced, one in which we develop self-confidence and the ability to act in life with skill, humility and innocence. This attitude is best summed up as: "Who knows what tomorrow may bring... let it come and we will gladly accept whatever life offers us".
Before we can attain the state of consciousness in which we live a carefree, aware, accepting existence, we must dispel the built-up tensions, worries, fears, and disquiet from the brain and mind. As we do this we also alleviate disease, through the powerful combination of relaxation and awareness, systematically affecting each and every part of the body, from muscles to neuro-endocrine system.
Michel Girodo, of the University of Ottawa, Canada, has studied the effects of meditation and relaxation on 9 patients diagnosed as 'anxiety neurotics'.*1 The patients, 7 males and 2 females, ranging in age from 18 to 42 years, had been suffering from their affliction for periods of 5 months to 6 years. They were questioned on their symptoms which included: distractability, worry, apprehension, forgetfulness, restlessness, irritability, depression, palpitations (excessive throbbing of the heart), difficult or laboured breathing, trembling of muscles, tingling sensations, burning or crawling of the skin, weakness, chest pain, faintness, dizziness, headache, excessive sweating, dry mouth, aches and pains, intestinal distress. The severity of each symptom was assessed on a questionnaire with a scale from "not at all" to "very much".
Each subject was then instructed in japa, repetition of mantra, in this case Ram. They were told to expect relaxation, peacefulness and tranquillity if the practice was performed regularly, twice a day over a 40 minute period.
After 8 sessions which lasted over 4 months, 5 patients showed marked improvement and reduction of anxiety. This group consisted of those people who had been suffering from anxiety for only a short period of time.
The 4 people who had suffered for long periods of time were taught a different meditation technique called flooding-desensitization, in which one imagines the worst thing that could happen in a given situation, such as in interpersonal relationships. This technique resembles stage 3 of antar mouna, a systematic way of exploding and handling our inner tension. One man reported that the worst thing that could happen to him was becoming angry at work, while another expressed fear of crowds. After 8 sessions over 4 months they reported less anxiety and after each session felt emotionally drained and exhausted, indicating release of deep-seated, energy-sapping conflicts (karmas and samskaras).
After 18 sessions lasting 6 months both groups had attained the same low levels of anxiety as measured by the scale. It therefore seems that those people who are suffering from the early stages of anxiety (apprehension, worry, distractability, forgetfulness) can benefit from the soothing effects of mantra japa. Those who have deeper problems, such as deep-seated fears (phobias) and more ingrained tensions require a powerful technique such as antar mouna (flooding-desensitization), to bring the deeper problems to the surface where they can be recognized. Once awareness of the problem dawns, we become less susceptible to its energy - that is, we are desensitized.
Leonce Boudreau has reported similar success in deep-seated anxiety.*2 In one 18 year old student who had been using japa meditation only, Boudreau used flooding-desensitization (imagining fear-producing images) but achieved poor results. When the student followed this technique by japa and also used japa in situations where he was actually threatened, he was able to remove all fear of enclosed spaces. With the decreased tension he regained his physical and mental stability. Thus, the use of yogic techniques must be carefully prescribed so as to suit each individual's personal needs.
A thorough knowledge of yoga and its application is essential to help in anxiety and this requires personal experience of the mind and body. The body also plays an important role in the alleviation of anxiety, especially when it is deeply rooted and has existed for a long time. The body reflects the mental state via the autonomic nervous system and an anxious individual may suffer various problems associated with excessive adrenal secretion and sympathetic nervous system over activity.
Asanas, pranayama, and hatha yoga shatkarmas (cleaning techniques) are effective in reducing tension in the body and mind.
This is shown by Boudreau in one case of an unmarried, 40 year old female school teacher who complained of total body perspiration for about 12 hours each day, and also 3 hours a day of 'excessive' perspiration. This behaviour began when she was 5 years old and was unaltered by conventional medical therapies. Active muscle relaxation, which is known to combat and counteract anxiety, reduced her mild perspiration to 5 hours and 'excessive' to 1 hour, after 4 months of therapy. When it was combined with flooding-desensitization, no further progress was felt. She then took up half an hour of daily yoga exercises and after 3 months practice had reduced her mild perspiration to less than one hour a day, and 'excessive' perspiration had totally disappeared.
The yogic exercises make us feel good. Asanas tone up and strengthen the body, pranayama fills us with energy, meditation gives us insight. These combined produce a positive and dynamic effect on our lives. We begin to feel good within ourselves and recognize that we are truly our own best friend. Within each of us lies a great potential and when we begin to recognize it within ourselves we begin to see it within others. Thus each day brings with it new adventures, not just new dangers, and the chance to grow with each new experience. This is the challenge of yoga.
*1. M. Girodo, "Yoga Meditation and Flooding in the Treatment of Anxiety Neurosis", J. Behav. Ther. & Exp. Psychiat., vol. 5, pp 157-160, 1974.
*2. Leonce Boudreau, "Transcendental Meditation and Yoga as Reciprocal Inhibitors", J. Behav. Ther. & Exp. Psychiat., vol. 3, pp 97-98, 1972.