BY ANNA JONES
We are an anxious nation, an anxious world.
The Mental Health Foundation reports that mental health problems including anxiety are one of the main causes of disease worldwide and in the UK alone, are responsible for the largest burden of disease – 28% of the burden, compared to 16% each for cancer and heart disease. One in four UK people will experience a mental health issue in any given year.
In the U.S., the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 40 million adults suffer from anxiety disorders, representing a significant 18% of the total population, based on those who have disclosed their condition.
These are daunting statistics that make effective news headlines. It is perhaps encouraging that people are beginning to talk more openly about anxiety, although possibly more so online than in person, via an Internet that connects us as much as feeds our fears and isolates us.
As yoga practitioners (but also as human beings and in our roles as friends/partners/parents/loved ones) it is an issue we will all face in some capacity.
Is it possible that the problem, rooted in the human condition, can be worsening — or just our awareness of it?
In short, there is no clear answer.
The word ‘anxiety’ is derived from the Latin ‘angere’: to strangle or choke, which in turn manifests itself in physical symptoms such as dry throat and strangled vocal cords.
‘Panic’, in Greek mythology, is drawn from the demigod Pan, who would lurk in forests that separated the Greek city-states and jump out on travellers who, as a consequence, would enter the forests with apprehension. Spooked by shadows and forest noises, they would experience a continual ‘fight or flight’ reaction – which is something the Greeks were already discussing as a concept.
Today, rising societal anxiety is now regularly discussed in the Press, in terms of its possible causes and what to do about it. For example, The Guardian explained recently that there is an ongoing nature/nuture debate about the possible causes. Some scientists state that a person’s genes can potentially contribute in terms of not handling everyday stressors, whilst psychologists have explained that difficult childhoods cause many individuals to grow up in a “state of permanent red alert” which have “deregulated the cortisones in their brain chemistry”. All of this is combined with “our toxic society” and “the struggles of life are hard indeed to weather.”
Even with the best of intentions, the volume of articles and possible explanations is enough to make an anxious person (or rather, a person currently suffering from anxiety) see red as well.
As yogis, how can we constructively help our friends and loved ones when they ask us questions about our own enduring yoga practice and relative peace of mind?
For thousands of years, people have explored yoga to reduce their suffering. We know that yoga was systematised in India much earlier than the Greeks, possibly circa 3000BC.
The topic of anxiety is such a sensitive one, and the pain that is experienced often so serious and enduring, we might find it difficult to know how to inform friends and loved ones who are keen to explore yoga as a solution to their pain. As such, to discuss it is to accept that every person will have their own subjective experience of the anxiety they suffer and what will help, or not.
Certainly it is wise to acknowledge our relative inexperience and refer someone to other experts as appropriate, or organisations such as http://www.mind.org.uk
As we develop our own yoga practice, an initial enthusiasm to share knowledge can be interpreted as a need to ‘preach’ to others, fairly or unfairly – but with time, awareness grows of all that there is to learn. Just as the Greeks recognised this, for example the Socratic paradox that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”, so the Yoga Sutras warn against the ignorance and individual delusion of Avidya, brought about in part by Asmita, the ego.
What we can draw on is that anxiety is common to all of us at certain times in our life – and we will continue to experience it as yogis, although we seek to work on it.
Just as the term ‘anxiety’ is often used as a catchall for a complex issue, so ‘yoga’ is not an instant salve – but rather than a developmental process that requires ongoing attention. This can be explained in an encouraging way once an individual starts to feel positive about a yoga practice, mentally or physically.
If indeed an individual’s anxiety is provoked by fear about the future and handling the demands of each day (albeit rooted in difficult past experiences), there is seemingly “never enough time to practise yoga” – or to get on with the idea of living versus working. In discussing this conflict with others, it would be useful to continue to challenge the misconception that Astanga Yoga is a rigid practice requiring hours of challenging asanas from the outset, and only for those who can afford to step outside of everyday financial obligations.
Certainly in today’s world of conflicting demands and increasing living costs, a notion to completely surrender from the outset is itself anxiety provoking. The Astanga practice is structured for repetition and surrender to the system for a reason. But for anyone drawn to the practice and in need of respite, we can show kindness by referring them to an expert teacher and explaining the simple art of carving out a few minutes of time whilst being clear that regularity is the key (and perhaps that the practice, in whatever form, may lengthen or shorten under careful guidance). We can explain that just as the sun rises every day, so the yogi will need to recommit to their own practice before helping others.
We might also explain that our inner monologue will continue of course, and that yoga will not always ‘feel good’ in the moment – and so we explain Astanga Tristhana, and perhaps ‘sthira-sukham asanam’ (steadiness and ease) as an early concept to take on board.
Just as anxiety can be rooted in fears of impermanence, so an individual learns to work with this reality on a daily basis. At the simplest level, to acknowledge that a yoga practice cannot be ‘stored up’ but must be tendered to regularly, like a garden that changes with the seasons. And that ‘self-care’ including sleep, a good diet and surrounding oneself with supportive people (depending on the needs of the individual) will all hopefully contribute to improved physical and mental health.
As awareness grows, eventually we all need to work on Virya – the energy of conviction and persistence – and in showing loving kindness to one another.
Anna Jones studies under Sarah Miles’ Yoga Base Brighton Astanga yoga programme at Brighton Natural Health Centre in Brighton, UK.
 Mental Health Foundation:
 National Institute of Mental Health:
 Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: sthira-sukham asanam (sutra 2.46). Literal translation is “resolutely abide in a good space.”