yoga teacher trainingBy Dr. Paul Jerard, E-RYT 500

Panic attacks can be crippling, with waves of fear, racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, and other symptoms that make victims feel like they are about to die. These disabling attacks are common, as well; at least 20% of adult Americans will suffer from a panic attack at some time in their lives. That is around 60 million people facing intense distress; and following one attack, the risk of having another is increased. Clearly, panic attacks have a major impact on sufferers’ lives, and treatment is very important. One area, where positive results, regarding the reduction of attacks have been noted, is in Yoga practice.

The emphasis in Yoga on mind, body, and breath is a classic relaxation technique. A 2007 article, in Yoga Journal, by Dr. Timothy McCall, suggests some specific practices for anxiety and panic attacks: “

[the best method is] a good asana practice, which burns off the nervous energy that can contribute to anxiety… A number of breathing practices, including abdominal breathing and lengthening the exhalation relative to the inhalation, help reduce symptoms of anxiety. Scientific studies suggest that left-nostril breathing can effectively reduce symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

The effects of paying attention to one’s body, and breathing in a Yoga practice can make individuals more self-aware and allow them to detect early signs of a panic attack. Since anxiety often builds on itself, early detection is the key to heading off major attacks; calming techniques work best, if practiced early in the cycle of anxiety, breaking the negative feedback loop.

So how can you help your Yoga students, who may be suffering from anxiety or panic attacks? Encourage awareness, throughout practice, of sensations in their bodies. Breathing through postures will help give them control over their breathing in situations where they experience shortness of breath; and controlled breathing, in turn, controls the nervous system.

As anxious people tend to be self-critical, the teacher should adopt a warm, reassuring style, letting students know that it is all right not to understand all the sensations they may be feeling. Have students practice flowing through the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara), at their own pace, concentration on their breathing, and not trying to keep pace with a teacher or another student.

This feeling of continuous movement and controlled breathing, at their own pace, will help them “break the spell” of feeling paralyzed when anxious. Finally, teaching some hand mudras for relaxation will give Yoga students a focal point, in situations where they cannot perform a full series of poses.

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