How to use yoga and meditation to reduce stress and anxiety

Bringing yoga and meditation into your daily routine can help you to feel calmer and more relaxed. Yoga teacher Zephyr Wildman and YogaClicks founder Lucy Edge explain how…

Zephyr Wildman in virasana pose

“A cave-like space for contemplation”. That’s how the artist Junya Ishigami described his Serpentine Pavilion design. The slate roofed installation, standing next to the Serpentine Galleries in London’s Kensington Gardens, was the perfect setting for a yoga and meditation class.

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The slate was a reminder of our connection to the earth, creating a sense of anchoring, of grounding and also a sense of belonging that complemented the class theme – yoga for the transformation of stress and anxiety.

Organised by YogaClicks, and taught by yoga teacher Zephyr Wildman, the event raised several hundred pounds for the mental health charity Mind.

“Like so many people I find it hard to handle stress and anxiety, but I was so affected by Zephyr’s class – by my experience of peace and calm despite the stress of organising the event – that I wanted to share it with everyone, and In the Moment kindly agreed to help,” Lucy says.

How to use the RAIN technique

Zephyr began the class by introducing us to a simple practice called RAIN.

1

R is for Recognise

To start to recognise the thoughts that are running you. You know the ones… the ones that you’re ruminating and recycling all the time. Acknowledging these recurring thoughts is the first step to self-awakening and mental health.

2

A is for Allow

To allow space. As Zephyr put it, “do you want to sit in a tiny little cupboard dealing alone with your issues, or do you want to be able to sit with your issues in a vast space?” I’m guessing that, like me, you choose space. As Zephyr explained, “This is about giving yourself permission to feel what is yours to feel, to shed light on those thoughts that are arising, and to attend and befriend what is yours to carry.”

3

I is for Investigate

To take inventory. Ask yourself, is this thought or feeling very old? Something that came from your childhood? Or your adolescence? Start to investigate where it manifests. Does it manifest in your tummy? Your chest? Your throat? Your head? Unravelling how these thoughts and feelings unfold in our body is key to empowering us in taking responsibility for ourselves.

4

N is for Nurture

Louis Cozolino is an attachment theorist who believed that “We are not the survival of the fittest, we are the survival of the nurtured.” We all know that we can grin and bear it and push, push, push ourselves through life’s challenges, but the result is our immune system is destroyed, and our sense of community unravels. We can only grow, heal, transform and thrive when we nurture ourselves. As Cozolino puts it, “Those who are nurtured best, survive best.” This is the idea of being your own spiritual parent, which we will return to later.

So the practice of RAIN is a simple tool that helps you, at any given point, to recognise what’s going on; to give yourself some breathing space, to investigate what’s happening in your mind and body, and to take the necessary steps to nurture yourself.

We have to be our own friend. To approach ourselves the same way we approach a friend who is struggling. As Zephyr reminded us, acknowledging the work of Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach: “To a friend we say… ‘I see you. I’m right here with you. Your pain and suffering matters to me. I’m not leaving’.” We have to do the same thing to ourselves. The idea being to hold ourselves in this loving and kind presence and, as we do so, to give ourselves the opportunity to feel our own capacity for love and belonging; to connect to the light within us – the light that radiates out the truth of love.

As Zephyr explained, the practice of RAIN is most powerful when it’s combined with movement. “When we feel depressed our life force is dampened; we feel that whirling anxiety. When we become pent up and knotted up we tend to get in a downwards spiral. As we practice we start to understand that moving our body changes our psychology – we start to experience the link and we get in touch with our life force – that Pranic experience – the vitality within.”

Here are some simple asana, or postures, that you can do at home to start to change your psychology, and to hold yourself in the loving kindness of friendship.

5 relaxing yoga asanas for stress and anxiety

Zephyr Wildman in virasana pose
Jody Levitus

Virasana

Come to sit on your heels. Turn your palms up. In the palms of your hands feel the sense of presence, as if you are holding a tender gift. And as you sense that presence within you, cultivate a non-judgmental mind, a sense of friendliness, and a sense of joy – that natural joy of being alive. Cultivate too your compassion. Recall your pain and suffering, whether it’s here today or in the past. And see how old you were, or how young you were when you decided you were unloveable, and place your hands on your heart as you breathe in and sweetly say to yourself, as you would to a friend, “I’m here. I see you. I’m not leaving. You matter to me. I love you.” Breathe in and feel your heart swell. Exhale. Repeat a few times, savouring the swelling of your heart and the sense of letting go.

Zephyr Wildman demonstrates malasana pose
Jody Levitus

Malasana

Come into Malasana – Squatting Pose. Walk your feet half way up your mat, as wide as possible but keep them on the mat. Turn your toes out and heels in. Bend your knees. Draw your thighs away from each other, then open your arms and spread your wingspan, lifting your right arm up and to the right. Bring your hands back to centre and change sides. Inhale slowly. Exhale slowly.

Repeat on the other side. Lift your left arm up and to the left. Inhale slowly. Exhale slowly.

Then bring your hands into prayer, draw your thighs away, lift and spread your toes, lift your chest and bow your chin. Malasana is a pose in which we connect to the spirit of the earth – in which we feel stable and grounded but can also let go both metaphorically and physically – surrendering, and releasing that which does not serve us.

Hold for a few breaths – feeling your determination to face difficulties while remaining connected to your prayer of intention. If you feel any intensity in your groin or calves, know that this intensity does pass, just like the weather. It’s not forever. But while we are in it, it’s our choice to learn how to react or respond to the intensity. Remember to breathe in, and as you exhale, to let go.

Zephyr Wildman in Ardha Matsyendrasana pose
Jody Levitus

Ardha Matsyendrasana

Drop down onto your knees, turn your palms up for just a moment. Just feel the residue of the previous posture, simple as it is. Now shift your hips to the left, feet to the right, and arc your left arm up and over. Breathe into the left side of your heart.

Feel your heart gain capacity to manifest what matters to you most – what you care about – your prayer of intention. Breathe it in, offering it to yourself. Lean in, surrendering to that prayer of intention. Now place your right foot across your left knee. Left hand wraps around your right knee. Hook your elbow to the outside of your knee. Place your hand against your chest. Feel that support. As you twist, breathe into your hand.

Sometimes we feel like we’ve been given a straight jacket – we feel all bound up in a metaphorical twist. What we start to see, as we practice, is that it’s actually a way to feel held – it’s that spiritual re-parenting described earlier. We feel safe, we belong. There is love.

One more big deep breathe into the hand and heart. The next big inhale will bring you back round. Sit facing the front for an inhale and exhale, absorbing the residue of that movement.

Repeat on the other side.

Zephyr Wildman in gomukasana yoga pose
Jody Levitus

Gomukasana

Sit on the ground with your legs stretched in front of you. Bend the left knee and cross the left thigh over the right, wrapping the heels toward the opposite outer hips. Your knees are stacked in front of you, both pointing straight ahead. Or if that aggravates your knees, sit in Sukasana – Easy Cross-Legged Position.

Now reach your left arm over your right. And then double bind. Inhale, lift your elbows up. As you exhale round your upper back, elbows in. Inhale lift your elbows up. And exhale round your upper back again. One more like this. Opening up and releasing the luggage we carry around our heart. Inhale and come up.

Repeat on the other side, crossing your right arm over your left and your right leg over your left.

Now draw your elbows forward. Squeeze your hands and elbows together. Bow your chin toward your chest and, as you breathe, direct your breath to the back of your heart, feeling and unravelling the stuff you carry around with you. Our body remembers everything we’ve gone through in our life and, as we become more familiar with how we carry our stuff, we have an opportunity to create change. Change that is more loving and accepting, and more willing to transform and grow.

Slowly release. Bring your knees out in front and gently bounce your knees up and down.

Zephyr Wildman in tarasana pose
Jody Levitus

Tarasana

Place your feet about a foot away from your groin, quite far forward. This posture is not Badakanosana (where your feet are more tucked into your groin), it’s Tarasana, honouring Tara the Hindu and Buddha goddess of compassion and protection.

Place your hands in prayer position over the top of the feet. This honouring the feet is steeped in the yoga tradition; the student touches the top of their guru’s feet – to receive their wisdom and their knowledge. And in this way, as you humbly bow your own head to your own feet, cradling the tops of your own feet, you are honouring everything you have walked through in your life. Honouring your stories – as your past informs your present. Your challenges, pain and suffering have been invaluable in teaching you how to skilfully navigate this life. And through this experience and wisdom you are able to offer it to others – support, safety, belonging and kindness.

Stay here for five breaths. Inhale to come back up.

Zephyr Wildman closing the yoga session
Jody Levitus

Closing

To close you’re invited to create a prayer of intention. As Rumi says, “every heart receives what it prays for.” What are you praying for? We have a tendency to inadvertently pray for more anxiety. Our internal dialogue is “I’m so anxious, I’m so anxious,” or “I’m so depressed, I’m so depressed,” and that contributes to the downward spiral.

So consider what is it that matters to you most today? Peace or serenity, compassion or understanding, or joy. Perhaps it’s a family member, a pet, or someone beyond your immediate community – someone suffering in a refugee camp, or a child being bullied at school.

Whatever it may be create it as a prayer of intention. Close your eyes and, if that feels too unnerving, keep them open, focusing on one point. Breathe it in – knowing that you are worth it. That your pain and suffering matters to you. That you’re not leaving. And just whisper, “I see you. I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere. I love you and it’s okay that you’re not okay.”

Bring your hands to your chest and breathe it in. As we exhale we hand our will and our life over to the care of our practice and allow the energy behind the breath to guide us.

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Namaste.