Phobias are fears in suspended animation. Rather than reacting to an actual, current moment, stimulus phobic states are emotional reactions to ‘potential scenarios’. Our sympathetic nervous system responds as if these scenarios are actual and reacts with physical symptoms like an elevated heart rate, dizziness, nausea, or shortness of breath.
The most common phobias are related to animals (like bugs, snakes, spiders, etc), environment (high places, closed or open spaces) and situations (either social or specific scenarios).
Yoga is not intended as a form of psychotherapy. However, by uniting the mind with movements of the body and focusing awareness on the present moment, Yoga, can help to ‘re-pattern’ the body’s response to stress and help those with phobias recognize the difference between actual and perceived fear. (Read more about how to overcome phobias here).
The practice of yoga asana (physical movements) places the body in all sorts of uncomfortable positions, such as standing on your head, bending backwards or many other variations, then asks the mind to focus on the breath, find calm, and relax. This physical practice fires up the sympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for our fight or flight reactions) and a ‘response’ message is sent throughout our body to increase heart rate and blood pressure. When we relax either within a specific pose or at the end of our practice in savasana (final relaxation pose), we engage our parasympathetic nervous system (the system in charge of resting and regeneration) which sends our body the signal to decrease the heart rate, rest, digest and relax. Both systems are necessary for our survival. They work in opposition and each need their ‘on’ and ‘off’ time.
People with phobias especially those with chronic phobias can overwork their sympathetic nervous system. This can actually add more stress to the body and perpetuate the body’s stress response. Yoga helps to interrupt and acts to bring balance to this stress cycle. By simply practicing asana we can re-pattern our response to stress and learn to bring our focus to present moment ‘actual’ situations and breathe our way through difficult situations.
Yoga helps change our inner environment. It can reduce anxiety and improve mental, spiritual or emotional well-being. After all, “Yoga is a journey of the self, to the self, through the self”. (Bhagavad Gita) Wherein we become our own therapist and self-healer.
The following asana practice can increase awareness, invigorate the body and is designed to start to transform stress into bliss. It culminates with cobra – a backbend.
Start by warming up the spine. Sit in a cross-legged pose and then start to make circles with the torso: Inhale as the circle moves forward, exhale as the spine and circle moves towards the back. After a few rounds reverse the circle, but maintain the same breath pattern (inhale forward, exhale back).
Then move into table top pose (hands and knees): make sure your wrists, elbows and shoulders are in line, and your knees are under your hips (knees are hip distance apart). Spend a few breaths moving through cat and cow pose, moving with your breath. As you inhale, arch your back (round the spine upwards towards the ceiling), your head looks toward the navel center, cat pose. Reverse the movement: as you exhale your navel center moves toward the floor, the spine moves the opposite way and your head looks forward or up, sway-back cow. Continue moving with the breath, arch the back, create space between each vertebrae. After a few rounds, roll over and lay flat on your back with the knees bent, feet hip distance apart (ankles in line beneath your knees), firm through the tops of the shoulders and press the hips skyward for a few breaths in half bridge.
Then move towards a wall to practice Ustrasana or camel pose – using the wall will help to ensure proper lift, grounding and alignment. With a mat and block, kneel facing the wall with the block lengthways between your knees. Move so the pelvis and fronts of the legs are touching the wall. With an inhale lift the shoulders up toward the ears then move the shoulder blades back toward the spine then down toward the earth, create an open heart (and moving the shoulders away from the ears). Make fists with your hands and place them on the sacrum (the triangular shaped flat bone at the base of the spine). With an inhale lift the heart, and arch back. Keep the fronts of the legs pressed into the wall; shins and feet are pressed into the floor. The idea is to remain connected to the wall through the fronts of the legs (quadriceps and pelvis) while lifting up and back with your torso. Listen to your body. If you experience any pain in the lower back chances are you are not lifting the heart upwards or pressing the hips forward enough. Be aware and find your edge. Spend a few breaths coming in and out of this pose. If you are comfortable you may reach back for the heels but maintain connection with the wall.
From here turn around and lay flat on your tummy (you can keep the block between the legs to really work the principles of alignment). Bring your fingers tips directly below the shoulders, keeping the arms tucked into the ribs. With an inhale roll the shoulders up toward your ears then with your exhale press them back and down the spine. Elbows should be at 90 degrees. Lift from the back of the heart, pull yourself forward and up as you inhale press firmly through the palms and feet. Remind yourself of the work at the wall and press pelvis and tops of the legs into the mat. Imagine that someone has placed their hands on your shoulders and are gently moving them away from your ears and front body, as you heart and chest wants to move forward. Bhujangasana or Cobra pose is a back bend and therefore asks the practitioner to move beyond the physical plane of those things that are easy to see or touch and open into the back body, the universal plane, where things are more conceptual and require faith and trust.
Complete this practice with a few minutes in Savasana (corpse or final relaxation posture). For deeper relaxation consider practicing yoga nidra.
May this practice bring you peace, harmony, and well-being. Namaste.