What you must know about students with anxiety

Are your students confiding in you that they experience anxiety? Perhaps you live with anxiety yourself. I’m certainly no stranger to it. In fact, it was my experience of anxiety and panic attacks that brought me to yoga in the first place.


Yoga has made a profound difference to my mental health and, while I know I need to continue to manage my wellbeing carefully, a well crafted yoga practice means I now live free from the debilitating symptoms of anxiety. I’ve spent nearly 30 years learning how yoga supports students to overcome the symptoms of anxiety - here’s something that all yoga teachers need to know about it.

Ahimsa, you and your students


A quick reminder that the first principle of raja yoga is Ahimsa - non harming. It’s really important to bear that in mind when supporting a student with anxiety. The second important thing to remember is this: 


What works for you will not necessarily work for your students.

What works for you will not necessarily work for your students.


No that's not a typo - I wanted you to read that twice and let it sink in! If you have successfully used yoga to manage your own anxiety, please don’t try to make your students do whatever it was that worked for you. Some practices that can reduce anxiety in one person can actually trigger anxiety in another. A good example of this is working with the breath. 


Many yoga teachers are aware that regulating the breath can help manage feelings of panic and anxiety. If deliberately slowing down or changing your breathing patterns works for you, please be aware that this could make a student feel worse. Here’s a scenario based on a conversation I had with  ‘Paula’ when she came to see me for a private yoga therapy session.


A yoga teacher tells the class that yoga can help with anxiety. The teacher shows her students how to lengthen the breath through counting. Paula, who has a Generalised Anxiety Disorder, tries the practice but quickly feels a familiar twinge of panic - It feels like she can’t get enough breath in. 


The teacher tells the class that slowing down the breath will make them feel calm, so Paula keeps going. The panic is rising. She starts to wonder if she’s doing it wrong. She tries harder. The feelings of panic and anxiety are now overwhelming. Paula feels terrible - yoga doesn’t work for her. She can’t do it right. There’s something wrong with her. 


Of course, on the outside, Paula  looks perfectly fine. When the teacher ends the practice and asks ‘how was that?’, Paula feels bad about herself and bad for the teacher. She doesn’t want the teacher to feel bad because she’s such a rotten student. ‘Good’, Paula replies. The teacher beams - it feels good to help a student. 


While it’s absolutely true that regulating the breath can help to manage anxiety, the problem lies in HOW you teach that. It’s common for people with anxiety and panic disorders to feel extremely uncomfortable when asked to focus on and regulate the breath. So how can yoga teachers help them to experience calm through breath regulation? Through breath centred movement. 


Moving not only helps to regulate the breath, it also creates a feeling of synchrony and connection when body and breath flow seamlessly together. What's more, movement can enhance the quality of the breath by encouraging diaphragmatic breathing.


However, not all types of movement are helpful for regulating the breath for students with anxiety. The key features of movements that are effective for this are: 


  • Simple
  • Repetitive
  • Gently emphasise the exhale
  • The body moves in ways that facilitate easy breathing
  • The breath comes first, with movements fitting the pace of the breath (ie.not synchronising the breath with the movement).
  • The student determines the pace of the movement, not the teacher


When a student is free to practice simple, repetitive movements that facilitate easy breathing at their own pace, the breath will start to regulate itself. This approach offers a way to regulate the breath without triggering the kind of negative feelings that can be experienced when a person with anxiety tries to focus on manipulating the breath.


If you want to learn more, grab this free mini e-course on Managing Anxiety Through Movement and Breath. In this exciting mini e-course, you’ll learn:

  • How and why the breath influences anxiety 
  • Breathing and the autonomic nervous system
  • Yoga practices that regulate the autonomic nervous system
  • How to teach breath centred movement

    Get access to this fantastic free yoga teachers-only resource right now!
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