The Power of Presence: Can Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy Help Reduce Anxiety?

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Anxiety disorders are ubiquitous across the globe. A recent study found the current global prevalence for anxiety disorders to be 7.3% of the world’s population – that means 1 in 14 at any given time, and 1 in 9 during any given year will experience an anxiety disorder (Baxter 2013). Anxiety, which is distinct from fear, was clinically defined in a 2009 study as a “future-oriented mood state associated with preparation for possible, upcoming negative events” and presents as symptoms of worry, avoidance, and muscle tension.  (Craske et al 2009; emphasis mine). The diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is dichotomous, which means that in order for an anxiety disorder to be diagnosed one must meet a certain criteria; therefore, if you don’t meet the criteria, you don’t have the disorder. That means a person who is assessed as just under that threshold, presenting with 3 out of the 4 required symptoms, will not be considered as having a disorder even though they may be significantly impaired by anxiety. In reality, people experience symptoms on a continuum. It’s important to note that in some countries, especially in the United States and sometimes in Canada, a diagnosis is often required in order for treatment to be given and covered by insurance companies. Also, when attempting to determine the rate of prevalence, studies only include data for clinically diagnosed disorders. The bottom line is that anxiety, with or without diagnosis, may have a much higher prevalence than is reported, and many people who experience anxiety might not be getting treatment.


Consider again the main features of anxiety: Subjective distress brought about by worry over future-oriented events. In less clinical terms, anxiety is brought about when we aren’t present in the moment. I myself have come to realize that, like many others, I am prone to anxiety. I first realized this about two years ago when I was burning the candle at both ends, teaching yoga full time and in school full time without a day off. In addition to the stress of keeping up with it all, there was a lot of internal pressure to do everything extremely well. I had a panic attack while I was teaching yoga. I went to the hospital thinking that I was having a heart attack, and when the doctor said it sounded like a panic attack, my first response was, “But I’m not anxious; I’m not worried about anything.”  It’s humbling to admit my lack of self-awareness, but in a way that panic attack was a gift because it played an important role in my process of waking up.


Recently in my own personal practice off the mat, I have been closely examining those subtle moments when I feel the familiar somatic experience of anxiety creeping in, and I’ve realized that I do indeed worry more than I had realized. It’s as if this worry had been somewhat subconscious, like a ticker tape humming just beneath the surface of my awareness. I may not be wringing my hands and furrowing my brow, but it’s true that when I feel tense and anxious, I am definitely not in the present moment – I’m thinking about all the stuff I have to get done.  My practice then has been to recognize this and to bring myself back again and again into the here and now.


As I reflected on this practice of presence, I realized a few things: 1) Present-moment awareness is at the very foundation of the classical yoga practice expounded by Patanjali; 2) Is also the cornerstone of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy; 3) This practice of presence might just be the answer to resolving anxiety.

                                                 तत्र स्यितौ यत्नोऽभ्यास:

            Tatra sthitau yatno’bhyāsa

         “Abhyasa is the effort of remaining present” ~ Sutra I.12

In Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, it’s said that the process of ceasing the fluctuations in the mind (i.e. worrying about future events) is brought about by the constant practice of staying present, and process, he later goes on to admit, that takes a long time to master and requires dedicated energy. This ancient teaching feels particularly relevant today.


It is my experience that at the heart of every Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy session is the practice of abhyasa by putting great emphasis on present-moment awareness. In fact, I believe it is this element which makes Phoenix Rising unique and so powerfully transformative. Whether the client realizes it or not, the sessions themselves are a training ground for developing self-awareness and profound presence in our daily lives.


The developers of trauma-sensitive yoga at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, “consider present-moment experience to be physical and body-based, not intellectual or theoretical” (Emerson and Hopper, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, pg 42). With the support of the Phoenix Rising practitioner, the client is called again and again into the present moment by drawing attention to “what’s happening now” in one’s body.


In my own daily practice of catching myself worrying, I find that when I bring myself back to the here and now, I instantly feel better – I can breath deeper, the tension melts, and my mind calms. If you are experiencing anxiety, seek out a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist in your area, and experience first hand the powerful process of remaining present with the support of a practitioner. Present-moment awareness gives us access to the capacity to be with what ever is happening now, so that we can come to know ourselves more deeply. Not only that, presence is a powerful tool that calms the mind, readies us for the state of yoga, and may very well be the remedy for reducing anxiety.


Shivani Wells is a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist in Vancouver, BC, and works with individuals, couples, and groups.