Does Yoga For Anxiety Work?
Updated November 21, 2018
Reviewer Laura Angers
Yoga is becoming increasingly popular in the United States and around the world. You likely know someone who practices yoga regularly, posts pictures of their headstands on Instagram, or paints mandalas in their spare time. What was once an Eastern practice unknown to many in the West just decades ago has blossomed into a $2.5 billion industry of studios, online providers, and accessories associated with yoga-like mala beads and sustainable mats, according to the Yoga Journal.
The same Yoga Journal survey revealed why people choose to practice yoga today. General wellness took the number one spot, closely followed by a sense of peace and calm.
That many yoga practitioners flock to their mats to calm down and relax should not come as a surprise. Anxiety is on the rise- approximately 40 million adults in the United States struggle with it- and millions of people are seeking natural ways to help manage their conditions. Yoga fits perfectly into the lives of people looking to find a sense of calm and improve their overall health and wellness, despite the stressors they face in everyday life.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient practice believed to have originated in India over 5,000 years ago. The term "yoga" is derived from the Sanskrit term "to yoke," which means "to unite." In the case of yoga, to "yoke" means to unite one's body and mind through the spiritual practice.
It is hard to pin down the exact history of yoga, but it is believed that in its early days, yoga centered around meditation and religious practice rather than the Asanas, or physical postures, that we are familiar with today. The core values of yoga focused on using meditation to overcome pain and broadening one's consciousness.
The form of yoga that most people are familiar with today stemmed from the emergence of Hatha yoga around the 8th century. Hatha was the first form of yoga to focus on bodily movement as well as breath and meditation. Still, it wasn't until the mid-1900's that yoga, specifically Hatha yoga, become more well-known among Westerners. In the 1980s, the health benefits of yoga were reported, and the practice became even more popular among the health-conscious.
During this time, yoga began to be seen as a purely physical practice and form of exercise among Western yogis, as opposed to its spiritual and religious origins. In recent years, practitioners have started to reconnect with yoga's roots, and recognize the positive changes to mental health and spiritual connection that yoga can provide as well as its physical benefits.
Today, people in the United States practice yoga for a variety of reasons. For some, it as seen as simply a good workout. But, as indicated by the Yoga Journal survey, many yogis practice helping them relax and find relief from anxiety. Most classes are a combination of challenging Asanas, more relaxing and restorative poses, breathwork, and meditation. A wide range of class styles are offered throughout the United States, as well as numerous resources to facilitate practice at home, so anyone looking to practice yoga should be able to find a class or way to practice yoga that meets their needs.
Does Yoga Help For Anxiety?
Many people report practicing yoga to help them relax, but does yoga for anxiety work? According to experts, it does. Research suggests that yoga modifies the practitioner's stress response, reducing one's perceived stress and anxiety even in challenging situations. Practicing yoga can help reduce one's physical response to anxiety; for example, reducing heart rate, easing heavy breathing, and lowering blood pressure. Additionally, practicing the Asanas helps stretch muscles and reduce built-up tension in the body, which can also relieve some of the physical symptoms that contribute to anxiety and panic disorder.
Yoga can also help those struggling with anxiety by teaching them how to manage their mind and thoughts better. Deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness are components of almost all yoga classes, even the more physically intense one. When struggling with anxiety, it can be hard to remember that not all thoughts are a reality. The meditation and mindfulness elements incorporated in yoga classes can help practitioners quiet their thoughts and get out of their minds, providing relief for those with anxiety who tend to get lost in their negative thoughts. Deep breathing exercises provide a double benefit of calming the mind as well as physical symptoms of anxiety, such as heart rate.
Perhaps most importantly, yoga teaches practitioners about self-acceptance. There will be some Asanas that come up in a class that are very uncomfortable or that your body simply cannot do, and that is okay. Yoga teaches practitioners to accept discomfort and their limits with compassion and self-love. For those living with anxiety, this is a very important thing to learn. Getting upset or frustrated with oneself because of anxiety often makes matters much worse. Rather, yoga teaches practitioners to accept their struggles but still love themselves, and simply stay in the moment and move on from what is holding them back.
Yoga For Anxiety And Depression
Generally, you will feel more relaxed and better about yourself after stepping out of any yoga class or completing any home practice. But, not all yoga poses are created equally. While yoga, in general, is great for reducing anxiety and depression, certain poses will facilitate more relaxation than others. For maximum anxiety-reducing benefits, focus on the poses and practices below.
Yoga Poses For Anxiety
The following poses are great options for when you start to feel anxious and need to slow down your breath and calm your mind. These are just examples of a few poses; there are many more Asanas that can help with anxiety. Talk to your yoga instructor or look up poses online if you are interested in trying more yoga poses for anxiety.
Padangusthasana/Big Toe Pose
This pose is easy to drop into any time, anywhere. Simply stand with your feet parallel and about six inches apart (a good way to measure this is to put both of your fists in between your feet). Activate your thigh muscles, and bend forward from your hip joints, keeping your legs completely straight. You will find yourself in a forward fold position.
Once you are in the fold, take your middle and index finger of each hand and place them in between your big toes and second toes. Using those two fingers, firmly wrap around the big toes and press your toes into your fingers. If you cannot reach your toes without rounding your back, use a strap and wrap the strap around the bottom of your foot.
Take a deep breath in, and lift your torso until it is as flat as possible, and straighten your arms. Then, exhale through your mouth and fold forward again, allowing the elbows to bend. If you'd like, you can repeat this sequence two or three times, until ultimately settling into the fold once again, and hold for one minute. This pose not only provides a great stretch for the legs but also helps calm the mind and relieve anxiety.
Baddha Konasana/Bound Angle Pose
If you feel anxiety or panic coming on and need to calm down, sitting in bound angle pose can do just that. For this pose, begin by sitting with your legs straight out in front of you. If this is uncomfortable, you can sit on a blanket or pillow to relieve some tension in the hips and groin muscles.
Then, bend your knees, pulling your heels in towards your pelvis, and then drop your knees to the ground and press your feet together, resulting in a "butterfly" position. Try to bring your feet as close to your pelvis as you comfortably can. Keeping the outer edges of your feet on the ground, grab your big toes with your first and second finger and thumb. If this is inaccessible or uncomfortable for you, grab your shins or ankles instead.
Sit with your back straight, and your shoulders pulled back. Remain in the position for one to five minutes, breathing deeply. Feel free to close your eyes and turn this position into a short meditation. Sitting in this position and focusing on your breathing will help relieve tension from your hips as well as calm the mind and lower your heart rate.
Yoga Breathing For Anxiety
In addition to poses, there are breathing techniques that can help relieve anxiety. This yogic breathing practice is known as Pranayama. These are numerous Pranayama exercises that can help relieve anxiety, including "the long exhale," one of the simplest Pranayama practices that can help calm the mind and relieve anxiety.
To practice the long exhale, lay on the floor with your knees bent, and feet flat on the floor about hips-width apart. Place your hand on your stomach and take a few relaxing breaths, paying attention to the sensation of your stomach rising and falling as your breathe. Count the lengths of your inhales and exhales, and try to make them as even as possible.
Once your inhales and exhales even in length, start to increase the length of your exhale by contracting the abdomen as you breathe out. Continue to increase the length of the exhale as long as the breath still feels smooth and relaxed. Ideally, the exhale will become twice as long as the inhale (but no longer), but simply make your exhale as long as you can while still feeling comfortable and without straining to make the breath longer. Even if your exhale is only slightly longer than your inhale, this breath practice will still have a calming effect. If the breathing practice ever starts to feel uncomfortable, reduce the length of the exhale and the breath to a pace that feels more comfortable for you. Remember that this exercise should feel relaxing!
Other Ways To Manage Your Anxiety
While yoga is a wonderful way to reduce anxiety, it is not the only remedy. Other ways to manage your anxiety include:
- Therapy and Counseling: One of the more traditional ways to cope with anxiety, do not underestimate the power of therapy and counseling. Working with a therapist can greatly improve your ability to manage your anxiety and whatever else life throws at you.
- Medication: Though many people seek natural remedies for anxiety, medication helps millions of people cope with anxiety and other conditions. If you are interested in trying medication to ease your anxiety, discuss it with your therapist or doctor.
- High-Intensity Exercise: In addition to yoga, other forms of exercise, like running or weight lifting, have also been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and excessive stress. Try lacing up for a run or heading to a gym when you start to feel anxious and notice if you feel differently after your workout is complete.
When trying any anxiety management technique, it is important to remember that every person is different. There is no way to know whether yoga will help you reduce your anxiety, but there is certainly no harm in trying. Anxiety can be terrible to deal with, but luckily there are many ways that you can reduce the symptoms and cope with the condition. Experiment with different methods, and work with a therapist, to find the anxiety relief strategy that works best for you.