With 40 million adults living with anxiety in the United States, millions are seeking natural ways to help manage their symptoms and develop relaxation techniques through alternative and complementary medicine. Yoga is one of the most popular suggestions from medical and mental health professionals as a safe, effective method.
Yoga is an ancient practice believed to have originated in India over 5,000 years ago. The term yoga derives 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 spiritual practice. It's hard to identify the details of the history of yoga, but it's believed that in its early days, yoga centered around meditation and religious practice rather than the Asanas, or physical postures, that many are familiar with today.
Today, the core values of yoga focus on using meditation to overcome pain and broaden one's consciousness. The form of yoga and the yoga postures that most people are familiar with today stemmed from Hatha yoga. Hatha was the first form of yoga to focus on bodily movement, breath, and meditation. Still, it wasn't until the mid-1900s that yoga, specifically Hatha yoga, became more well-known among Westerners.
The health benefits of yoga began to receive more attention in the West in the 1980s, with the practice becoming particularly popular among the health-conscious, especially those focused on complementary and integrative health. During this time, yoga began to be seen as a purely physical practice and form of exercise among Western yogis to fight stress. In recent years, practitioners have started reconnecting with yoga's roots and recognizing the positive changes to mental health and spiritual connection.
Today, people in the United States practice yoga for various reasons. For some, it's simply a good workout; for others, it's an effective way to fight stress. Still, others use it as a means of managing and coping with the symptoms of anxiety.
Does Yoga Help Anxiety?
Many people report practicing yoga to help them relax, but does the ancient practice of yoga work to ease anxiety? According to experts, yoga can help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as a part of complementary and integrative health.
Practicing yoga can help reduce stress from one's physical response to anxiety in just a few minutes. For example, it can reduce heart rate, ease heavy breathing, lower blood pressure, and relieve other risk factors for disease. Additionally, practicing the Asanas can help reduce built-up tension in the body, relieving some of the physical symptoms that contribute to anxiety disorders like panic attacks.
Perhaps most importantly, yoga teaches practitioners about self-acceptance. There will likely be some Asanas 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 can be a vital thing to learn. Yoga teaches practitioners to accept their struggles but still love themselves and simply stay in the moment.
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 for your health. These are just examples of some 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
For this simple technique, stand with your feet parallel and about six inches apart. Activate your thigh muscles and begin with a slight bend forward from your hip joints and gradually increase the bend, keeping your legs completely straight. You will find yourself in a forward-fold position.
Once you are in the fold, place each hand's middle and index fingers 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.
Once your inhales and exhales are 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 simply try to 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.
Combining Yoga With Therapy
While yoga can help alleviate anxiety symptoms, if you're experiencing symptoms of anxiety, it's vital to reach out to a mental health professional for assistance. Persistent feelings of stress and anxiety can lead to more serious mental health issues when unaddressed, and for most, therapy is the best way to learn how to cope with it.
However, if seeing a therapist in person isn't available to you, consider online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. With online therapy, it's easy to find a therapist with experience in helping people with anxiety. You can speak to a licensed, accredited mental health professional on your schedule from the comfort of home via text, phone, video chat, and online messaging. It's also often less expensive than conventional therapy without insurance.
A growing body of research indicates that online therapy is as effective as traditional in-person alternatives for treating General Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
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