A meta-analysis of 38 different studies reports that yoga is particularly effective for reducing anxiety symptoms.
Anxiety happens when your sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are working overtime. When these systems are activated, your brain triggers the fight-or-flight response that causes rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and shortness of breath. This is the body getting ready to handle a perceived threat. It’s no wonder, then, that many of us are more anxious than ever before, as the threat of the COVID-19 crisis looms in the backdrop of our everyday lives.
While aerobic exercise has been shown to combat depression and hostility on a physiological level, it’s possible that yoga takes the anxiety-fighting benefits one step further by incorporating a mindfulness element. This means that yoga doesn’t just positively affect the body on a physical level, but a psychological one, too.
Clinical therapies for anxiety, like mindfulness-based stress reduction or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, “encourage bringing attention to present moment experience (i.e., thoughts, feelings, body sensations) in a nonjudgmental way.” 1 A typical yoga practice encourages the exact same thing.
Most yoga asana practices move the body through a series of strength and flexibility building postures at a slow or rhythmic pace. If you have ever taken a yoga class at a gym, studio, or online—you have definitely heard the instructor say something about your breath. Not that it smells, probably something more along the lines of, “move with your breath” or, “breathe into the posture.” Maintaining awareness by breathing in sync with the movements is intended to cultivate a deeper connection between the body and mind. This is mindfulness, in a nutshell. Physiologically, yoga may help shift away from the fight-or-flight response triggered by the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA, to the parasympathetic nervous system instead. This is the system that controls rest, repair, enjoyment, eating, and sexual activity—all good things! Yoga also decreases both heart rate and blood pressure, two unfortunate symptoms of anxiety. Researchers suggest that this is the result of the relaxation response triggered by all those careful movements and attention to deep breathing.
If you have never practiced yoga before, there are a million excellent resources on the internet to help you get started at home. We wrote about Yoga with Adriene in our article on YouTube fitness channels for every mood and skill level, and she has great videos for beginners. In addition to full-length practice videos that will move you rhythmically through a series of postures, Adriene also as an entire “foundations of yoga” series that focuses on one pose at a time.
The best thing about approaching yoga for the first time is that the only goal is to move with intention. It doesn’t matter how slow you go, only that you listen to your body and remember your breath. The mindfulness will come naturally and the anxiety will slowly melt away.
1 Zoogman, Sarah, Simon B. Goldberg, Eleni Vousoura, Matthew C. Diamond, and Lisa Miller. “Effect of Yoga-Based Interventions for Anxiety Symptoms: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Spirituality inClinical Practice, August 29, 2019. doi:10.1037/scp0000202.