Yoga is now becoming recognised as an effective tool to combat anxiety, both for immediate relief and long-term reduction.
While the effects of yoga will be different for each person, there are some common ways in which I have found yoga to help with anxiety.
In my own personal journey over the last 10 years, I can truly say yoga has played a tremendous role in assisting me to manage my own ongoing anxiety.
The skills and insight I have gained through my practice has helped me reduce the intensity and frequency of my anxiety, better manage it when it does arise, and feel more confident and calm in general.
As a mental health-informed Yoga Teacher and Counsellor, I have also seen many of my student’s mental health be positively impacted by the therapeutic benefits of yoga.
Here are 7 ways yoga helps reduce anxiety:
*Please note, when I use the word yoga here in this post, I am referring to yoga as a holistic practice that includes movement (Asana), breathing techniques (Pranayama), and meditation (Dhyana); not solely a physical practice.
1. Yoga helps you get out of our head & interrupt worry patterns in the mind
When we are highly anxious our mind can be filled with anxious thoughts that continue to play in a loop, making us feel trapped in our own mind. Anxiety makes us think consistently about the future and we can feel disconnected from the now.
When we step onto our mat or engage in movements or meditation through yoga, this gives our mind something to focus on away from our anxious thoughts or worries.
In yoga, we aim to keep our attention on the present moment as much as possible. We do this by using an object of focus, such as the breath, sounds, or sensations in the body, to help us enhance our connection with what is happening in the now.
At first, for those with chronic anxiety, this might be challenging to do, but over time yoga can feel helps us stay more present and manage our thoughts in a healthier way.
2. Yoga boosts mood
Many studies have shown yoga (the movement, breathing, and meditative aspects) can increase feel-good neurotransmitters such as GABA, Serotonin, and Dopamine in our brain (4).
As you practise yoga, these feel-good chemicals can alter your mood, and have a positive effect on anxiety levels.
As you begin to experience to benefits, your yoga practice may become something you look forward to and get excited about.
3. Yoga reduces stress & enhances relaxation
When we are feeling anxious, our body is in stress mode; our sympathetic nervous system is activated and stress hormones are being released. Studies have shown that diaphragmatic breathing, and yoga in general, can help decrease the secretion of cortisol, the primary stress hormone (5).
Yoga, particularly breathing and meditation, can naturally and safely help our nervous system slow down and shift out of stress mode and into a more relaxed state. If you experience high anxiety, you know it is not easy to relax when in a heightened state. Similarly, trying to force yourself to calm down doesn’t really work. Practising yoga involves both the body and the mind, helping the two come together to find balance and harmony.
When it comes to yoga movement it is important to note that some styles can certainly soothe anxiety, whilst others could actually exacerbate it. High intensity and hot Vinyasa style movement classes can feel great but often keep the nervous system in a heightened state. For those with chronic anxiety who are wanting to reduce stress and enhance relaxation, more gentle and slower-paced movement classes might be a better option; classes such as Slow Flow or Yin.
4. Yoga eases tension & physical discomfort
Muscular tension is a common symptom of anxiety. For me, I feel this type of tension often and yoga helps a lot! When we are anxious or stressed our bodies naturally tend to constrict. Often, tension builds and lingers in our neck, shoulders, jaw, and other parts of the body.
The physical movements in yoga help us to release muscular and connective tissue tension in the body. You know that good feeling when a muscle stretches out? Releasing tension helps to break the cycle of anxiety in the body. Some styles of yoga use different props that can further enhance the easing of tension or tightness in the body.
5. Yoga regulates & improves breathing
Yogic breathing, called Pranayama, is a practice in yoga that focuses on enhancing the breath through breathing exercises and techniques. Studies have shown that these yogic breathing techniques can improve vital capacity, build endurance, and keep your lungs and heart healthy (6).
When we are anxious we tend to take more rapid, shallow breaths, or hold or hyperventilate our breath. Most of the time we aren’t really aware of how exactly we are breathing! Through yoga and specific yogic breathing techniques you can breathe with more awareness and learn how to gently regulate your breath to bring it back to a calmer, more balanced state.
Our breath is intimately connected to our nervous system. When you slow and deepen your breathing it soothes the nervous system and shifts the nervous system out of stress mode. Most yoga teachers will direct you to bring your attention to your breath during a class.
However, for those with ongoing anxiety, bringing awareness to the breath might feel scary at first, and should be done with a trained teacher in a very specific way to ensure changing your breath does not amplify your anxiety.
6. Yoga increases self-insight & bodily awareness
When you are feeling anxious the last thing you might want to do is focus on your body and the symptoms you feel. However, to reduce and better manage anxiety we need to deeply understand ourselves, how our anxiety affects us, our triggers, and our strengths, so that we can use the information to make different choices and respond in better ways.
With self-insight learnt through yoga, we can notice symptoms like tension in the body sooner rather than later. This self-insight is helpful in moments of heightened stress or anxiety, and also forms part of your toolkit for long-term management.
Yoga is naturally a self-reflective practice, asking you to connect with your body and mind at a deeper level and empowering you to know yourself. There are some yoga teachers that will place a greater emphasis on self-insight and also some classes that bring more mindfulness to the practice than others.
7. Yoga builds self-compassion
For those who experience persistent anxiety or any other mental health challenge, it can be easy to feel down and have a highly critical or judgemental inner voice.
Your yoga practice can be a place where you start to build greater self-compassion and kindness towards yourself; something that can be challenging at first but possible with practise and patience.
Self-compassion helps us to be kinder to ourselves when feeling anxious and low.
However, not all yoga teachers or classes will focus on self-compassion or teach in a way that enhances it. This can be something that may naturally develop over time in your practice or it can be something you actively choose to build through yoga.
I hope that you found this information useful, either for yourself or a loved one. If you have any questions about how yoga can help with anxiety, please send me an email.
If you would like to start practising yoga to assist with your anxiety and overall mental health, reach out and book a Yoga for Anxiety Private Session with me. Available online and face-to-face in Ivanhoe, Melbourne. Find out more here.
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I live and work on the Woiworung land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities as the Traditional Custodians of this land that we now call Australia. I pay my respects to the Elders past, present, and emerging. I recognise that their sovereignty was never ceded.