Many people believe yoga is solely a physical health practice, but did you know yoga can help improve and enhance mental health as well?
Yoga therapy for anxiety has been shown to be a helpful and effective tool.
*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.
One large systematic review of studies found that yoga typically improves overall symptoms scores for anxiety and depression by about 40%, both by itself and as a adjunctive treatment (Skowronek, Mounsey, & Handler, 2014).
Anxiety is a natural human response that we need for survival but sometimes it can become a problem that really inhibits our quality of life.
For some people it can be easy to hide their anxiety and continue functioning in daily life in a relatively normal way; for others chronic anxiety becomes a disorder that can be debilitating.
Regardless of the intensity, frequency, or impact of anxiety, each person deserves support to get relief from anxiety and live with more peace and joy. The problem is that many of the most common treatments and therapies for anxiety don’t work for everyone.
Contrary to popular belief, anxiety does not just happen in the mind; it happens in the body as well. Often, traditional ‘talk therapy’, counselling or psychological therapies, target anxiety via the mind only, leaving out the body.
This is where yoga comes into the picture and we can consider yoga therapy for anxiety treatment and management.
Firstly, like anything in life, yoga is not a cure that will magically eliminate all your anxiety in one go. But it is a powerful anxiety management tool that should certainly be considered by anyone who experiences ongoing anxiety in their life.
What makes yoga different and how does it help?
Yoga is a comprehensive holistic practice that has been used for thousands of years to manage all the challenges that humans face due to their thinking mind.
It was created to help humans end unnecessary suffering and reduce pain. There are many different paths of yoga. At a basic level yoga includes physical movement, breathing techniques, meditation, mindfulness, and philosophy.
Yoga provides us with very practical and adaptable practices that anyone can try. Yoga practices are based on a scientific understanding of the human body and mind.
Research has shown yoga can help:
- Reduce stress, anxiety, & depression
- Improve mood by increasing neurotransmitters like GABA
- Improve sleep
- Assist with pain management
- Improve emotional stability
- Improve breathing capacity
- Shift and alter nervous system activation
- Enhance brain executive functioning
- Change brain wave patterns
Part of what makes yoga effective for alleviating anxiety is that it is a ‘biopsychosocial’ approach.
This means that it is a holistic approach that addresses not only the biological aspects of anxiety but also the psychological and social factors that influence a person’s experience of anxiety.
In traditional Western psychology there is no modality that covers all 3 in one. For example, counselling address primarily the psychological impact, while pharmacotherapy targets the biological factors. Yoga address all 3 and acknowledges that humans are complex beings with many different aspects of self.
In the science of yoga, the mind and body are not seen as separate parts and so the practice of yoga shines a light on all parts of the individual as a whole being.
When it comes to treating anxiety, yoga takes a broader, more holistic perspective which can be helpful for individuals who are wanting a new way to approach their anxiety.
*To read more about the exact ways yoga influences anxiety, check out my blog post 7 Ways Yoga Helps with Anxiety.
Hopefully now you have some sense of why yoga therapy for anxiety can be a helpful practice, but before you run off to just any old class please know that not all yoga practices are suitable for anxiety!
There are some yogic practices that stimulate the body and mind, and some that calm the body and mind.
Some yogic practices energise and uplift; some relax and ground. For example, faster, high intensity Vinyasa classes or rapid breathing exercises are not generally recommended for someone experiencing heightened anxiety as they elevate the nervous system.
Not all yoga teachers have been trained in how to use yoga as an anxiety-management tool. Therefore, it is best to reach out to a suitably trained and experienced yoga teacher who understands anxiety and the yogic practices that can help.
Remember, not all yoga is the same. There are multiple types and traditions of yoga taught by a large variety of teachers.
There are many places you can practise and learn yoga, both online and in-person. However, not all yoga teachers have been trained or have knowledge of how to teach yoga specifically for anxiety, and how to share yoga in a way that is safe and mental health-aware.
Here are a few points to consider if you are wanting to practise yoga specifically to manage your anxiety:
1) Find a yoga teacher that is adequately trained, not only in yoga, but in mental health and has an in-depth understanding and experience of how to use yoga in a specific way to address anxiety.
If your anxiety stems from trauma or adverse life events, you may also want to find a teacher that trained in trauma-informed practice and has the skills to support you in a safe way.
If you aren’t sure if a teacher is right for you, don’t hesitate to ask them questions about their training or experience with teaching yoga for anxiety. You can ask them if they offer therapeutic yoga classes or mental health-focused yoga classes.
2) Consider a private one-to-one session rather than a busy large group class, which will allow more space for you to reap the full benefits of the practice in a safer, more comfortable way. Not all group classes are practised in a therapeutic way that is conducive to positive mental health.
In a private session, the teacher is better able to give you more tailored, individual guidance allowing you to gain more from the practice. Particularly at the beginning, starting slowly with the right guidance in a safe space, often works better for those with anxiety as large group classes can be overwhelming.
3) Be open, kind, and patient with yourself as you start practising yoga. It can take time to experiment and see what truly works for you. You might try a wide range of yoga styles, yoga teachers, or yoga practices before finding one that resonates with you.
It can also take time for the true effects of yoga to impact your body and mind. A regular practice over time will allow the benefits to become obvious to you.
There is no right or wrong way to get started but of course it can be overwhelming with such a wide variety of options available both online and in your local community.
If you would like to see how yoga could help you better manage your anxiety, reach out and book a Yoga for Anxiety Private Session with me. Available online and face-to-face in Ivanhoe, Melbourne. Read more about these sessions here.
Have more questions about yoga therapy for anxiety? Email me! I’d love to hear your thoughts or answer any questions you might have.