How Does Yoga Help with Anxiety?

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Anxiety has become a common concern affecting millions in today’s fast-paced world. While there are various treatment options available, many people are turning to alternative methods to manage their anxiety, and one such practice gaining popularity is yoga. Yoga, an ancient practice originating from India, combines physical postures, breath control, and meditation to encourage physical and mental well-being. Here, we explore how yoga can effectively alleviate anxiety and give individuals a holistic approach to mental health management.

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural stress response characterized by feelings of worry, fear, and apprehension. However, anxiety can significantly impact one’s daily life, relationships, and overall well-being when it becomes extreme or persistent. Traditional treatments for anxiety often include therapy and medication. However, many individuals seek complementary approaches like yoga to enhance their treatment plan and achieve a sense of calmness and balance.

The Mind-Body Connection in Yoga

Yoga focuses on the mind-body connection, emphasizing that our mental and physical health are interconnected. This holistic approach recognizes that calming the mind can positively influence physical well-being and vice versa. Yoga incorporates physical postures (asanas), controlled breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation, working in synergy to reduce anxiety symptoms.

Stress Reduction

Yoga is well-known for its stress-reducing effects. Yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s relaxation response. As individuals move through yoga postures, they engage in deep, diaphragmatic breathing, which triggers the body’s relaxation response and reduces the production of stress hormones like cortisol. Regular yoga can lower stress levels, helping individuals manage anxiety more effectively.

Calming the Nervous System

Yoga helps to regulate the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for managing our stress response. When we experience anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system, also famous as the “fight or flight” response, is activated. This leads to an elevated heart rate, shallow breathing, and heightened arousal. Yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the “rest and digest” response, promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety symptoms.

Deep Breathing Techniques

Pranayama, or yogic breathing exercises, play a significant role in reducing anxiety. Slow, deep breathing initiates the parasympathetic nervous system and triggers a relaxation response. One popular technique is diaphragmatic breathing, where individuals focus on breathing deeply into the abdomen, expanding the belly with each inhale and releasing tension with each exhale. This practice helps regulate the breath, calm the mind, and reduce anxiety-related symptoms such as racing thoughts and rapid heartbeat.

Physical Postures and Mindfulness

The physical postures practiced in yoga, known as asanas, help release physical tension and promote relaxation. Yoga poses stretch and strengthens the body, releasing stored tension and increasing flexibility. By focusing on the body’s sensations during the practice, individuals develop mindfulness, allowing them to be present and cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of their thoughts and feelings. This mindfulness practice helps individuals observe their anxiety without getting caught up, creating a sense of detachment and reducing intensity.

Meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Meditation is a core component of yoga that cultivates mindfulness and promotes mental clarity. Through regular meditation practice, individuals learn to observe their thoughts and emotions without judgment, allowing them to develop a more balanced perspective. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program that combines yoga and meditation, has been widely studied and shown to be useful in lowering anxiety and improving overall well-being. MBSR teaches individuals to respond to stressful situations with greater resilience and self-awareness.

Enhancing Self-Awareness and Self-Care

Yoga encourages self-awareness and self-care, which are crucial elements in managing anxiety. By practicing yoga regularly, individuals become more attuned to their bodies and emotions, recognizing the signs of anxiety before it escalates. This heightened self-awareness allows individuals to implement self-care strategies such as taking breaks, setting boundaries, and engaging in activities that stimulate relaxation and well-being. Yoga also fosters community and support, as individuals can participate in group classes and connect with like-minded individuals on a similar wellness journey.

Social Support and Community

Attending yoga classes or group sessions fosters community and social support, which can be particularly beneficial for individuals dealing with anxiety. Sharing experiences with like-minded individuals in a non-judgmental environment creates a supportive network that can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide a platform for sharing coping strategies. The social aspect of yoga contributes to overall mental well-being and can alleviate anxiety symptoms.

Incorporating yoga into one’s lifestyle can significantly benefit individuals struggling with anxiety. Yoga offers a comprehensive approach to managing anxiety symptoms by focusing on the mind-body connection. Combining physical postures, controlled breathing techniques, and mindfulness practices promotes relaxation, regulates the nervous system, and enhances self-awareness. Whether practiced individually or as part of a larger treatment plan, yoga provides individuals with a practical and empowering tool to reduce anxiety and cultivate a sense of inner peace. Remember, if you’re experiencing severe or persistent anxiety, it is important to consult with a mental health experience for personalized guidance and support.

Here we discuss this with Lauren Oliver, a yoga therapist, to get her thoughts on this topic.

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System

NourishDoc: The mechanism and science behind how yoga helps with anxiety?

Yoga therapist Lauren: Anxiety can be caused by being under a period of stress for a long period; your nervous system can be dysregulated from either just chronic stress or from having a trauma history. Yoga helps us to get back into our bodies. When you face a stressor, your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline. So, with yoga therapy, we work with the breath because it can help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve attaches mostly to the lower lungs, and the sympathetic nervous system is mostly to your upper lungs.

So if you’re engaged in your daily life, mostly in chest breathing, you’re much more likely to feel those anxiety symptoms. It’s also working with the breath. And then with meditation, it’s getting into these healing brainwave states and learning to work with the mind and understand having a witnessing mind. 

Yoga poses for anxiety

NourishDoc: Yoga poses and meditation that help for Anxiety?

Yoga therapist Lauren: The yoga poses we often use for anxiety is the breath. And so the easiest thing to remember is that anytime you extend your exhale, you will be helping to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, which is basically like a break for your sympathetic nervous system, your fight or flight. So if you work with ratio breathing, say you inhale for a count of four, then exhaling for six or eight is a great way to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system. 

In terms of meditation, having guided meditation and a yoga nidra practice can be useful. It incorporates something called rotation of consciousness. Suppose you’re transferring your focus from the right side of your body to the left side. And in this very organized fashion, you’ll be guided through this sort of practice. And that helps to improve communication between both hemispheres of your brain. Anxiety is more often a sign of vata imbalance. So,vata being air and aether elements of air and aether, so work with your doshas to balance your doshas.

Chanting Importance for Breath Regulation

NourishDoc: Explain Vedic chanting and its mechanics

Yoga therapist Lauren: Chanting has millennia of use in different cultures. In recent years, more research has shown that chanting triggers parasympathetic responses. And I think part of that has to do with, you know, the fact that it is helping with that breath regulation. But when you’re chanting out loud, it is also very challenging for your mind to be elsewhere and worry about what you will be.

 It gives your mind that single-pointed focus to attach to, so you have breath-like regulation and mental focus. And so chanting is a really beautiful practice. Humming can also help stimulate the vagus nerve that travels through your throat. And so that is another way that they’ve proposed that it might be helping to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. 


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