New Study Shows Yoga Improves Anxiety

Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

IN BRIEF

If you know any "yoga people", you might recognize a certain calmness about them... an ease. Studies are confirming what practitioners have known for centuries: yoga can improve anxiety.

It’s no surprise that yoga benefits our health and overall wellness in a variety of ways. Yoga increases flexibility, mobility, and strength while reducing the impact on joints and maintaining an ideal intensity for practitioners. Yoga also empowers those who practice it with motivation to make healthier choices. Practitioners sleep better and often choose natural, organic foods and products that fuel the mind, body, and soul. But studies also show how yoga improves our mental health and well-being as well as the physical benefits. A new study shows yoga helps anxiety and reduces stress levels more effectively than simply learning stress-relieving techniques. (1)

Yoga is an ancient practice that focuses on breathing, strength, and flexibility. It is a combination of both meditation and exercise, two activities that are known to relieve stress, anxiety, and reduce symptoms of depression. The physical and mental disciplines of yoga help relax the mind, release tension, and restore peacefulness throughout the body. (1,2)

Studies on Yoga and Anxiety

Scientists have studied many ways to deal with mental wellness issues for decades. Medical literature, however, hasn’t paid much attention to the potential benefits of yoga. But now, a 2020 study comparing yoga and cognitive behavioral therapy shows that yoga participants were able to improve stress and anxiety symptoms by 54%. Those in the control group, who received stress-education, improved by 33%. It should be noted that those in the cognitive behavior therapy group improved by nearly 71%. So, while yoga is effective, it’s not the only way to improve anxiety. (3)

Yoga improves stress indicators like anxiety by helping regulate stress response and even our response to pain. In a 2008 study, participants with experience doing yoga demonstrated a much higher pain tolerance. There is a strong correlation between poor regulation in response to perceived stress and high sensitivity to pain. So, practicing yoga can impact the parasympathetic nervous system and our response to stress and pain in a positive way. (4)

Studies have also shown which styles of yoga help with anxiety. There are dozens of types ranging from beginner level to advanced poses. One 2016 study showed Hatha yoga, which usually serves as an introduction to the different poses, has promising effects on anxiety. Participants in the 2020 study practiced Kundalini yoga. Kundalini means “coiled”, which refers to the method of releasing pent-up energy. Other styles, such as Yin yoga or restorative yoga are meditative in practice and are known to help release tension and relax the mind and body. (1,3,5)

Which Style of Yoga is Right for You

There is no “The Way” when it comes to reducing anxiety, dealing with stress, and improving our overall mental health. Those new to practicing yoga will want a program that fits their lifestyle and their wellness goals. For example, Hatha yoga is slower with a more relaxed pace, and is more often associated with stress relief. Vinyasa yoga, comparatively, flows more, is characterized as more cardio and strength training, and is ideal for those familiar with yoga poses (even if they haven’t practiced a lot). Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga, is practiced in a heated room (105 degrees) with high humidity. (2,5)

Yoga is generally suitable for nearly all lifestyles, levels, and medical conditions. However, discussing with a doctor or wellness advisor is recommended, especially if you are pregnant, experience dizziness or vertigo, or have osteoporosis, a herniated disk, or other health concerns. Your doctor can help identify potential risks and recommend appropriate modifications as necessary. (2,6)

Also for consideration is where to learn yoga. Learning from an instructor helps beginners gain confidence with the poses while practicing good form. There are plenty of videos, books, and programs once you get started, but classes offer camaraderie which can improve anxiety as well. (2)

Anxiety About Yoga

Despite overwhelming evidence that yoga improves anxiety and stress, many people struggle with actually doing yoga. Sometimes the meditative methods bring up uncomfortable feelings and emotions. Others may feel uncomfortable with some of the poses, holding them for longer periods of time, or are not comfortable with the environment. Make sure your yoga experience is an enjoyable one, one that feels comfortable and safe. Try a natural therapy to help calm your mind before beginning yoga. Be Serene is a perfect way to reap all the benefits of yoga for your body and mind. (6)

Yoga Poses for Anxiety

If you are familiar with yoga poses and want to develop your own practice to alleviate stress and anxiety, here are five basic poses to help you get started. Always practice good form, and if you are uncertain or uncomfortable, speak with a yoga instructor about how to perform them correctly.

Hero’s Pose/Camel Pose

Hero’s pose is a seated posture that can help you find your center. Come to hands and knees, then sit back on your heels, keeping the tops of your feet flat on the floor. Sit up straight, opening the chest and lengthening the spine. 

Hero Pose (Virasana)

Camel pose starts in Hero’s pose but opens the chest more. From Hero’s pose, stand up on knees and shins, tucking toes behind you if desired. Lift your chest toward the ceiling as you bring the heels of the hands to the small of your back. If appropriate, reach back for the heels. (6)

Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

Forward Fold/Seated Forward Bend

A standing resting pose helps release tension and calm the mind. From standing, hinge at your hips folding forward, and maintain a slight bend in the knees if necessary. Tuck your chin toward your chest and then let everything hang heavy- your hands to the floor, your neck and head, and even your lower back. 

Standing Forward Fold (Padangusthasana)

You can also do this pose in a seated position. From seated, stretch the legs out long, and fold over them. Keep a bend to the knees if needed. (6)

Seated Forward Fold

Triangle Pose/Standing Half Moon Pose

Ease tension in the back with these energizing poses. 

For triangle pose, from standing, step your feet about 4-5 feet apart, feet parallel. Turn your right toes out about 90 degrees, and your left toes in by about half of that. Imagine your right toes pointing at 12 o’clock, and your left at 10 or 9. Keeping both legs straight, reach your right arm, and whole body, over the right leg. Land your right hand on the right shin, or the floor (inside or outside the foot), or a block. The left arm reaches upward. Repeat on the other side. The left toes will be at 12 o’clock and the right will be at 2 or 3. 

Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)

For half-moon, kick the back foot up and balance on the front foot. Make a 90-degree angle out of your legs. If balancing on the right foot, right fingertips are on the ground or on a block for better balance.  Be sure to do both sides. (6)

Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana)

Tree Pose

A meditative pose, Tree Pose helps us focus and quiets the mind. Stand with feet firmly on the ground, then lift one foot slowly, placing the sole of the foot on the inside of your ankle, calf, or above the knee. Hands are in a comfortable position, either in prayer at the heart, outstretched into the air, or out to the sides for balance. (6)

Tree Pose (Vrksasana)

Child’s Pose/Melting Heart Pose

A great pose to recenter, child’s pose lengthens the spine and helps relieve stress and tension. Start in hero’s pose, then take the knees very wide while you leave the big toes touching. Fold your body forward allowing the belly to rest between the thighs.

Child’s Pose (Balasana)

For melting heart, come up into a tabletop position. Keep your hips over your knees, and walk your hands out in front of you. Bring your forehead, chin, or chest down to the ground, depending on what feels good. Stretch your arms in front of you like in a child’s pose. 

Melting Heart Pose (Anahatasana)

Here is a very short 5-minute yoga meditation with simple poses to get you started https://youtu.be/uf3SG1Hv-tA

Longer 15 minute routine with more traditional yoga poses (child’s pose, pigeon, downward-facing dog, etc.)  https://youtu.be/Nw2oBIrQGLo

Try this short video with three poses that were repeated in other videos and literature to help with anxiety https://youtu.be/MotL4XVtgco

Sources

  1. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326414
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/yoga/art-20044733
  3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-right-mindset/202008/new-study-shows-benefits-yoga-generalized-anxiety-disorder
  4. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression
  5. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/286745#types
  6. https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/yoga-for-anxiety

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About Dr. Morgan Camp M.D.

Dr. Morgan is an expert in Functional and Integrative Medicine with a Strong Emphasis in stress related illnesses like anxiety and insomnia. In addition to his 20 years of work in Functional Medicine, he has expanded his practice to include work on the deeper aspects of our being that point to the root cause of our illnesses working with Mind Body Wellness, Energy Medicine, and Healing with Consciousness.
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