Yoga has a strong foundation in healing, having been thought to have begun in a Stone Age-Shamanism, a Neolithic settlement which focused on healing community members.1 Post-classical yoga can be described as a mindfulness practice, which focuses on acceptance of the practitioner’s reality and appreciation for the present moment,2 two concepts that are recommended in the treatment and management of anxiety. Yoga advocates for a healthy balanced lifestyle through the integration of physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of a person. As well as integrating the individual into their environment. This article is not advocating for yoga to replace standard mental health practices for anxiety, instead it explores how yoga can supplement treatment. This article will review a selection of studies on the relationship between anxiety and yoga.
Anxiety can be a symptom of many conditions, such as panic disorders, phobias, or post-traumatic stress disorder. However, anxiety also occurs on its own. Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which is estimated to affect up to 5% of the UK population, is a long-term condition where a person feels anxious, physically, or mentally, most days.3 There may be clear cause of anxiety, for example, an imbalance in serotonin or noradrenaline, a history of drug abuse or trauma. However, the cause is often unknown, which can make the best course of treatment less clear for each person. It is often advised that those suffering with anxiety create a support system and develop many tools to treat both the short and long-term issues. As anxiety is often a long-term problem, a low-cost treatment with no side effects is the most sustainable tool, which is why yoga is perfect to help with anxiety.
Many studies indicate the success of yoga-based interventions on enhancing wellbeing,4 mental health and psychiatric disorders.5 Yoga and meditation have consistently been found to activate the body’s natural stress management mechanisms.6 Various yoga practices such as asanas, meditation, savasana and pranayama are recognised as effective relaxation techniques for many different types of anxiety.7 Pranayama, which is breath control practice, has been found to have many benefits, such as: rapidly altering cardiopulmonary responses and improving the automatic nervous system through enhancing the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to manage stress.8 These effects are extremely useful for those who have anxiety to relax and calm the body and mind. People who suffer from mood and anxiety disorders have low Gamma Amino Butryic Acid (GABA), the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter for the central nervous system which reduces neuronal excitability by inhibiting nerve transmission. Yoga has been found to increase GABA levels, in a study with healthy people.9 This is positive for future research into the link between yoga and GABA as it suggests that yoga may reduce physical symptoms of anxiety.
For specific types of anxiety, such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder, research has suggested that yoga may be more beneficial than medication.10 However, research into yoga’s effect on anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, are still in their preliminary phases. Therefore, further research into the benefits of yoga for more complex anxiety disorders requires further research.
Based off current research, a yoga class designed for those suffering with anxiety would have a strong focus on mindfulness meditation and pranayama. Mindfulness meditation teaches the practitioner to control of their thoughts and remain in the present moment. Pranayama involves slowing and deepening the breath, thus slowing, and calming the thoughts as well as relaxing the body. The style of yoga taught would ideally be tailored to the students, based on how their anxiety affects them, for example whether they struggle to sit still or whether they find it hard to move at all. For this reason, yoga classes for those with anxiety are best done on a one-to-one basis, or if that is not possible, then in a small group with a yoga teacher with experience in the mental health field.
To conclude, yoga has been shown to be an effective tool in the treatment and management of anxiety. The practice helps on a mental level, by teaching mindfulness which can be brought into the day-to-day life of the practitioner. As well as the physical level, by altering the way the body works and responds.
1 Feuerstein, G., & Wilber, K. (2002). The Yoga tradition: its history, literature, philosophy, and practice. New Delhi, India: Bhavana Books.
2 Hayes, M., & Chase, S. (2010). Prescribing Yoga. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice, 37(1), 31-47.
3 National Health Service (2018) Overview – Generalised anxiety disorder in adults Accessed on 29th July 2021: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/overview/
4 Jadhav, S. G., & Havalappanavar, N. B. (2009). Effect of Yoga intervention on anxiety and subjective well-being. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, 35(1), 27-31.
5 Kumar, V., Kumari, P. & Sharma, T. (2017). Yoga and Mental Health: A Review. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology. Vol. 43.
6 Goyal, N. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine. 174(3), 357-368.
7 Kumar, V., Kumari, P. & Sharma, T. (2017). Yoga and Mental Health: A Review. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology. Vol. 43.
8 Sivapriya, D., Subamalani, S., & Thirumeni, S. (2010). Effect of Nadi Shodhana Pranayama on Respiratory Parameters in School Students. Recent Research in Science and Technology, 2.