With stress, anxiety and depression levels at an all-time high in the United States, it’s no wonder that yoga has seen a surge in popularity over the past 10 years. A surprising number of Americans are hooked on this versatile and accessible practice, which combines the physical benefits of exercise with the mental and emotional benefits of meditation.
No matter what a person’s reason for unrolling a yoga mat for the first time – whether it is for weight loss, pain relief, or merely to see what the hype is about – practitioners quickly recognize the stress and anxiety-relieving impact that yoga can have. If you haven’t tried yoga for anxiety and stress, read on to find out why you should seriously consider it.
Yoga was first introduced in the U.S. in the late 1800s, and began to enter the mainstream in the 1960s, when a fascination with Indian spirituality took hold. Despite its origins within Hinduism, the yoga practiced in this country tends to be mostly secular and focused primarily on the physical aspect of yoga: the asanas, or postures.
There are many different types of yoga commonly practiced in the U.S. today, ranging in difficulty from gentle and restorative to extremely physically demanding. It is estimated that more than 20 million Americans practice some form of yoga. Individuals of all ages, sizes, and fitness levels can benefit from the practice. Most instructors are extremely accommodating to beginners and those with injuries, chronic pain and other issues, and pay extra attention to new students especially to help ensure proper alignment and a sense of comfort with the practice.
Why Yoga Is Great for Anxiety
Your experience will vary based on the type of yoga you choose, but the end result is the same. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of yoga for patients with anxiety (includingPTSD), stress, depression, chronic illness and dementia. Yoga classes have cropped up at hospitals, nursing homes and schools across the country, demonstrating that yoga’s benefits are widely recognized and accepted, even within the medical community.
Whether you sweated your way through 90 minutes of hot power yoga or used props to relax into gentle postures, when you lie down for savasana (corpse pose) at the end of class, you experience what I like to call a full-body sigh of relief. Yoga relaxes the muscles and clears our minds. By the time you finish, many worries you came to your practice with may have dissolved.
Yoga’s anxiety-relieving benefits are obvious even after the very first session, but if you stick with a yoga practice regularly (coming to your mat at least once a week), you will likely start to see remarkable physical and mental benefits within only a few weeks.
Five Ways Yoga Can Help Relieve Anxiety and Stress
Yoga places focus on your breath. A core part of any yoga practice is pranayama, or the practice of controlling the breath. As I’ve discussed in past blogs, breath work is an incredible way to reduce anxiety quickly. Tying your breath to movement during your yoga practice hones this skill, and deep, soothing breaths begin to come easier even during your day-to-day activities.
Yoga draws awareness into the body and out of the mind. When practicing yoga, you are encouraged to dismiss the thoughts that so often cycle endlessly through our minds, and to instead focus solely on your breath and your body. You are there to feel each sensation completely, to be in-tune with everything your body is experiencing. Especially during intense poses, this can be extremely challenging, as we typically do not remain in situations that make us uncomfortable. But learning to breathe your way through discomfort (and learning that you can indeed get through it) is an important life lesson, and again, this is something that we can take from our yoga practice and apply to our everyday lives.
Yoga counters the stress response. As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, understanding how to combat the stress response is a huge part of overcoming anxiety. Deep breathing and relaxation exercises are great ways to do that, but the fact is that it’s difficult for many people to motivate themselves to employ those strategies. However, yoga provides a structured, guided way to access these techniques.
Yoga is great exercise. We’ve also covered the anxiety-busting effect of exercise, and many forms of yoga certainly fit the bill. A common misperception is that yoga is merely slow stretching, and that it doesn’t actually count as exercise. But anyone who’s ever taken a heated yoga class will tell you that this is just not the case for all types of yoga. Almost all forms of yoga will help to strengthen and tone muscles, and some more vigorous forms, such as vinyasa, power, or “flow” yoga, are actually cardio workouts as well.
Yoga is a precursor to meditation. Much of the physical work involved in yoga (the asanas) was meant to enable us to engage in a meaningful meditation practice. Theabilities to concentrate on breath and to clear the mind are essential for meditation, which itself is a powerful way to improve mood and reduce anxiety. According to writer and yoga practitioner Claudia Cummins in Yoga Journal, “Pranayama serves as an important bridge between the outward, active practices of yoga — like asana — and the internal, surrendering practices that lead us into deeper states of meditation.”
Yoga can be done with an instructor (either in a classroom setting or one-on-one), or by yourself. It is possible to build a wonderful home practice without ever setting foot in a studio, and this flexibility can be an asset for those who face obstacles due to their anxiety or who simply have full or unpredictable schedules.
However, I encourage everyone to take an actual yoga class at a reputable studio at least once. Having a skilled instructor there to physically help you with the poses, teach you correct alignment and guide you through your practice can make a big difference.
To get started, try out these anxiety-fighting yoga poses or sign up for a class at your local studio today!