Yoga has been shown in a growing number of studies to help reduce anxiety. Physicians, psychologists, and clinical mental health professionals have increasingly recommended yoga for anxiety relief as it incorporates mindful breathing and movement that is nourishing and gentle for the body. It is one of the only natural, immediate, and free things that is proven by science to work for mental health issues.
Our nervous system on anxiety and how yoga is helping:
When our bodies experience anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” response, is triggered. In hunter-gatherer days, this would help us if we were outrunning a predator or had to fight for our lives against another creature. Our hearts beat faster, our pupils dilate, and secondary functions like digestion shut off. Our bodies simply haven’t evolved out of this, even though it is rare in modern society where you may find yourself running from a tiger.
Chronic anxiety can lead to long term physiological disruption that can be tough to fix. There are many benefits of yoga, but one of its key benefits on treating anxiety is that it can help decrease the sympathetic nervous system response. This allows for a more regulated heart rate, restored function in the digestive systems. It also causes a drop in the release of stress hormones, and pupils return to normal after being constricted. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18.1% of adults have been affected, a staggering 36.9% of those who live with the condition receiving treatment. Yoga for the treatment of mental health issues has been on the rise to bridge the gap between those without accessible care, to reduce the number of medications with harmful side effects needed, and to increase the overall wellbeing of the population.
1.) Practice Breathwork (Pranayama)
Nadi Sodhana (alternate nostril breathing) is a great place to start practicing breathwork and is especially helpful in times of anxiousness. A recent study found that pranayama helps increase cardiovascular function and decreases your overall heart rate. This means pranayama helps decrease activity in the sympathetic nervous system and is thought to increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (the system opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the system responsible for the “rest and digest’ phase.)
You can practice Nadi Sodhana by placing your thumb to your left nostril and inhaling through the right for five seconds.
Switch your thumb to your right nostril and exhale for 10 seconds. Repeat as long as you would like, but benefits are felt after practicing for 2-3 minutes.
2.) Cat-Cow Pose (Bitilasana Marjaryasana)
Cat-cow pose gently stimulates the internal organs, lengthens the vertebrae of the spine and neck while opening the chest and allowing for deep synchronized breath. Taking in deep breaths while moving in yoga helps our muscles take in oxygen, and decreases the sympathetic nervous system response. This is a beautiful pose because anxiety attributes to overall muscle fatigue and soreness. When our bodies are in panic mode, the muscles will tighten- and the effects can last well after the panic attack has subsided. If we have chronic anxiety, cat-cow is especially important, so we can ensure our mobility and quality of life can remain intact.
The cat-cow pose is practiced by first starting in a tabletop position on your hands and knees, with your wrists aligned with the shoulders, and the knees spaced hip-length apart. Slowly begin to extend the spine downwards towards the mat and neck towards the sky while inhaling. Make sure you are not bowing your neck too far back. As you exhale, tilt your spine up towards the sky and your head down to the mat. Keep the neck bent, but not strained in a position that is unnatural for you—repeat 5-10 times, or as desired.
3.) Childs Pose (Balasana)
Typically a resting pose in a sequence of asanas, child’s pose aims to relax and gently stretch the body. This pose fully relaxes the spine and neck, while opening the hips. It is a deeply restorative pose known to increase blood circulation and is used frequently in yoga classes aiming to help encourage restful sleep and relaxation. It is a good time to breathe deeply and relax in Balasana, feeling it open and extend your body.
To practice Child’s Pose, kneel on the floor with your feet in a triangular shape. Spread your kees into a comfortable hip-width apart, and slowly arch your pelvis back towards your feet. Inhale, and lower your trunk to the mat as you exhale. Slowly reach your arms out in front of you, and let go of gravity in the trunk extending the spine all the way from the sacrum to the neck. Stay in this pose for as long as you would like, but benefits are typically seen at 1-2 minutes
4.) Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
Since we know anxiety can disrupt the digestive system, Triangle Pose is an engaged and energizing way to combat this. The twist at the trunk gently puts pressure on the colon and surrounding organs, allowing for healthy movement. This pose in particular is commonly recommended for those suffering from IBS, and is known for its ability to help pass gas. It is a wonderful way to strengthen your legs, open the chest, and get the digestive system going all at the same time. If you have a herniated disc, it may be beneficial for you to consult a doctor before you try this twisty pose.
To practice Triangle pose, step towards the front of your mat with your right foot. Ideally, you will want 3-6 feet between both legs. Turn your left foot to a 90-degree angle and align the heels. Turning your right patella (knee) outwards towards your mat, inhale and bending from the top of the hip extend the trunk over the right leg. Plant your left foot down to stabilize the pose, pressing in and outwards towards the mat. Exhale, and allow your pelvis to align with your left leg naturally. On the floor or on a block, draw your right arm towards the mat and left arm up towards the sky. Gaze up towards the left hand if it is comfortable for you.
The benefits of yoga have been revered for thousands of years, and it may help reduce the modern condition of anxiety.
Please note that I am not a doctor and I am not intending to give medical advice. Please always consult your doctor before starting a new regimen of excersice.