I experienced firsthand the benefits of prenatal yoga while our second child was being born. My wife had taken actual prenatal yoga classes; I had taken yoga that just happened to be while we were expecting.
For being such a short trip from inside the womb to outside, the baby's journey is a difficult one. Even under the best of circumstances, the delivery room is a stressful place to be.
As in most hospitals, our baby's heart beat was being monitored so the nurses could detect any "fetal distress." Our first child had had an extended labor and there had been a series of terrifying (to me) decelerations of his heart beat with each contraction. The healthy "beep-beep-beep" would slow to a "beep ... beep ........ beep..........." Although it's apparently not uncommon, it led to considerable parental distress.
This second time around I found myself completely preoccupied with monitoring the monitor, which made me edgy and distracted. And then at some point the words of my fantastic yoga instructor at the time, Paula Ruckenstein, came to mind: "You always have the breath, and can come back to it at any time."
As I focused on my breathing I was able to disengage from the monitor and release my efforts to somehow control what was happening. I realized and accepted that it was not up to me to make sure everything turned out all right. I was able to focus my attention on the person in the room who clearly had the most difficult job, the one who was giving birth.
Multiple studies now confirm what countless yoga practitioners have found: Whether we're dealing with acute stress like childbirth or struggling with longer-term stress and anxiety, yoga can be a powerful tool to calm our nervous systems. For example, one study found that ten sessions of hatha yoga led to lower stress and anxiety and better quality of life; another study found benefits on anxiety and mood from twelve sessions of Iyengar yoga. Most likely the benefits are even more pronounced with continual practice.
Yoga is also a part of the highly effective mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, as described in Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living. In my own work as a therapist I often recommend yoga as part of a treatment program for anxiety, either at a studio the person likes or with online home practice videos. When a person prefers a home practice I generally recommend "Yoga With Adriene," who offers countless free yoga videos with a low-stress and very encouraging approach. (I provide links to some specific yoga videos below.)
Many factors seem to contribute to yoga's helpfulness with stress and anxiety. In my own experience and with the people I've treated, the following seven factors are important:
You may be someone who's heard of the benefits of yoga but you don't feel like it's for you. Maybe you're not very flexible, or you've never done it before, or it feels too "fringe," or you did it before and weren't that into it. While yoga isn't for everyone, it is for anyone. Maybe it's worth giving yoga a try, or coming back to it. What we learn from regular practice may benefit us when we're least expecting it.
Are there other ways you've found that yoga helps with anxiety and dealing with stress? Please leave them in the comments section.
As I mentioned above, here are some videos specific to dealing with stress and anxiety: