7 Ways Yoga Lowers Stress and Anxiety
Regular practice soothes the mind and body.
Posted Sep 15, 2016
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:
- Yoga lowers tension and promotes relaxation. In times of high stress and anxiety, our bodies tend to constrict. We start to hold tension in our shoulders, necks, jaws, or elsewhere. Excessive muscular tension can then feed back to our minds and perpetuate the feeling of unease. When we experience the relaxation benefits of yoga, we can lower our physical tension, which helps release the grip that anxiety can have on us. Click here for a yoga video specifically geared toward relaxation.
- Yoga helps us regulate the breath. Our breath is intimately connected to our nervous system. When we're anxious we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths, or we might even unconsciously hold our breath and then take big gulping breaths. When we slow and deepen our breathing, we soothe the nervous system. Yoga can teach us to breathe with awareness and to use the breath to move through challenging poses. As I found in the delivery room, we can take this breath focus with us anywhere. Most yoga instructors will direct your attention to the breath during a class; click here for videos that demonstrate specific breathing techniques in yoga.
- Yoga increases bodily awareness. In addition to the relaxing effect that comes directly from a session of yoga, we can also learn greater awareness of our bodies that can further lower our physical tension and stress away from the mat. We often carry unnecessary tension in our bodies, and through the practice of yoga we can get better at recognizing tension and letting go of it.
- Yoga interrupts worry cycles. All of us have had the experience of getting stuck in our heads, and chronic worries can be exhausting. When we step on the yoga mat, we have an opportunity to step out of the thinking mode. Our worries can of course come with us, and yoga gives us the opportunity to practice letting go of the worries and coming back to our bodies and breath, over and over. Through this practice we can learn to let go of our worries at other times, too.
- Doing yoga demonstrates self compassion. When we're stressed and busy, it's easy to stop doing things that are good for us, like exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating well. When we take 20 or 30 minutes to do something kind for ourselves like yoga, we treat ourselves as someone who's worth taking care of. And as nice as it is to think well of ourselves, it's at least as important to show that we care about ourselves. I've often found that the behavior comes before the feeling among those of us who struggle to love ourselves.
- Yoga fosters self-acceptance. As challenging as yoga can be, the practice is grounded in an acceptance of where we are. It's something that comes across very clearly in the Yoga With Adriene videos—to accept our bodies, abilities, and limits just as they are. Importantly, acceptance doesn't have to mean resignation to stagnation. As I've written before, we can have an intention toward growth even as we see ourselves as fundamentally whole, just as an acorn is complete and yet isn't done growing.
- Yoga trains us to accept discomfort. We often move reflexively away from discomfort, and at times this retreat can lead us away from what we value. For example, avoiding activities that cause us anxiety will bleed the life out of our experience. I remember one time feeling extremely uncomfortable in a pose and feeling like I couldn't hold it, and the yoga instructor said to the class, "You should be feeling uncomfortable right now." Just knowing that discomfort was expected made it more tolerable: It was just discomfort, no better, no worse. I didn't have to run from it.
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: