Easing Anxiety with Yoga: It’s not all in your head

by Barbara Vosk, PhD, RYT200

Why does yoga have such a positive impact on your physical and mental state?

Advances in medical and psychological research now provide a greater understanding of the “how” and “why” of yoga’s effects: yoga actually increases the production of certain brain chemicals associated with improved mood.

One recent study of mindfulness meditation showed that those who engaged in this practice had an increase in activity in the portions of the brain that process stress, as well as an improved ability to focus and an increased state of calm. Doctors and psychotherapists are increasingly utilizing yoga and mindfulness-based practices as an adjunct to more traditional therapies, especially in the treatment of anxiety and other stress-related disorders.

Anxiety is often accompanied by a sense of being in some sort of danger — even if it is one of your own creation. But anxiety isn’t “all in your head.” When you are anxious, the nervous system is in a state of high alert. Breathing practices (pranayama) have a direct effect on the nervous system.

When you learn to manage your breath, you help your body and mind shift toward a more relaxed state. Gentle movements, in rhythm with the breath, begin to loosen the muscles and often loosen the knots of thinking that are also part of the anxiety response. Whenever you recognize you are anxious, consciously slowing down your breath will have an impact. When the body no longer feels it is in danger, options for skillful action expand.

Learning to work with thoughts via mindfulness meditation invites you to find a little bit of space between what you think, and what you do in response to those thoughts. Restorative yoga, where the body rests in stillness while supported by props, invites the body’s relaxation response to turn on, allowing you to physically integrate the experience of “calm.” In a calm state, the ability to process and digest your emotional experiences also shifts. As a result of the practice, it is not unusual to discover what lies beneath the anxiety.

Understanding why yoga helps with anxiety is not as beneficial as actually practicing yoga on a regular basis. But as we know, sometimes understanding more about what is happening and how to deal with it can give us a greater sense of comfort and control.