“Yoga practice can make us more and more sensitive to subtler and subtler sensations in the body. Paying attention to and staying with finer and finer sensations within the body is one of the surest ways to steady the wandering mind. (39)” – Ravi Ravindra
I’m sure you’ve heard about the many benefits of exercise before, and if you have a workout routine, you’ve likely experienced them firsthand. Exercise, of any form, allows us not only an escape from our daily life, but also an opportunity to become healthier, stronger versions of ourselves.
Those who practice yoga can attest to the positive impact on their well-being, as yoga is very much a mind-body integration. As the body moves in fluid motions, the mind becomes stabler, quieter, and more peaceful.
Below, we’ll talk about some of the science behind why yoga is so powerful for treating mental illnesses such as anxiety, and suggest a few specific poses to incorporate into your exercise regimen.
Here’s how yoga can help treat anxiety better than medications:
Chris Streeter, MD and her colleagues from the Boston University School of Medicine did a study comparing the brain benefits of yoga to walking.
From their preliminary research, Streeter and her team found that yoga reduced anxiety, boosted mood, and increased the anti-anxiety neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain.
– The participants were divided into two groups: a yoga group or a walking group.
– Each group exercised for an hour three times a week over a period of 12 weeks. Researchers performed brain scans on the participants before and after the 12-week study period, and measured anxiety and mood levels throughout the experiment.
The yoga group had higher levels of GABA and experienced significantly greater boosts in mood and drops in anxiety than the walking group.
Another study performed by researchers at the University of Utah showed yoga’s effect on the stress response by measuring participants’ responses to pain. Preliminary research found that people with a more severe reaction to stress were also more sensitive to pain.
– The study consisted of 42 participants: 12 experienced yoga students, 14 people with fibromyalgia (which many researchers believe is a stress-related illness that causes a person to react stronger to pain), and 16 healthy volunteers.
– The researchers put varying degrees of thumbnail pressure on the participants to test their stress response.
The participants with fibromyalgia had a greater pain response with lower pressure than the other participants. Functional MRIs showed they also had the highest activity levels in areas of the brain that control the pain response.
In contrast, those who practiced yoga had the highest pain tolerance and lowest pain responses in the brain during the MRI.
Both of the studies above show that yoga can help reduce stress and anxiety, regulate pain responses, and boost feel-good chemicals within the brain.
As far as prescription anti-anxiety pills, they work by increasing GABA levels within the brain, but come with a lengthy list of side effects that deter many people from taking them. On the contrary, the only negative side effect of yoga is injury if you perform the poses incorrectly or at a level you aren’t comfortable with yet.
Poses to Help Alleviate Anxiety
1. Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Child’s Pose helps to release tension in the back, neck and shoulders, three areas where people tend to hold a lot of stress. It also helps you to relax, focus on breathing, and connect deeply to the sensations within your body.
Begin on your hands and knees with your big toes touching. Your hands and arms should be extended in front of you, and your legs hip distance apart. Exhale as you let your body fall forward, and keep your torso on top of or between your thighs with your head resting on the mat. Keep your arms extended out, and press your buttocks into your heels.
Stay in this pose as long as desired, and remember to breathe slowly and deeply.
2. Tree Pose (Vrikasana)
Tree Pose, a basic standing pose, helps to increase concentration and focus by putting your attention on balancing.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and shift your weight to your right leg. Then, bend your left knee, and press the sole of your left foot into your inner right thigh or just below the knee, with your toes pointing downward. Center your torso so that it’s facing forward. Put your hands into a “prayer position” over your heart. Point your gaze up toward the ceiling or forward, whichever you prefer. Hold for 2-3 breaths, then repeat on the other side.
3. Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)
While this pose is a little more challenging than the other two, it helps to alleviate anxiety by stimulating the abdominal region. Studies have linked gut health with mental health, and this pose is great for improving digestion. This pose also helps to improve balance, posture, and coordination.
With your feet hips distance apart, turn to the left and widen your stance to about 4 feet. Then, turn your right foot so your toes point toward the front of the mat. With both feet planted firmly on the mat, bend your right knee and keep your torso and pelvis centered.
Raise your arms above you and press your weight onto your right foot, lifting your left leg behind you while you bend your torso forward. Your upper half should be parallel to the ground. Point your left foot out and keep your arms extended. Straighten your right leg, keep your gaze toward the ground and hold for 2-3 breaths. Slowly lower your leg back to the floor and repeat on the other side.
4. Headstand (Sirsasana)
Please do not attempt this one if you are a beginner. This is definitely an advanced pose that you should only do when you feel comfortable with the more basic poses.
However, increasing blood flow to the head can help to detox the adrenals, improve mood, and lower blood pressure and heart rate.
To do this pose, start on your hands and knees, keeping your arms shoulder-width apart. Keeping your elbows there, lock your hands together so that your pinkies touch the floor. Place the crown of your head onto the ground and keep your hands interlaced behind it. Tuck your toes and lift your hips as high as you can, walking your feet slowly toward your upper half.
Use your ab muscles to help lift you off of the ground, and press your forearms further into the mat. Keep your feet straight up over your shoulders and hips until your legs are completely straight. If you want, use a nearby wall to keep you steady. Hold for as long as you’d like, and when you come out of the pose, lift your legs down one at a time and bring your knees to the mat. Rest in child’s pose for a few breaths.
This is a common pose in restorative yoga, as it helps to relax us and ease anxiety symptoms. It’s also great for relieving lower back pain and menstrual cramps.
Feel free to place a pillow under your back to further alleviate back pain. Sit close to a wall, and then walk your legs up until they’re straight. Keep your buttocks against the wall, and keep your head and shoulders rested on the mat. Close your eyes and relax for as long as you want, and when you come out of the pose, simply swing your legs either left or right.
Below, we’ve included a guided yoga video for stress and anxiety that we hope you’ll enjoy!