While some contemporary yoga modalities are focused on physical strength, what separates it from other fitness methods is its inherent ties to mindfulness — and its use as such dates back centuries to ancient India. Because of this, many people have adopted the practice as a way to boost their mental health — but is there actual science behind the theory? Specifically, can yoga in fact reduce anxiety? TZR consulted with licensed psychologists as well as a few practitioners/instructors to find out what it can (and can’t) do, as well as how you can try it yourself, regardless of skill level.
If you’ve tried some yoga types before, you may have noticed that — as is the case with many forms of movement — it can offer a feel-good factor. Mental health experts say that feeling isn’t just a placebo or your imagination, but actual science. “On a neurobiological level, yoga is calming to the body and mind as it brings the parasympathetic nervous system on board while correspondingly decreasing the fight-or-flight response that leads to elevated anxiety,” says psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly. And as Sweta Venkataramanan, psychologist at Real Talk Psychological Services, explains, this can lead to a reduction of some common symptoms of anxiety. “Physiologically, anxiety manifests in increased heart rates, jitteriness, shaking body etc,” she shares. “With yoga, when you are encouraged to modulate your breathing as you go through poses, it forces you to slow down. This can help slow down what’s happening in your body as well.”
According to both professionals, this breath work required to practice yoga (similar to that of meditation) is calming to the central nervous system, but there’s another mental component that can help distract you from anxious thoughts, and that’s the general concept of mindfulness. “Given that yoga is focused on being in the present, the worried, anxious mind is calmed by not moving into the ‘what ifs’ of the future,” she says.
So, who is the best candidate for regular yoga sessions? While the experts TZR ask all agreed that the practice has potential to lessen symptoms of anxiety for anyone physically capable, there could be a few caveats. For example, if you’re someone who struggles with the idea of perfectionism, that could cause an additional burden. “The main issue is that those who struggle with perfectionism and worry about doing things right, might find it really difficult to let go and simply lean into the exercise,” explains Diante Fuchs, a clinical psychologist and anxiety coach. “They might find themselves overthinking the practice and then getting stressed out and frustrated with themselves about whether or not they are doing it ‘right’.” Dr. Manly echoes this idea, and adds that if you find yourself in a class that triggers these emotions, one fix could be trying a different instructor or yoga center that creates a more positive, anxiety-free environment.
Dr. Shena Young, a body inclusive psychologist who’s also a passionate yoga practitioner believes wholeheartedly in the benefits, but also suggests there are some cases of anxiety that call for other types of medical intervention, or at very least certain modifications. “For example, severe/persistent anxiety presentations that may require pharmacological support or those related to a recent trauma,” she offers. “In these case, we start small, learning to use the breath to invite calm presence in the body and work up to integrating physical (asana) shapes that encourage down regulation of the nervous system.”
Looking for a simple practice to start daily? TZR also chatted with some yoga experts/instructors for a few poses that are basic enough for beginners, but can help you achieve the desired sense of calm. Kyle Miller suggests starting in Sukkhasana, a seated, crossed legs pose, and taking slow and steady breaths. “Try to connect your hearing to your breathing, giving the mind a point of focus,” she says. “Close the eyes and take five deep, conscious breaths, as slow and full as possible.”
From there, you can try moving into Tarasana, or Butterfly Pose, with the soles of the feet together and shifted slightly forward, creating a long diamond shape with the legs. “Relax into a forward fold here,” guides Miller. Not very flexible? The yogi recommends the use of blocks or blankets to rest your forehead on if you can’t lean over very far. Once you find comfort and release in the pose, take a few more conscious, deep breaths.
To instantly lower an elevated heart rate, Miller says to try Viparita Karani, with your back on the floor and legs up a wall, allow your head, neck, and torso to relax completely. “Stay up to five minutes watching as breath rate and depth become slowed and subtle,” she says. Krissy Jones, co-founder of Sky Ting co-signs on this pose for relief from a stressful day. “This is the most gentle inversion in the yogic pantheon,” she explains. “This pose allows your legs to drain out which is great for circulation. Inversions are amazing at balancing the hormonal systems of the body, and are great tools to handle anxiety.”
Jones also loves hip-opening Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, or Pigeon Pose, for anxiety relief. “We store so much tension in the hips so this is a great pose to reduce tension in the lower body,” she says. “Taking your attention to the lower body when anxiety is running high is an effective way to ground yourself in your body instead of spiraling inside your thoughts.”
And when in doubt, try Balasana, or Child’s Pose. “This is a great position for anyone of any level to do to quell the effects of anxiety,” Jones says. “When the forehead is touching the floor (or your palms, if your head doesn’t come all the way down to the ground), it creates a very grounding and soothing effect in the nervous system. The brain has a chance to relax in this position, and pour out its stress into the floor (or Earth if you’re outside!).” If you do try any — or all — of the above, don’t forget to breathe mindfully throughout to get the most anxiety-reducing benefits.