Yoga for Anxiety: Why it Works and 9 Poses to Try –

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Yoga for Anxiety: Why it Works and 9 Poses to Try –

Many people turn to yoga for stress and anxiety relief. Learn how yoga for anxiety works, plus some basic poses to get started.
Many people living with anxiety use a combination of methods to manage their symptoms, including therapy, lifestyle changes, and often, alternative treatments like yoga.
Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million (18.1%) U.S. adults over age 18 each year. Anxiety is treatable, but only around 40% of people are receiving treatment.
Over the years, research studies have shown that yoga can help relieve stress and anxiety. It works by soothing an overactive nervous system, relaxing both the mind and body.
The 2021 State of Mental Health in America Report shows that the number of people seeking help for their anxiety disorders has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, so right now, the need for effective anxiety management is especially high.
Yoga is an accessible, adaptable practice you can do from the comfort of your own home. The practice can be modified to accommodate bodies of all types, abilities, and backgrounds.
If you live with chronic anxiety, your nervous system — specifically your sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight, flight, or freeze system — is operating in overdrive. This means your body has a heightened reaction to perceived threat, leading to anxiety responses such as agitation, stress, and heart palpitations.
As a consequence, you also have an underactive parasympathetic nervous system, or your rest-and-digest system. This system regulates your physiological functions, like heart rate and digestion.
According to research, stimulating the vagus nerve — a key part of the rest-and-digest system — is key to modulating the fight, flight, or freeze stress response.
One way to stimulate the vagus nerve is through practicing yoga.
“The parasympathetic nervous system helps us to feel safe and calm, and various aspects of yoga help to stimulate it,” says Valerie Knopik, PhD, a psychologist, professor at Purdue University, and yoga instructor at Yoga Medicine based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Yoga stimulates the vagus nerve by enhancing interoception, or how we perceive sensations arising in the body.
“Practices that increase interoception enable a person to distinguish between safe and fearful or dangerous situations,” Knopik says.
Yoga also increases vagal tone, which means your body is able to relax sooner after stress. Knopik says that increasing your vagal tone could reduce the symptoms of nervous system dysfunction, such as feelings of anxiety.
Yoga offers many opportunities to experience interoception and stimulate the vagus nerve. Through physical movement, you can explore sensation as it arises in your body by developing awareness of what muscles are being challenged, stretched, or released.
Yoga, which means union, connects the mind and body through the breath. Pranayama, a Sanskrit term that describes how the breath is regulated during yoga, is a powerful tool for calming the sympathetic nervous system.
As Knopik explains, pranayama is a voluntary breathing practice that sends messages to the brain via the respiratory system.
“Certain breath practices can help with feelings of relaxation and calm, such as the long exhale or diaphragmatic breathing, primarily through stimulation of the vagus nerve and the vagus nerve’s connection to heart rate variability,” Knopik says.
But not all forms of pranayama may be appropriate for anxiety.
“Some breath practices are meant to be invigorating and more stimulating, such as Kapalabhati (‘Breath of Fire’), which can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and not the parasympathetic nervous system,” she says.
Depending on the severity of your anxiety symptoms, pranayama that encourages deeper, steadier breathing patterns, such as Ujjayi breath, may be more suitable.
“Meditation is perhaps the most interoceptive practice of all and encourages us to watch our thoughts,” Knopik says. “Practicing meditation can help with self-regulation and mindfulness, which helps to keep us in our bodies and out of our thoughts.”
Yoga poses (asanas) are a vehicle for exploration of the present moment. Observing your thoughts that arise during mindful movement is a practice of building awareness. This can promote relaxation.
A 2012 research review suggests that meditative therapies (i.e., meditation, yoga, qigong, etc.) are effective tools for alleviating anxiety symptoms.
The best yoga poses for anxiety relief are the ones that feel good for your body and help you get grounded and find a sense of calm.
On some days, slower practices like Hatha, or gentle practices like restorative or Yin yoga, might be exactly what you need to clear your mind. Practices like these can stimulate the body’s relaxation response.
On other days, faster-paced classes, such as Vinyasa, could be just as effective. Movement can help release stress and anxiety.
High anxiety levels can mean that you’re not always able to begin a yoga practice with relaxation techniques.
“When there is high sympathetic nervous system activity, the mind is likely racing, which would make still postures (seated or otherwise) distressful,” Knopik says.
In Knopik’s experience, those who benefit from faster-paced styles of yoga tend to have developed the necessary breathwork, self-regulation, and interoception skills to remain calm and centered throughout the practice.
Without these skills, faster-paced yoga classes could be overstimulating for some people with anxiety.
“Still postures or practices need to come after some aspect of movement where nervous or anxious energy is released and individuals feel calmer,” Knopik says.
More experienced practitioners may find that standing and balancing postures can help with feeling grounded and present, but can be more helpful following movement.
To perform Seated Neck Stretch:
To perform Cat Pose (Marjaryasana):
To perform Cow Pose (Bitilasana):
To perform Extended Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishosana):
To perform Half Splits (Ardha Hanumanasana):
To perform Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana):
To perform Constructive Rest (Savasana Variation Bent Legs):
To perform Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana):
To perform Corpse Pose (Savasana):
While many people practice yoga to relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety disorders, it should not always serve as a replacement for clinical treatment, especially when a person is experiencing panic attacks or has a severe anxiety disorder diagnosis.
While proponents may claim the “yoga high” experienced during a yoga practice can offer relief from stress and anxiety, it’s important to keep in mind that this emotional state is often fleeting.
In fact, a 2021 study suggests that in some cases, mindfulness practices can backfire and actually cause anxiety to spike.
While yoga can be a healthy coping mechanism, relying on it to resolve a psychological condition is not an effective long-term solution on its own.
“Anything can become unhealthy when done to extremes,” Knopik says. “Our bodies thrive with variability, both from a physiological perspective and an emotional perspective. Finding multiple ways to relieve anxiety would be most beneficial to most individuals. From a stress management perspective, the more resources we have available, the better.”
A 2018 research review supports the practice of yoga for relief from symptoms associated with anxiety disorders, but more clinical studies are still needed before yoga should be used as a first-line approach to treatment.
Talk with your doctor or mental health professional to find out whether yoga is right for you. When practiced in conjunction with psychotherapy, medication, or both, yoga may be a wonderful complement to your treatment.
Yoga can enhance self-efficacy, which can be a valuable tool for calming minds and bodies to manage anxiety.
If you’re ready to begin your yoga journey and explore the power of the present moment, the safest and most effective way to learn is in person with a certified yoga instructor.
If you don’t have access to a yoga studio, most studios now stream classes online. Of course, countless instructional videos are available on YouTube at no cost. For example, this 20-minute yoga practice for anxiety from Yoga with Adriene is a great place to get started.
Last medically reviewed on October 26, 2021
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