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Why is yoga good for anxiety?

answered 01:49 PM EST, Mon November 07, 2011
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I have problems with anxiety. Someone told me that doing Yoga might help me to feel less anxiety but I don’t really understand how this can be. Is there any truth to this? And if there is, what is it about stretching your body into weird poses that will help me to feel better? I am skeptical but if it will really help I will do anything to make this anxiety go away.

Art Matthews Says...

Yoga is much more than twisting your body into a pretzel and living to tell about it. Yoga is a broad term to describe many different variations on a theme. Many people in the West utilize yoga as a form of physical activity, but true yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline -- meditation -- that places a person's focus on the immediate moment. It is one of the first forms of Mindfulness.

The reason yoga can be very helpful for people with anxiety and depression is that it involves breathing techniques, muscle stretching, physical activity and the mental activity of shifting and maintaining focus on the present moment and away from thoughts that are perhaps distorted and cause distressing feelings.

Changing breathing patterns can de-escalate the body's natural protective response called the Fight/Flight Response which is the culprit for people who have anxiety and panic attacks. We tend to become anxious and breathe rapidly and shallowly. Yoga teaches deep and controlled breathing which helps people to breathe deeply and fully exchange the lung's tidal volume with freshly oxygenated air. This causes the heart rate and blood pressure to go down thus decreasing the production of excitatory hormones and stimulates the parasympathetic response resulting in physiological homeostasis.

Stretching also does the same by elongating the muscles, reducing muscle tension and decreasing the discomfort and pain that can result from poor body posturing and muscle contratures. The poses of yoga also exert pressure on the muscles and act as a very effective workout. Increasing physical activity has long been known to improve emotional wellness, increase metabolism and even improve body-image as we begin to see changes in muscle tone and body fat.

Mental discipline may be the greatest benefit of yoga as a physical and mental activity. People with depression and anxiety often focus negatively on the past (depression) or the future (anxiety). By developing mental discipline and understanding the importance of developing control over what we choose to think about and how we choose to value our life situations and experiences. The most primary way to develop a change in focus is to engage in breath work by maintaining focus on the process of breathing, something we do without even thinking, making it a conscious and intentional process. Doing this requires that we set aside the other thoughts and judgments running through our minds about who did what to whom, how I can get everything done, what others think of us, the injustices of life, etc. Yoga doesn't change any of those things but helps us to build resilience and tolerate things in our lives while focusing on what is truly important: my spiritual, physical and mental relationship with myself, others and the universe (and a creator, if you are so inclined).

Of course, yoga is not the only way to do this. Some people find the same results from other physical, recreational or spiritual activities. Yoga has the benefit of being one activity that impacts all those areas. Talk about efficiency!

Give yoga a try for a month. Treat it like a research project or trial of meds, but leave any judgments at the door. Try to keep an open mind and experience the activity, allow yourself to give in completely to your commitment. I think you'll find if you can develop the awareness, focus and intention, you WILL receive the benefits for life.

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Page last updated Nov 08, 2011

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