The ancient Eastern practice of yoga combines mindfulness training with exercise (hence the term, “mind-body”). For years, practitioners all over the world have reported receiving mental and physical health benefits from yoga.
Only recently has yoga been subject to Western scientific evaluation, and so far, its effects are promising for a host of conditions from fibromyalgia to depression. Results of numerous studies found yoga offers some of the same therapeutic benefits, both physiological and psychological benefits, as other widely accepted mental health treatments. For example, regular yoga can regulate hormones in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (also known as the human stress response system) and enhance immune system functioning. Yoga can also reduce stress, anxiety, and depressed mood.
Yoga is actually similar to several existing gold standard treatment approaches and especially complements treatments used for depression and anxiety.
Yoga for Mood
Depression often involves a lack of motivation and interest in physical activity. When depressed, a person may wait to participate in activities they once enjoyed until their depressed mood remits. Behavioral Activation (BA) is a common, longstanding evidence-based depression treatment. As an, “act before you feel” approach, its aim is to establish greater levels of activity in patients despite the mood they experience. By consciously deciding to resume normal levels of activity — from completion of daily tasks to exercising — regardless of how we feel, our behaviors provide powerful feedback to the brain that we are not prisoners to our thoughts and emotions. In other words, positive emotions can be produced by our actions.
Therefore, from the BA standpoint, activity is not optional. Breaking the cycles of inactivity/isolation involved in depression requires first taking a behavioral step in that direction while depressed.
Yoga and other forms of exercise represent a pure form of behavioral activation. Putting the body in motion replaces passivity with action. Exercising outside or in a group imputes a person within the greater world, forcing their attention on space beyond dark, isolating thoughts. Given the effects of acute exercise on various brain chemicals, even exercising alone indoors can benefit well-being.
Arguably to even a greater degree than traditional forms of exercise, yoga requires attention to a range of inward and outward sensations. Completing the practice relies heavily on reciprocal feedback between mind and body. In this way, the mind can be a valued ally in our experience instead of a dark enemy. This notion is echoed by the greater concentration and flexible attention capacities seem in experienced yogis and meditators.
Indeed, similar to BA, research on exercise and yoga interventions demonstrate an enhanced sense of self-competence, personal accomplishment, and hopefulness.
Yoga for Anxiety
Anxiety is a manifestation of the body’s alarm system or “fight or flight” response. The initial trigger for an anxious reaction can be an internal sensation or something in the external environment. For example, individuals with panic disorder fear arousal within the body (e.g., shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, dizziness), while those with a phobia fear a specific thing (e.g., spiders, heights).
To qualify for having a problem with anxiety, the person’s fears must be excessive. This means that the person evaluates anxiety trigger is much worse than in reality. For example, the person with a panic attack predicts negative consequences associated with uncomfortable body sensations. They may think, “I could have a heart attack,” or, “People will think I’m crazy if I have a panic attack in public.” To prevent these consequences, the person tends to avoid their anxiety trigger at all costs (e.g., the person who had a panic attack in their car avoids driving, as well as stimulating activities, such as exercise and drinking coffee).
Exposure-based cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) are often used to treat clinical anxiety disorders, such as phobias and panic disorder, as well as general dispositional anxiety. These involve exposing a patient repeatedly and gradually to non-harmful anxiety triggers so that they are provided an opportunity to accumulate evidence that their feared outcome is unlikely to occur. For example, when a panic attack is induced in a therapy session, the patient is able to ride out the experience and challenge the fear that a health consequence will result.
Essentially, exposure is thought to train the brain to disassociate the experience of anxiety with the imagined consequences, enhancing their tolerance to these previously-feared cues. The goal is that the person “unlearns fear” and relearns safety; anxiety becomes thought of as “not such a big deal.”
Yoga may lower anxiety and stress in a similar way. In practice, yoga exposes an individual to recurring states of bodily discomfort and physiological arousal in holding and transitioning through difficult poses. Oftentimes, yoga is practiced in a warm or hot room, which increases body temperature, inducing sweat and dehydration. The practitioner must be in touch with their bodily sensations in order to retain balance and identify personal limits.
Practicing in a group format with mirrors may accentuate a person’s body image concerns. Still, yoga practitioners are told to push beyond their comfort zone in order to create space for growth. In this way, yoga may be considered an exercise in self-exposure to discomfort, vulnerability, and uncertainty. Though potentially terrifying to imagine for many individuals with anxiety, like traditional anxiety treatment, hard work within-session and repeated exposure to the practice is required to reap yoga’s benefits and gain a sense of mastery and confidence in one’s abilities.
After all, Yoga is Mindfulness
Another way yoga may ameliorate symptoms and enhance coping in conditions marked with emotional distress, such as anxiety and depression, is by cultivating mindfulness. From a mindfulness perspective, yoga is defined as a moving meditation. Linking conscious breath with movement, yoga brings about greater present-centered awareness and a sense of peace within the current experience (whether it brings with it discomfort or ease).
Yoga may not always feel good. However, one can learn to be still in a difficult moment. By remaining in a hot room despite the urge to leave, holding a difficult pose for longer than usual, or stretching to the point of intensity, practitioners are taught to “tune in” to internal sensations without judgement or the need to change anything.
Finally, when practiced in a group setting, yoga counters the sense of isolation often felt when dealing with a difficult situation. When practitioners sweat together and share a common struggle, a greater sense of common humanity is fostered.