Yoga has been shown to lower stress and anxiety, but how exactly does it accomplish this miracle? For those of us afflicted with stress or anxious thoughts (um, that’s all of us) it can be paralyzing, debilitating, and derail us off our path. So how do a couple of stretchy moves make things mysteriously better? Yoga works on many planes of the body to boost mood and lower anxiety. On a physical level, yoga alleviates muscular tension in the body and creates conscious breathing patterns. The benefits of yoga for mental health are created by this release of physical tension and regulated breathing that calms the autonomic nervous system and releases endorphins. Yoga also reduces anxiety from a heart level - the practice of yoga helps us accept discomfort and cultivates a sense of self-love. The holistic integration of body, head, and heart are the backbone of the yoga practice. Let’s dig deeper into 5 ways yoga lowers anxiety and stress.
1. Yoga Releases Tension
The release of tension in the body and alleviating anxiety are a reciprocal relationship. When experiencing stress and anxiety, muscles begin to tense. This contraction sparks a stress stimulus in the brain, activating a fear response in the sympathetic nervous system, which then, in turn, creates more tension in the body! Yoga postures ease tension in the body by extending muscles (The STRETCHY stuff). As the muscular system relaxes, the mind’s stress response softens, and then the release carries back into the body. A magic yoga circle of stress release.
2. Yoga Regulates Breathing
The breath rate is connected to the nervous system. In states of anxiety or stress, the breath becomes shallow and shorter. Pranayama for anxiety and stress creates more space between breaths while deepening the exhalation and inhalation. We can also call this Heart Rate Variability or HRV. Increased HRV calms the autonomic nervous system where the body stores trauma. When the breath gets thrown off, the nervous system can feel a bit funky, creating mental stress.
3. Yoga Creates Mindfulness
When a practice focuses on breath work and yoga poses working together, the mind gets a vacation from anxious thoughts. Yoga as a meditation practice places our attention on the movement of the body and how the breath flows, giving our brains a little rest. Why meditate? Mindfulness, or awareness of the fluctuations of the mind, can actually give us a head start on thoughts that spin-off into an anxious loop. With a regular mindfulness or meditation practice, we can “re-train” the brain to develop non-anxiety producing thoughts and beliefs. Integrating meditation and yoga asana is an effective way to help the body and mind operate in tandem.
4. Yoga Increases Body Awareness
In the same way, yoga creates mindfulness, yoga cultivates an awareness of our physicality and how it responds to changes in emotion. We become conscious of the sticky bits in the body or tension that is created with a stressful state of mind. Have you ever felt physically ill during times of great stress, or had chronic pains in places of the body you don’t have any recollection of injuring? This is the psychosomatic response of bodies reacting to an emotional trigger that creates stress for our nervous system and inhibits the release of endorphins that can act as a natural anti-depressant. As we move through yoga poses, our sense of imbalance in the body is refined and we can direct energy and attention into the physical location of discomfort, as well as the mental or emotional origin.
5. Yoga Creates Self-Acceptance
Self-acceptance in a broad sense is being at peace with our brilliance, as well as the things that feel negative. This can also be believing in our capabilities, processing criticism, and body acceptance. How can yoga shift things? In Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, the term “Aparigraha” is often described as “letting go of attachments”. If we dive into the deeper context of this practice, we find that unconditional self-love is often at the root. By releasing our ties to limiting beliefs and ideals about ourselves that create pressure, we have cleaned house in a way- making more room in our hearts, minds, and bodies for acceptance of who we are. Yoga teaches us to embrace the discomfort along with the bliss. Another self-acceptance bonus of a yoga practice is that it often brings us community. We all love to take classes with like-minded yogis and great teachers! This sense of belonging can really up our levels of personal worth.