By Soror Tzadkiel
With the increasing stressors presented by modern life, humans all over the world are searching for remedies to the anxieties that arise from day to day. Many prefer for more natural approaches to coping with anxiety, as opposed to the medications promoted by pharmaceutical industries. People from various communities around the world are now going to yoga in search for a natural treatment to anxiety. New research from Harvard University, the International Journal of Yoga, and other prestigious institutions convey that there is a correlation between regular yoga practice and increased quality of life, physically and mentally. This paper will discuss the scientific research that supports the correlation between yoga practice and decreased anxiety.
The effects of yoga practice on anxiety, and overall health in general, are profound. The combination of asana and pranayama have many healing effects on the body and mind. According to Catherine Woodyard’s study called “Exploring the Therapeutic Effects of Yoga and its Ability to Increase Quality of Life,” she states that “[y]oga encourages one to relax, slow the breath and focus on the present, shifting the balance from the sympathetic nervous system and the flight-or-fight response to the parasympathetic system and the relaxation response” (Woodyard, 2011). The article also states that, “[r]esults from this study show that yogic practices enhance muscular strength and body flexibility… reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, improve sleep patterns, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life” (Woodyard, 2011). It is common knowledge that physical and mental health are improved by exercise, and the asana practice inherent in yoga is a very popular and effective method of getting in physical shape. As Woodyard states above, yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, thus activating the body’s rest and digest processes. Having the body and mind relax is a foundational step in reducing the presence of anxiety. Likewise, being physically in shape also improves mental clarity and promotes a deeper sense of well being.
Pranayama, a core part of yoga practice, is also correlated with lessening the presence of anxiety in those who practice it. According to Pallav Sengupta’s informative article titled “Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review” it is stated that “yoga has been shown to have immediate psychological effects: decreasing anxiety and increasing feelings of emotional, social, and spiritual well-being” (Sengupta, 2012). In this article, Sengupta explains that yoga and pranayama may lessen the presence of stress hormones such as cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, which are released from the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, or HPA axis. Modern lifestyles tend to provoke a surplus in stress hormones, and unfortunately that surplus has been linked to many illnesses such as autoimmune disorders, depression, diabetes, substance abuse, anxiety, and others. Pranayama and yoga have thus shown to be effective preventative practices to such illnesses, in addition to contributing to vibrant physical and mental health.
For centuries, yogis have placed emphasis on breathing from the diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing, specifically, has been linked with increased relaxation, and is therefore a possible remedy for anxiety. A recent study led by Xiao Ma showed that participants who performed diaphragmatic breathing regularly over 8 weeks showed significantly decreased cortisol levels when compared to the test group that didn’t engage in diaphragmatic breathing. The study states that “[c]ortisol release is associated with depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions” (Ma, 2017). Therefore, the decreased presence of cortisol in the group that engaged in breathing practices indicate that diaphragmatic breath has a healing impact on the body and the mind by reducing the presence of stress inducing hormones. The paper further conveys that “[t]he present study illustrates the potential for diaphragmatic breathing practice to improve cognitive performance and reduce negative subjective and physiological consequences of stress in healthy adults” (Ma, 2017).
Meditation, which is an intrinsic part of yoga practice, likewise has been shown to help those suffering from anxiety in a number of different ways. Julie Corliss, the executive director of Harvard Heart Letter at Harvard University, has written about meditation and its positive impact on those with anxiety in her blog. In her 2014 Harvard Blog Post titled “Mindfulness Meditation May Ease Anxiety, Mental Stress” she writes about a study displaying strong evidence that meditation drastically reduces anxiety in those who practice it. The study was lead by Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, who is a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders, in addition to being an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Corliss goes on in her blog to say that the study “found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, and irritability” (Corliss, 2014).
Hoge’s study, which was titled “Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity,” yielded results suggesting that “MBSR [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction] may have a beneficial effect on anxiety symptoms in GAD [Generalized Anxiety Disorder], and may also improve stress reactivity and coping as measured in a laboratory stress challenge” (Hoge, 2013). The study explains that GAD is defined by characteristics of muscle tension, lack of proper sleep, and irritable mood, and that the illness holds a lifetime prevalence rating of 5.7%. The study also conveys that the common approaches promoted by the pharmaceutical industries for remedying GAD leave 30% to 60% of the patients without successful results. Yoga and meditation are accessible, affordable, and rewarding practices that yield effective results, in addition to not having the ill side-effects that result from ingesting pharmaceuticals. For these reasons, and many more, people continue to seek healing in yoga and meditation.
Yoga practice often includes recitations of self affirmations. These affirmations may include statements such as “I am kind” or they may include mantras such as “Sat Nam” which is a sanskrit phrase that is roughly translated as “I am truth.” Recent studies show that positive affirmations may help with quelling anxiety. According to research led by Lisa Legault from the Association for Psychological Science, self affirmations have been shown to have profound effects on lessening the presence of stress and anxiety. Legault’s study put forward that self affirmations have been shown to make people more open to critical feedback, which is often perceived as a threat and thus can cause anxiety and stress. Likewise, the study implies that is may make people more alert and receptive to errors made in general.
Yoga practice includes chanting, and “om” is often chanted more frequently, as it is revered as a sacred, primordial sound in Hinduism. A study led by Bangalore Kalyani has shown that chanting “om” stimulates activity in the vagus nerve. Because vagus nerve activity is known to induce deep relaxation, there is strong evidence that chanting “om” is a beneficial practice for quelling anxiety. The study also found that chanting “om” lessened the activity of the limbic brain regions, and excessive activity in those regions have been linked to the presence of anxiety. Interestingly, the study found that other sounds, such as pronouncing “ssss” for a period of time “did not produce any significant activation/deactivation in any of these brain regions” (Kalyani, 2011).
Visualization is a tool that is often integrated into yoga practices. Many have found positive results from exploring visualizations of serene places, and many therapists recommend it to patients with anxiety. According to Julie Corliss’s Harvard Heart Letter article, “[g]uided imagery may help you reinforce a positive vision of yourself” (Corliss, 2016). A different article by Dr. Harry Mills from the Mental Help website suggests that relaxation results from guided imagery for multiple reasons.
As is the case with many techniques, they involve an element of distraction which serves to redirect people's attention away from what is stressing them and towards an alternative focus. The techniques are in essence a non-verbal instruction or direct suggestion to the body and unconscious mind to act "as though" the peaceful, safe and beautiful (and thus relaxing) environment were real. Finally, guided imagery can work through the associative process described above, where scenes become a learned cue or trigger that helps recall memories and sensations resulting from past relaxation practice. (Mills, 2008)
Therefore, not only does the peaceful, mental imagery occupy the mind’s attention, but the person visualizing also experiences calming effects as if they were physically immersed in the peaceful imagery. Likewise, it conjures similar peaceful emotions from previous serene experiences. Though there haven’t been many studies done on the impact of visualization of peaceful images and anxiety reduction, many people use this technique with profound results. Visualization continues to be a useful tool for yoga instructors who integrate this profound healing technique in their yoga classes.
In conclusion, modern research presents strong evidence that yoga in its many facets has a powerful healing impact on anxiety. Between asana, pranayama, meditation, self affirmation, and visualization, there are many qualities of the yoga experiences that help to conjure deep feelings of well being, and promote holistic health. More and more individuals are seeking what yoga has to offer to help subdue the stressors of modern life, and those who come practice receive the countless benefits of this ancient healing practice.
Corliss, Julie. Harvard Health Blog “Mindfulness Meditation May Ease Anxiety, Mental Stress” January 8th, 2014. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing website.
Corliss, Julie. Harvard Heart Letter “Six Relaxation Techniques to Reduce Stress” September, 2016. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing website.
Hoge, Elizabeth. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry “Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity” August, 2013. The National Center for Biotechnology Information website.
Kalyani, Bangalore G. The International Journal of Yoga “Neurohemodynamic Correlates of ‘OM’ Chanting: A Pilot Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study” January 2011. The National Center for Biotechnology Information website.
Legault, Lisa. Association for Psychological Science “Preserving Integrity in the Face of Performance Threat: Self-Affirmation Enhances Neurophysiological Responsiveness to Errors” October 22, 2012. Sage Journals Website.
Ma, Xiao. Frontiers in Psychology “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults” June 2017. The National Center for Biotechnology Information website.
Mills, Harry. Mental Help: Stress Reduction and Management “Visualization And Guided Imagery Techniques For Stress Reduction” June 30th, 2008. The Mental Help website.
Sengupta, Pallav. International Journal of Preventative Medicine “Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review” July 2012. The National Center for Biotechnology Information website.
Woodyard, Catherine. The International Journal of Yoga “Exploring the Therapeutic Effects of Yoga and its Ability to Increase Quality of Life” July 2011. The National Center for Biotechnology Information website.