Using yoga to manage anxiety
There’s a lot to be said about the physical benefits of yoga, including improvements to muscle strength and flexibility. But the mental health benefits are also key to yoga’s continued success. Here, we chat to yoga teacher and mindfulness expert Heather Mason of The Minded Institute about how this ancient form of exercise can rest and restore our brain as well as our body.
Feeling anxious is a normal human reaction to stressful situations, but sustained periods of anxiety can have a detrimental impact on your physical and mental wellbeing. By boosting levels of brain-calming gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), yoga and controlled breathing can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety in both the short and long term.
People who practise yoga often report experiencing an elevated mood, reduced stress levels and a sense of greater connectedness to other people, but how does it actually work? Heather Mason of The Minded Institute says that the research of US-based professor of psychiatry and neurology Dr Chris Streeter can help us understand.
Sending chemical messages through the brain and the nervous system, GABA is one of our body’s major neurotransmitters and can help regulate feelings of anxiety. Several studies have shown that low GABA levels – which can contribute to feeling stressed and overwhelmed – can be boosted through physical activity, and yoga is more effective than any other form of exercise in achieving this1.
Enjoy immediate calm
“It is yoga’s focus on controlled breathing that really enables it to help with reducing anxiety,” Heather says. “When you regulate your breathing, it sends a message to your brain that you are safe and calm, and this enables your heart rate to slow and blood pressure to stabilise.
“This means that once you have mastered a few basic breathing techniques, you can start to reduce your anxiety levels in the short term, while regular practice can help people manage their mental wellness in the long term.”
Heather says a simple exercise for calming an overworked mind is to take timed breaths, where you exhale for a few beats longer than you inhale. “The brain responds to a change in breathing quickly. Just 10 minutes will help you curb anxiety in the short term.”
But if a lasting impact on your nervous system is what you’re after, then it’s the discipline of yoga poses and regular practice that can help manage anxiety in the long term.
What’s your style?
“Paying attention to your breathing is an essential part of yoga, so all styles are useful,” Heather says. “However, you should look for a discipline that suits your fitness levels and psychological needs.
“Some people require significant physical exertion to relax and to support the transformation of their nervous system, while others benefit more from a slower, more reflective practice.
“There is no style that is superior, but rather an appreciation of a unique need of a unique person at a unique time. Hence, the diversity of yoga is extremely conducive to helping a person regardless of their fitness level or issue.
Heather recommends experimenting with different classes and instructors, and talking to friends about what works for them. In addition, several poses can be more effective than others when it comes to promoting a sense of calm, so try to incorporate moves that demand real focus and can stop the mind wandering, such as Warrior I and Warrior II.
“Some postures are challenging, but you are learning to relax under physical duress and this can help you handle long-term anxiety.
“In addition, balancing poses were originally taught to keep the mind focused, and they do just that. If you are having trouble gathering your thoughts, a series of balancing poses can be very useful.”
Practise outside the studio
Signing up to regular classes is a great way to stay motivated, but taking the time to practise breathing exercises and simple poses while at home or at work can help maintain a sense of calm.
“Try to do some yoga for 30 minutes each morning. Most anxious people wake up with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and if you can balance that out early on you have a better chance of enjoying an anxiety-free day.”
If you spend long periods of time sitting down, ask your instructor to demonstrate some seated poses. Twists, back bends and shoulder openers can help release the strain of too much time spent in front a computer, while forward folds send blood to the brain to give you a quick energy boost.
“Even practising controlled breathing at your desk twice a day for 10 minutes can have significant effects on mood and wellbeing.” Heather recommends exploring a yoga style of breathing called Ujjayi, which in English means ‘to become victorious’ and can help aid concentration.
From the fluid movements of Vinyasa to Bikram’s sweaty sequential poses, there are many different styles of yoga taught today – all of which can help boost GABA levels and regulate breathing. Have a chat with a qualified teacher about which one might suit you best.