How yoga can combat stress and anxiety
Not just a passing fad, science has also finally caught up to what yogis have known for some
time – yoga improves the mind, body, and spirit in ways other therapies can’t, and for a lot less
cost. Research suggests yoga directly influences the production of cortisol (thereby reducing
stress), relieves anxiety, improves self-reported quality of life, and improves flexibility and
balance. There is also evidence that yoga can improve sleep, reduce chronic pain, reduce
inflammation, improve heart health, and fight depression 2 . It’s important to note that research
is often underfunded for behavioral interventions, such as yoga, since they aren’t as profitable
as other therapies, like pharmaceuticals. As such, the full extent of the benefits are likely
undervalued to date.
Though heartening the world has finally taken note of the benefits, the true essence and full
extent of yoga is often lost. Reducing yoga to a 1 hour exercise class in the local gym is a
massive disservice to its true nature and substantial power to influence our lives.
At the core, yoga is a system for living that can expand our consciousness and lead to a more
meaningful existence. It’s a way to move beyond limits and become more than ourselves.
Guidelines first fully codified through Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras provide the steps needed to
purify the body and mind and work towards a higher state of being. Asanas – or postures –
represent only a small part of the Ashtanga Yoga practice. In total 8 limbs exist and each must
be mastered. Though yoga is so much more, asanas are the most visible aspect and quite
challenging to fully master.
Like many, I discovered yoga after an injury in my lower back. I was unable to exercise or move
without pain for 8 months. Finally, a doctor recommended I try yoga and it changed everything.
Within a couple months of regular practice my back was almost totally healed. More
importantly though, I found I was better able to cope with stress, less anxious, and generally
more peaceful than ever before. I knew then, I had found something that is so much more
powerful than first thought.
All asanas, pranayama (breath control, and meditation lead to improvements in mental health
by calming the mind, improving focus and concentration, improving circulation, and removing
energy and emotional blockages; though I have found some particular asanas most beneficial
for alleviating stress and anxiety.
Shavanasana (corpse pose) is a powerful asana that promotes mental health in several ways. It
is the ultimate pose for total and complete relaxation. Lying completely still, you are able to
slow the mind and enter into a state of temporal presence and awareness. Thoughts slow with
breath and lack of body movement. Circulation is evenly distributed throughout the body and
the palms (facing up) help to place the body and mind in a receptive state. Shavansana is
practiced after more active asanas or any time the body needs a rest. It helps to recharge the
body and mind by breaking the cycle of constant action and movement.
Siransana (headstand pose) is also a counter to stress and anxiety. It’s recommended that every
yoga practice includes an inversion, and sirasana is the king of all postures for a reason. Placing
the head and crown chakra on the ground has a stabilizing effect and helps you to connect to
the earth and your surroundings. This asana requires simultaneous use of all the major muscles
of the body in perfect harmony while also balancing in an upright position. This level of physical
and mental engagement enhances concentration and focus, allowing negative or recurring
thoughts to dissipate and give your mind much needed respite. Finally, siransana sends blood
and fresh oxygen to the brain and eyes, improving your mental function and cleaning out the
adrenal glands – responsible for production of stress hormones. Altogether, these benefits
lower levels of stress and anxiety, not to mention the positive feeling derived from
accomplishing a difficult posture when mind and body work together in harmony.
Finally, simhasana (roaring lion pose) is an effective tool for calming anxiety. This asana places
you in a powerful position and encourages you to find your voice, building confidence and faith
in your strength. It facilitates energy locks – or bandhas – within the body, including mula,
jalandhara, and uddiyana and clears the throat. It also helps to circulate blood to the face,
leading to strengthened, but relaxed features.
Asanas should not be practiced alone. Pranayama and meditation are essential components of
any yoga practice and allow us to reap the full benefits of our labor. The benefits of meditation
on mental well-being have long been documented and meditation is widely accepted as an
effective alternative to drug therapy for those suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression.
A particular meditation I have practiced recently had a profound impact on myself and fellow
yogis. Termed ‘self-love’, this meditation is guided by a practitioner. It involves you coming into
a state of total relaxation, while becoming aware of your heart chakra and any emotional
blockages that may exist. You are encouraged to remember who hurt you in the past and
forgive them. You are also encouraged to imagine those you hurt and, most importantly,
forgive yourself. We all deserve inner peace, and often our stress and anxiety is rooted in past
or current relationships and experiences. Letting the past control us and colour our thoughts
adds an unnecessary burden to our daily lives. Through this meditation being practiced
regularly we can unfetter ourselves from these experiences and find real satisfaction in the
Stress, anxiety, and depression are dramatically increasing in incidence, particularly in wealthier
countries. Some cities and professions are rife with suicide, representing a real public health
threat and dismal prospects for those who suffer. With the expansion of yoga all over the
world, we need move away from thinking of this powerful tool as just physical exercise. When
practiced regularly and in the right way, yoga has the power to transform the body and mind,
stabilizing us in an increasingly chaotic world. Practicing asanas, such as shavansana, siransana,
and simhansana, while combining them with meditation and pranayama we have at our
disposal a low-cost solution for improving mental health and overall well-being. I hope as
teachers we can bring this awareness to those who need it most.
During my yoga teacher training in India I came much closer to living a more relaxed and stress-free life.
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