This essay presents a discussion around Yoga as an aid for anxiety. In recent times with the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus, and the influx of fear-based media streams, it is now, more than ever, so easy to get caught up in the vibration of anxiety. When the first wave of lockdowns hit South Africa, I committed myself to practicing Yoga and meditating every single day, as a way to cope with the collective tensions and my personal anxieties. This turned out to be one of the most empowering decisions I could have made. While I constantly come across people who blame the lockdowns for their depressions and weight gains, I have not only maintained my healthy body, but also my mind, and I feel empowered by my decision to explore my inner landscapes through Yoga, in a more committed and focused way than I had before. This, of course, does not mean that I do not experience anxiety, but I do have the support of Yoga, as a tool to shift how I am feeling. I will look into some of the key aspects of Yoga and how they can be used as a means to calm anxiety. Yoga as a lifestyle choice, is one that promotes mindfulness and meditation, healthy physical activity through asana practice and pranayama practice; it is a holistic way of life, not comparable to an aerobics class aimed purely at physical exercise.
Anxiety is a mental state associated with the incapacity to manage ones’ emotional reactions to what appears to be threatening, and is conversely analogous to mental occupations related with the psychological modulation of emotion (Zeidan et al. 751-759). Anxiety has an obstructive impact on every part, for example: social-life, personal-life, and work performance and it is linked with the stimulation of the autonomic nervous system (Anand et al. 23). Since disorder of the autonomic nervous system is related with anxiety, the calming of the nervous system is useful in managing anxiety (Dieleman et al. 180). Some evidence suggests that the practice of Yoga might contribute to the adjustment of the parasympathetic nervous system and improvements of Gamma-aminobutyric acid systems thereby stabilising emotional responses (Streeter et al. 1145-1152). Physical pain, which is often experienced alongside anxiety, is often caused by inflammation and there is some indication that Yoga can assist in reducing inflammation (Uebelacker et al. 20). By shifting some of these dysfunctioning physiological processes that often accompany anxiety, Yoga may serve as a great tonic for coping with anxiety. Evidence not only points at the treatment of anxiety, but also the prevention; Yoga helps one to maintain stress levels through affecting bodily variables such as the breath (which we will discuss later) and the heart rate in a positive way (Gaiswinkler and Unterrainer 123-127).
There are plenty of studies supporting the claim that Yoga is beneficial for managing anxiety. In a qualitative examination of seventeen different studies on the benefits of Yoga in cases of anxiety, it was concluded that Yoga shows promise in treating anxiety, but that it was unclear which of the specific parts of Yoga practice (the postures, pranayama, the meditation etc.) was actually responsible for the beneficial results (Hofmann et al. 116-124). I feel that it is the very combination of these aspects of Yoga practice that assists in the whole-istic treatment of anxiety. I also feel that this highlights one of the problems with Western science and medicine, which focuses on symptoms and treatment of symptoms (categorization and separation) instead of seeing whole human beings in need of wholesome and integrated lifestyles in the cultivation of overall health; this of course does not negate the benefits of science, medicine and good research practices.
In a specific 10 week study on Yoga versus relaxation, as a tool for reducing stress and anxiety, it was found that Yoga was as beneficial as relaxation in minimising stress and anxiety and in increasing the overall wellbeing of individuals, and Yoga was found to be more potent than relaxation, in supporting good mental health (Smith et a. 73-83). A study conducted by Gaiswinkler et al. (123-127) set out to investigate the relationship between the volume of Yoga practice, in relation to the varying boundaries of mental wellness or disorder; 362 Yoga teachers participated in the study and the control group consisted of gymnasts; it was found that the more involved a person was in their Yoga practice, the better their state of mind / mindfulness, the better their state of spiritual wellness, and the less frequent the presence of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. This may be the best written and set out study I have come across in this area of research thus far; they hook me right in the beginning with a statement that I feel with such resonance: “A holistic view of human beings is becoming more and more central to the practice of medicine these days” (Gaiswinkler et al. 123). The understanding of treating a whole human - an understanding of oneness, or in the yogic sense, the very definition of Yoga , “to yoke”, unify or make one (Stephens 2) - is in my opinion the fundamental view that we as a collective need in order to heal ourselves and the world around us. This understanding is what I personally find lacking in many other studies, where much of the research is good, but the unpacking of the findings is misled by an overemphasis on the processes of rationality and logic, which produce categorization techniques and therefore separation ideology. I argue not that rationality, logic and the scientific process be discarded, but rather that it incorporates a holistic view. A blending of the ancient knowledge with the support of the modern scientific methods is my preferred approach. In terms of treating my own anxiety I have taken this holistic approach, and the most potent tool I have is Yoga.
The practice of Yoga cultivates mindfulness, and the practice of mindfulness has been exhibited to have a positive influence on depression and anxiety (Hofmann et al. 169-183). Mindfulness is a state of being fully present in the current moment, where you can come to a place of observing your thoughts and feelings with non-judgement (Wong web). Often, in a Yoga class, one is instructed to bring their awareness into the current moment, into how the body feels, noticing what is moving through the mindspace, and what emotions are coming up, without judging what is present - just observing what is. I must agree with Uebelacker et al. (20) who proposes that it is this implementation of mindfulness, when it continues into the rest of one's life, off the mat, that helps with present moment awareness, preventing over emphasis of agonizing over the past (which cannot be changed) or the future (which is not yet here); additionally, cultivating a no-judgement attitude can cultivate more self-acceptance over self-condemnation. Excessive anxiety is dysfunctional and is frequently observed as a part of an unwholesome way of life, and that unhealthy lifestyle notably adds to the harmfulness of mental disorders; healthy lifestyle is an essential component for treating anxiety (Gupta et al. 41-47). A lifestyle with a yoga theme is in my opinion, an excellent healthy lifestyle choice.
One of the key components of a good Yoga practice is meditation. In a review on the clinical trials and other research in relation to meditation and anxiety, Delmonte (99) concludes that with consistent meditation practice, a reduction in anxiety frequently materializes. A study looking specifically at mindfulness meditation, provides evidence that it can help control anxiety (Zeidan et al. 751-759). According to Wong (web), mindfulness meditation is a cognitive exercise that trains you to calm the flow of frenzied thoughts, release pessimism, and relax the mind and body; it brings together the practices of mindfulness and meditation; I have already discussed Yoga and mindfulness above. Meditation cannot really be separated from Yoga, they have always been interconnected concepts that have evolved and merged in multiple ways. Meditation is written about in some of the earliest yogic texts including the Rig Veda and the Upanishads (Stephens 2-3). Yoga may even be thought of as a form of meditation, or as a preparation for seated meditation. Since there are so many variations of Yoga and meditation, it is difficult to be specific here, but I think that the vastness of choice of techniques is wonderful, since we are all unique individuals. If one kind of meditation does not appeal to a certain individual, there are plenty more routes to explore. Likewise different techniques could be utilized for different aims.
The practice of Yoga asanas can be a great physical exercise that tones, stretches and strengthens the body. It can be adapted to multiple different fitness levels; it can be more calming or restorative, or more energetic and rigorous. The benefit of keeping physically fit by exercising is well documented and commonly accepted, so I will focus on some lesser known aspects of why it is beneficial. In 1998 a study conducted at the Salk Biological Institute demonstrated that if we remain physically active, we are able to generate new nerve cells throughout our entire lives (Eriksson et al. 1313-1317). Stress (and anxiety certainly counts as stress), however, affects the health of our hippocampus and therefore our ability to grow these new cells (Sapolsky 220). Both physical exercise and meditation is good for the brain and its ability to grow new nerve cells (NurrieStearns & NurrieStearns 22).
According to the Pradipika, asanas operate to unlock the energy channels or nadis as well as the chakras or energy centers of the energetic bodies (Stephens 18). In looking at some specific asanas used for anxiety, there is not much in terms of the clinical trials, but we do, of course, have the wisdom of the sages from ancient texts and knowledge handed down through gurus. One clinical trial looking at the effects of asana practice over a 6 week period made use of a set of the following 6 postures: Vajrasana (Hero’s pose), Balasana (Child’s pose), Matsyasana (Fish pose), Bhujangasana (Cobra pose), Dhanurasana (Bow pose) and Savasana (Corpse pose); the conclusions of this study was favorable, with a number of possible hypotheses for the positive influence of Yoga asanas upon the anxiety levels, many of which are already mentioned above (Anand, Chandla and Dogra 23-27).
In the book ‘The art and Science of Raja Yoga’ - a set of knowledges based more on the ancient scriptures and the teachings handed down by guru’s, opposed to academic research - Paschimottanasana (a seated forward bend) is claimed to be beneficial in the soothing of the nervous system (Kriyananda 58). Personally I find this asana to be very calming. Also recommended by Kriyananda (87) for calming the nervous system, is deep breathing in Savasana, Balasana, Bhujangasana and Dhanurasana, all of which were included in the above mentioned study; Kriyananda also suggested that Salamba Shirshasana (headstand}, Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) and Padmasana (Lotus pose) will be a beneficial aid. Kriyananda (23-42) also provides affirmation sentences for each of the asanas which I think is a great way to focus the energy and attention towards positive vibrations during a posture that is held for longer periods. In a day and age where anxiety is common due to a fast paced lifestyle, the incorporation of some combination of these postures into a class feels very important to me. For anxiety specific classes (bringing rajasic to sattvic), Stephens (324) recommends: a gentle and slow moving asana flow, with an emphasis on lingering in forward bends; an extended Savasana; soothing pranayama like nadi shodhana and meditation that consists of closed eyes and calming the flow of thoughts.
According to Stephens (237) pranayama or conscious breathing is one of the crucial aspects of yoga practice. Pranayama sustains the asana practice by stirring up the subtle energies and giving a focus to help us to remain conscious during the movements (Stephens 237). Kriyananda (337) recommends a number of pranayama techniques for cooling the nervous system, including Sitali Pranayama; he explains the importance of the use of the imagination in aiding the action to occur by visualising and feeling the calming of the nervous system; he says that the breathing by itself simply won’t work. In an article for the Yoga Journal, Rosen (web) recommends bringing focus to the out breath and little by little, lengthening it; this is also called Vishama-vritti pranayama with the emphasis upon lengthening Rechaka (exhale) (Stephens 247-250). From personal experiences, I know that the extended outbreath is also recommended by physiotherapists for covid patients who are recovering from having been on ventilators; this technique not only calms nerves, but also expands lung capacity because the longer your exhale the deeper your inhale.
My personal favorite pranayama practice is Nadi Shodhana, which has often been personally prescribed to me by Yoga mentors. I have been practicing this pranayama daily for over a year now, and I always find it to be calming and centering. It is recommended by Browne (22) in their book Understanding Teenage Anxiety as a technique for immediately calming anxiety, and as already mentioned above, by Stephens (324). According to ancient knowledge, this technique purifies the energy channels referred to as Nadis; in particular it is said to energize the Pingala and Ida Nadis that run alongside the Sushumna which correlates with the spinal cord; it is also believed to bring the hemispheres of the brain into harmony (Stephens 53, 258). The exploration of this practice has been of immense benefit in my personal journey.
For those of us that are spiritual, the benefits of having faith are obvious. While Yoga can be practiced in a way that does not feel spiritual, the origins of Yoga are deeply interconnected with a sense of spirituality and my personal preference is to integrate spirituality into my practice. Even scientific research has credited the value of working with spirituality in cases of anxiety (Barera et al. 346-358). Robert Sheldrake - an atheist scientist who grew up in a religious home - wrote the book Science and Spiritual Practices, where he argues for the benefits of spiritual practices, even for atheists, with reference to scientific evidence, research and theory; meditation, which we have already discussed, is included as one such practice. Another aspect that Sheldrake addresses is the power of coming together to sing or chant which brings us into resonance with our community; this may be included in a Yoga class by chanting three “oms”; creating this sense of resonance creates a feeling of belonging and purpose which is essential in overall health. Depending of course from person to person, the inclusion of a spiritual approach may help greatly in managing anxiety. This is easily integrated into yoga practice as it has been done so for thousands of years.
There is a lot of academic research that is beginning to verify much of the ancient knowledge that has been inherited from the Indian texts: that the cultivation of a healthy mind, body and spirit is about an entire lifestyle. So the treatment of anxiety may benefit much from the integration of a gentle yet committed Yoga practice that incorporates physical asana, pranayama, meditation, mindfulness and a sense of spirituality. Yoga has had a profound impact upon my own personal anxieties and I look forward to sharing this empowering and calming practice with students in the future.
Photograph by Gheon Steenkamp
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