Yoga is a mindfulness practice that can help to reduce anxiety symptoms. While this ancient practice wasn’t specifically developed as a treatment for anxiety, its concepts and benefits make it especially effective in calming both the mind and body when you’re feeling anxious. Some of the ways yoga can help with anxiety are by slowing down and focusing on the breath, and by being mindful of the present moment instead of future worries.
Yoga belongs to a category of wellness and healing techniques known as complementary and integrative medicine.1 While it has a place in modern medicine, it is actually a practice that is thousands of years old and rich in meaning and purpose. The term “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit yuj, and it means “union” or “to unite.”3 Yoga teaches that mind, body, and spirit are intertwined and that mental health and physical health are equally important; accordingly, yoga helps us achieve union and “right-use-ness” of body, emotions, and mind—living with mindfulness and purpose.4
How Does Yoga Help With Anxiety?
Yoga helps unite body and mind and induce calm. Anxiety happens when we enter fight-flight-or-freeze mode—when our sympathetic nervous system revs up and puts us on high alert for perceived dangers. When this happens, our internal world (including thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate) is reacting to problems in our external world, and yoga helps calm our entire being so we are no longer stuck in this reaction mode in the face of our anxiety triggers.9
The balance achieved through the disciplined practice of yoga helps us overcome suffering to live with freedom and health, remaining calm even in the middle of challenges, stress, and chaos.3,4 Thus, practicing yoga regularly can help people reduce feelings of anxiety without medication, and deal positively with anxiety-provoking thoughts, emotions, sensations, and situations.
Yoga’s physical postures, controlled breathing, and periods of meditation or relaxation work to calm both body and mind, reducing symptoms of anxiety.1,10
Specifically, practicing yoga for anxiety can:
- Replace muscle tension with relaxation
- Increase awareness of body and emotions so we can notice and address anxiety before it spirals out of control
- Enhance our ability to focus on the present moment rather than remaining caught up in anxious thoughts and emotions
- Foster acceptance and reduce the anxiety-driven tendency to avoid (yoga teaches us to accept the feelings of discomfort that often accompany the asanas and to honor what our bodies can do rather than avoiding difficult postures, and as we learn acceptance on the mat, we can take it off the mat into our daily lives)
- Reduce subjective feelings of stress and anxiety
- Boost mood and the sense of well-being
Research on the Health Benefits of Yoga
In 2005, researchers reviewed eight research studies to determine yoga’s effectiveness for treating anxiety.13 While many of the studies contained flaws, the reviewers determined that there was strong enough evidence that yoga helps reduce anxiety to encourage more research.
Research found that yoga seems to reduce anxiety because it:
- Positively affects our biochemistry and physiology
- Offers a distraction from negative thoughts and improves focus and concentration on things other than symptoms and anxiety-provoking triggers
- Fosters social connections and support when done in a group
One study found that pranayama (yogic breathing):12
- Slows brain activity associated with anxiety
- Produces theta waves in the brain that are associated with relaxation, creativity, problem-solving, and concentration)
- Synchronizes the activity of the heart and lungs which helps us feel calmer and more centered
- Leads to bodywide changes at the cellular level
Precautions Before You Get Started
Before you practice yoga, it’s important to consider any limitations you might have. Yoga is generally considered safe for most people, but certain conditions may put you at risk for injury, including:1
- A herniated disc or other back injury
- Conditions that put you at risk for blood clots
- Severe osteoporosis
- Uncontrolled blood pressure
- Eye problems like glaucoma
- Significant balance problems
- Pregnancy (yoga is considered safe during pregnancy, but some poses may be harmful)
It’s always best to consult with your doctor before beginning any physical exercise program. Know, too, that with yoga, it’s always okay to modify poses to suit your own body. Never force yourself into any position or stretch to the point of pain.
Yoga Poses for Anxiety
When you notice yourself experiencing stress and anxiety, pause for just a few minutes to do one or more of these yoga poses. Doing so can reset your nervous system and help you feel more calm and centered so you can deal with the challenges in front of you.
Here are some of the best yoga poses for anxiety:
1. Forward Fold
- Stand tall. Feel your feet solid on the ground.
- Let your arms dangle at your sides.
- Bend your knees slightly.
- Slowly bend forward, moving your hands close to the floor.
- Go as far as you can. Stop if you feel sore. Your hands don’t have to reach the ground.
- Hang there loosely and count to 10.
- Slowly roll up to stand straight.
2. Downward-Facing Dog
- Begin by moving into forward fold.
- With your hands flat on the ground, step your right foot back and then your left foot back, so that your glutes are pointed upward.
- You can let your heels touch the floor or let them be lifted.
- Keep a slight bend in your knees.
- Feel the stretch through all the long muscles of your body.
3. Cat-Cow Stretch
- Get down on your hands and knees. Keep your back straight and flat. (This is known as tabletop posture.)
- Inhale slowly and deeply while tilting your head and hips to the sky and letting your belly dip down.
- As you exhale, slowly round your back and let your head and hips drop toward the floor, like a cat arching its back.
- Repeat as many times as you wish. Feel your whole back and torso stretch as you breathe and move.
4. Seated Spinal Twist
- Sit up straight and tall on the edge of a chair or bed.
- Place both hands on the outside of your left leg.
- Inhale deeply and feel your belly expand.
- Exhale slowly as you twist gently to the left, as far as you can go. Pause and feel the stretch.
- Inhale back to center.
- Do the same thing on your right side.
5. Warrior 1 Pose
- Stand with your feet hip width apart.
- Step your right foot back and bend your front knee (but don’t let your knee extend out past your ankle).
- Raise your arms straight up over your shoulders.
- Hold for as long as you can.
- Lower your arms and step your feet together again.
- Repeat. This time, step your left foot back.
6. Warrior 2 Pose
- Stand with your feet hip width apart.
- Step your left foot back and bend your front knee (but don’t let your knee extend out past your ankle).
- Turn your left toes out slightly.
- Raise your arms to shoulder height.
- Reach your right arm in front of you and your left arm behind you.
- Hold as long as you can.
- Lower your arms and step your feet together again.
- Repeat. This time, step your right foot back and reach your left arm in front, right arm behind.
7. Hero Pose
- Start on your knees.
- Kneel with your knees on the floor and together.
- Sit your butt down on your feet.
- Slide your feet apart to hip width.
- Breathe in and exhale out as you lower your butt to the floor.
- Roll your shoulders back and straighten your back.
- Hold for 1 minute.
- Release by leaning forward on your hands and lifting your butt up.
8. Tree Pose
- Stand up on both legs.
- Bend one leg at the knee and fold into the inner thigh of your other leg.
- Lift your arms up above your head, slightly bent at the elbow.
- Hold hands together, palm on palm.
- Breathe in, hold, and exhale.
9. Child’s Pose
- Sit on your knees.
- Kneel forward keeping your legs together and butt on your feet.
- Lean your upper body forward as much as you can towards the floor.
- Reach your arms up so your arms are touching the floor ahead of you.
- Reach your fingertips as much as you can.
- Inhale and exhale slowly, repeat 10 times.
10. Fish Pose
- Lay flat on your back.
- Bring your arms to your side.
- Raise your upper body off the floor and keep your lower body down.
- Place weight on your arms and hips.
- Breathe in, hold, and let out.
- Repeat 5 times.
Yoga Sequences for Anxiety
Yoga is a great practice to help you manage your anxiety. Yoga uses a lot of breath work, which improves anxiety symptoms and helps you regulate your breathing and reduce the physiological effects of anxiety.
Here are some at-home videos to consider trying:
7 Yoga Tips for Beginners
When you’re new to yoga, the practice can seem difficult physically and mentally. The postures can feel uncomfortable, and it’s easy to be self-critical. Sometimes, too, anxiety makes us feel restless and agitated, so slowing down for a yoga practice can be challenging. Knowing that yoga takes patience, persistence, and time, can help you stick with it.
If you’re just getting started with yoga, here are some other tips that may help improve your yoga for anxiety practice:1,17,18
1. Invest in a Yoga mat
A mat provides a clean, stable, non-slippery surface for poses. You don’t have to spend a lot of money—they start around 20 dollars on Amazon, and you can often find them in local thrift stores.
2. Make Yoga a Regular Habit
Yoga is designed to be an ongoing, continual practice, and the more you do it, the more effective it is in reducing anxiety.
3. Develop a Routine
Practicing yoga for a short time every day, perhaps first thing in the morning, at a dedicated break time in the afternoon, or right before bed, might be more helpful than doing a single long session once a week.
4. Allow an Instructor to Guide you
This can either be in an in-person class in your community or via yoga videos online, in apps, or on DVD. A yoga teacher can help you position your body properly, make suggestions, prompt breathing, remind you to focus on the sensation of the postures, and help you pace your poses.
5. Listen to Your Body & Know Your Limits
It’s always okay in yoga to modify poses (a competent teacher will emphasize this and help you make adjustments to suit your body).
6. Focus on Yourself
Yoga is a highly personal experience, designed to unite your own mind, body, and spirit. Further, everyone’s body is different, and we all have different levels of flexibility. Resist the temptation to compare yourself to others, as this isn’t good for your mind or body (or anxiety levels).
7. Set an Intention Before Each Yoga Session
Reminding yourself of your purpose for practicing can give you a motivating concept to hold onto during the practice. This can help focus your attention, and it can encourage you to keep going. Examples of intentions include statements like, “I’m building physical flexibility so I can have mental flexibility in my life,” or “I will catch anxious thoughts and simply return my attention to my breath and my practice.”
Many yoga sessions end with a savasana, a resting pose. This usually involves lying on your back, closing your eyes, and focusing your attention on your body and breath. This brief meditation helps you learn to concentrate your attention and shift your focus away from anxious thoughts and emotions. This can feel agitating when you’re new to the practice; also, it can be tempting to skip it because you’re too busy to “do nothing.” This mediation is an important concept of yoga practice, and it contributes to the union of mind and body and the calming of anxiety.
Is Yoga Effective for Anxiety?
Medical and mental health experts are increasingly recommending yoga for people who experience anxiety. The Mayo Clinic recommends yoga for almost anyone seeking relief from life’s stress and anxiety.1 A Harvard Mental Health Letter from Harvard Medical School highlights yoga’s benefits for people experiencing anxiety and stress.8 The National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) acknowledges yoga as a practice with potential for improving both physical and mental health, including stress- and anxiety reduction.19
Yoga is also an integral part of a widely accepted program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Established in the 1970s by mindfulness leader Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR is a formal, research-based program offered in group settings like clinics, hospitals, and schools that teaches people how to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, or chronic pain through mindfulness meditation and yoga.20
Scientific studies examining the effectiveness of yoga for anxiety show encouraging results. In addition to the studies discussed above:
- A randomized controlled trial published in 2007 studied 131 people in Australia who reported experiencing mild- to moderate stress levels. Participants were randomly assigned to either a group that practiced hatha yoga or learned general relaxation techniques in 10 weekly one-hour sessions. Yoga improves one’s mental health, and was found to be as effective as relaxation techniques for reducing anxiety and more effective than relaxation techniques for reports of overall mental health.21
- In 2018, researchers reviewed eight randomized controlled trials and discovered that yoga offers short-term benefits for reducing anxiety (benefits are felt while people are engaged in a regular yoga practice but appear to diminish when people no longer actively do yoga). While the examined studies indicate that yoga is indeed effective in reducing feelings of anxiety, it does not appear to be as effective in reducing diagnosable anxiety disorders, which are more severe. Researchers concluded that more research into yoga’s effectiveness for anxiety is needed and is indeed warranted due to the potential demonstrated in the studies they scrutinized.22
- A recent study, reported in August, 2020, showed that kundalini yoga was much more effective than education or stress management techniques in reducing the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In this three-month study of 226 men and women with GAD, yoga was not found to be as effective in reducing GAD symptoms as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).23
Limitations of Yoga for Reducing Anxiety Symptoms
Yoga seems to be a legitimate and effective approach to easing symptoms of anxiety. This claim is supported by research; however, there are some important limitations to keep in mind. Not all studies are equal in quality. Some have had flaws such as poor design or small numbers.6
Further, while yoga can reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress, it is not considered to be a stand-alone treatment, and it may not be effective for helping severe anxiety such as anxiety disorders.19 People experiencing extreme stress and anxiety may want to consider seeking help from a mental health professional or their primary doctor.
When to Seek Help for Anxiety
If your anxiety is disrupting your life, causing you to miss work or social activities and creating strong, unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and physical symptoms, seeking professional anxiety treatment may be in order. Left unchecked, anxiety may increase and become an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fear and worry that last for months and interfere in someone’s daily life by limiting activities and leading to avoidance of situations or people.23
While each anxiety disorder has its own set of symptoms, common anxiety symptoms to watch for that may indicate that its time to seek help may include:24
- Excessive worry about many different things, including your own health and safety or that of a loved one, work, performance, or finances
- Recurrent panic attacks or anxiety attacks
- Sense of impending doom
- Avoidance of people, places, or situations; the avoidance causes problems in one or more areas of life, such as work or relationships
- Racing or recurrent thoughts about the source of your anxiety
- Irritability or anger
- Becoming easily upset, sad, or overwhelmed
- Fatigue (feeling tired but wired)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep disturbances
- Recurrent physical symptoms, including but not limited to headaches, digestive problems, chest pain, heart palpitations, muscle tension, sweating, shaking