Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/10/2022
There’s no doubt that yoga is incredibly popular. It’s offered everywhere from boutique fitness studios to online streaming platforms that help you get your om on, and everyone from celebrities to social media influencers espouse how good practicing yoga makes them feel.
But it turns out yoga may not just be a great way to break a sweat and stay limber. Many believe this ancient practice can also be good for reducing stress and treating anxiety disorders.
Everyone gets a little nervous or stressed sometimes. But if your anxiety goes beyond those occasional nerves, it could be an anxiety disorder. Many people in the United States deal with an anxiety disorder. In fact, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has reported that more than 40 million American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder.
The most common anxiety disorder? Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). People may be diagnosed with GAD when they struggle with anxiety more often than not for six or more months. Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include (but are not limited to) a rapid heart rate, tiredness, irritability, sleeping problems, stomach issues and more.
But GAD isn’t the only anxiety disorder — there are four others:
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): Washing your hands repeatedly or checking to make sure the door is locked over and over are just some examples of the recurrent thoughts and compulsive behaviors associated with this disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Whether it’s being assaulted, living through a natural disaster or something else, someone who lives through a traumatic event may develop PTSD.
Panic disorder: Panic attacks that come on suddenly are a signature of this disorder. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, feelings of dread and heart palpitations.
Social anxiety disorder: Also referred to as social phobia, the main marker of this disorder is getting overwhelmed in social situations. You may be generally uneasy in social situations or your anxiety may be specific to things like public speaking.
If you’re dealing with one of the above, a healthcare professional can talk to you about the best approaches to treating anxiety disorders.
Before diving into the effect that yoga has on anxiety, you should understand a little more about yoga. It’s an ancient Eastern practice that incorporates physical moves with breathing techniques and meditative elements. There are different types of yoga, which involve different intensities and moves.
A meta-analysis of 17 different studies that involved a total of 501 people found that Hatha yoga (a popular form of yoga in the U.S.) could be effective in helping people with their anxiety.
On the flip side, in a systematic review of eight studies that looked at yoga and anxiety, it was concluded that it is not possible to conclude whether or not yoga is effective in treating anxiety disorders. This research is important, but we’ll caution that it’s from 2004 and newer research like the meta-analysis above shows more positive effects of yoga for anxiety disorders.
So, what does this mean? Overall, it’s thought that yoga is a great supplemental practice for addressing anxiety — in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy, medication like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (such as citalopram) or both of these things.
In addition to potentially helping with anxiety, some studies have found that yoga may also have some positive effects on depression — specifically, it can help with symptoms of depressive disorders, like major depressive disorder.
It’s not totally clear how often or how long you need to do yoga to get the benefits, but more frequent sessions are connected to lower anxiety. In most of the studies mentioned above, people did yoga for between three and 24 weeks, from daily to once a week. On average, each yoga session lasted between 40 and 100 minutes.
There are no specific yoga poses that have been found to alleviate anxiety more than others. If you are curious about exploring yoga for the treatment of anxiety disorders, a great way to start is to familiarize yourself with some of the more popular poses and start incorporating them into your flow.
One thing to note before you start exploring the effectiveness of yoga on your anxiety: if you have a medical condition or injury, you should always check in with a healthcare professional before starting any new body practice or aerobic exercise. We want you to be anxiety-free and injury-free.
Popular poses that yoga teachers often use include:
The cobra position: Also known as bhujangasana, this pose is said to strengthen the health of the entire body and invigorate your nervous system. To do it, you lie on your stomach on a mat with your hands at your side. Bend your elbows and place your palms face down near your chest. While inhaling, raise your head and neck so you are looking at the ceiling.
Yastikasana: Thought to help de-stress, this pose involves laying on your back on a mat. Inhale for three seconds and stretch so that your toes are pointed and your arms are stretched back over your head and your fingers are pointed. Stay in this stretched position for six seconds. Return to your starting position and exhale for three seconds.
Balasana: Stretch your hips and ankles while also lowering stress. Begin by sitting on your knees with your butt on your heels. Place your hands palm-side down on your thighs. While exhaling, bring your chest down between your knees and stretch your hands out on the floor. Take deep breaths and hold the position for two to three minutes. This is also known as child’s pose.
These are just examples of some of the poses you can do to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Yoga teachers will be able to offer you many more and ensure that you are doing them correctly. Some yoga teachers may also be able to recommend poses to help with feelings of anxiety and explain the positive effects of yoga even further.
Whether you suffer from panic attacks or have another type of anxiety disorder — or you just deal with occasional life stressors — adding a regular yoga session to your schedule could help with the symptoms of anxiety.
Various studies show that yoga can be a good addition to therapy or medication to help manage symptoms of anxiety. There’s also some evidence that yoga can help with symptoms of depression and major depressive disorder.
If you’d like to try yoga to see how it affects your anxiety, you can go to an in-person class or search for online streaming options led by yoga teachers. There are even spots that offer yoga programs or retreats. The best way to find something convenient for you is to do a quick online search.
Just remember, yoga is unlikely to completely cure anxiety. So, if you are struggling, it’s best to speak with a healthcare professional about potential treatments for anxiety disorders. They’ll be able to assess symptoms of anxiety you may be experiencing and help you find anxiety treatments that might help you most. You can also talk to them about adding yoga to whatever treatment they recommend.