5 Scientifically Proven Reasons Why Yoga and Meditation are Excellent for Anxiety
Anxiety is now one of the most common pains of modern life: it increased by over 25% in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic alone, according to the World Health Organization. This psychological state can manifest as fear, worry about the future, and/or apprehension, and can be accompanied by physical symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, cognitive impairment, irritability, muscular discomfort, and sleep disturbance.
Diagnosis can be based on different criteria, and its treatments can go from pharmacotherapy to psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However, scientific studies have shown yoga and meditation practice can be safe practices for supporting anxiety treatment.
Both yoga and meditation address self-regulation, lead to improvement in metacognition and mind-body awareness or mindfulness, and can improve stress regulation and resilience. Long-term yoga practitioners have reported lower levels of anxiety than non-yoga practitioners (see here) and have also reported that yoga is very helpful for anxiety (see here).
Furthermore, a very strong majority of yoga practitioners report that yoga’s beneficial effect on stress and anxiety is a reason for continuing their practice (see here).
Finally, a review of yoga studies evaluating improvements in anxiety concluded that “yoga is a promising method for treating anxiety”. You can see the review here.
Why are yoga and meditation excellent to help deal with anxiety?
The scientific/clinical rationale for why yoga practice (which includes postures/exercises, breathing techniques, relaxation, and meditation/mindfulness) is effective for supporting anxiety treatment includes the following points:
- Improvement in self-regulation of thought processes to reduce dysfunctional anxiety-related thoughts.
- Improvement of mind-body awareness/mindfulness to increase awareness of anxiety-related physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms.
- Improvement in stress and emotion regulation and stress and emotion reactivity on the physical level.
- Experience of unitive states to improve overall life perspective and life purpose and meaning.
- Long-term yoga practitioners have reported lower levels of anxiety than non-yoga practitioners.
As a traditional yoga practice that incorporates physical postures, exercises, breathing techniques (pranayama), relaxation, and meditation, Kundalini Yoga is a practice that is recommended as a therapeutic treatment for anxiety.
Three published research studies of Kundalini Yoga have shown that this traditional multi-component yoga practice has improved anxiety in patients with generalized anxiety disorder:
Kundalini Yoga for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: An Exploration of Treatment Efficacy and Possible Mechanisms
Yoga-Enhanced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Y-CBT) for Anxiety Management: A Pilot Study
Efficacy of Yoga vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy vs Stress Education for the Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Breathing technique for anxiety
The most recent of these papers, published in the prestigious journal JAMA Psychiatry, studied a Kundalini Yoga breathing meditation (described below) as part of a daily 20-minute home practice: it found that this simple practice was an effective treatment for generalized anxiety.
Segmented Breath for Anxiety
Posture: Sit in an easy cross-legged position or in a chair with your spine straight.
Eyes: Closed and focused at a point on the forehead above the root of the nose.
Mudra: Hands can be folded in the lap or in the Gyan Mudra hand position (pad of the index finger and thumb touching) with the arms straight and the edges of the hands at the knees.
Breathing: This technique uses an unequal breathing rhythm done in segments or sniffs. All inhales and exhales are done through the nose in a 1:2 ratio (inhale duration is half as long as the exhale duration). The breath is segmented into small equal sniffs and is done by a small inhale, inhale, inhale, inhale (4 total) and a smaller exhale, exhale, exhale, exhale, exhale, exhale, exhale, exhale (8 total). Keep the breath smooth in the transition, not holding the breath in or out. Inhale and exhale in slow, even, and rhythmic segments. When the lungs are full, empty them and when the lungs are empty, fill them again. You can extend the count even more if it can be done with comfort. For example, you could inhale in 8 segments and exhale in 16 segments, thereby maintaining the 1:2 inhale: exhale ratio.
Mantra: Mentally repeat a mantra synchronized with each breath stroke. One example is to chant “Sa Ta Na Ma” on the inhale and “Sa Ta Na Ma, Sa Ta Na Ma” on the exhales. You can also use an affirmation like, “I am, I am” on the inhale and “I am, I am, I am, I am” on the exhale.
Time: 11 minutes. To end, inhale deeply, then briefly hold your breath, exhale, and relax. This segmented breath in a 1:2 ratio is said to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and help relieve anxiety.
Published in “The Art, Science & Application of Kundalini Yoga”, by Nirvair Singh Khalsa: