Author: Shoshana Belisle, MSW, MA, RYT Integrative Wellness Advisor and Director of Wellness Research
As we carry on through the collective pandemic crisis, stress and anxiety have become a staple of daily life. In addition to the direct health risks involved with contracting coronavirus, many of us are worried about jobs, finances, relationships, homeschooling, child care, vulnerable loved ones, and the future overall. Recognizing the strains being placed upon people across the nation, the American Psychiatric Association recently reported that 36% of Americans feel that the pandemic is having a serious impact on their mental health. Even before the pandemic, approximately a third of our adult US population suffered from an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Now, it is likely that even more of us are suffering from worry, hyperarousal, and tension associated with anxiety, which can dramatically impact quality of life, productivity, happiness, health and wellbeing.
Now, more than ever, it is essential that we build a toolbox of strategies to help manage the stressors of our “new normal” daily lives and summon resilience in the face of pervasive uncertainty. While some people may require professional mental health support, others may find that lifestyle interventions and mind-body modalities such as yoga and mindfulness meditation can bring much-needed relief. In fact, a significant body of research now supports the use of these modalities to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression.
Yoga as a Mind-Body Tool for Stress Reduction
Yoga is a holistic practice with roots in ancient India that has grown dramatically in popularity over the past several years. While many people experiment with a yoga practice for its fitness benefits, many long-term practitioners sustain the practice for stress management and improved mental health. A number of clinical trials have even revealed that yoga is a powerful intervention that can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety.
In its most popular form, yoga combines deliberate physical movements (“asana”) with breathing exercises (“pranayama”) and meditation practice (“dhyana”) to bring calm and ease to the body-mind. One underappreciated fact about this multidimensional practice is that the ultimate aims of yoga are mental and spiritual, not just physical. Truly, the goal of the practice is to quiet the busy mind so that we can experience calm and achieve a state of whole person wellbeing. This calming of the mind - through movement, breath, and meditation - is likely what makes the practice so effective for improving mental health as well.
Here are four evidence-based reasons why this particular modality could be a source of much-needed relief, especially now:
1) Yoga can quiet your worried mind
While stuck at home, estranged from our normal routines or facing new and sometimes severe stressors, many of us may find ourselves stuck in unproductive cycles of rumination, worrying about what the future might hold. While our minds are designed to plan, organize and make sense of our circumstances, living in a state of uncertainty for prolonged periods is taxing if we don’t have tools to manage our thoughts. Rumination is a symptom of both anxiety and depression and can either lead to impulsivity or amotivation - both of which can negatively impact our health. However, mindfulness activities interrupt ruminative cycles, and thus prevent us from sliding into negative patterns of thoughts and behavior.
The physical practice of yoga involves moving carefully and mindfully through a sequence of physical postures (“asanas”) that are usually aligned with breathing. Through an orchestrated flow, the experience of moving with breath becomes the focus of a dynamic meditation practice. Mindful attention to sensation, breath, and movement helps us to “arrive” into the present moment with non-judgemental awareness, and this present-moment focus interrupts habits of rumination that accompany anxiety and depression. Rather than being stuck in worry, the activities of yoga harness our attention and connect it to an experience of embodiment, whereby we feel the sensations of our bodies as we move and breathe.
The stress reduction benefits of meditation are well-established, but for many who are anxious, sitting still is far too challenging. When sitting feels unavailable, the movement of yoga allows energy to flow through our bodies so that it can be channeled, settled and/or released. Instead of fighting the nervous energy of the body, we channel it into mindful movement and this enables us to anchor our attention onto the movement and sensation and calm the busy mind. Ultimately, yoga becomes a moving mindfulness practice with mental health benefits that are similar to those of a seated mindfulness meditation practice. In fact, some have claimed that mindfulness might be the “active ingredient” responsible for yoga’s calming effects.
2) The breathing practices will shut off the anxious “fight or flight” response
One of the most important aspects of yoga practice is its focus on slow, deep breathing. When we are anxious or stressed, our breathing typically becomes shallow and choppy. This disturbed breathing is associated with the “flight or fight” response, in which the sympathetic nervous system has dominance so that it can respond to imminent danger. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, and stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream. While this response is critical to our ability to fight immediate danger, when extended, it leads to physiological depletion, chronic stress response and associated deleterious effects on health. Given that our current pandemic disruption could last longer than originally imagined, it is unhealthy for us to remain in a state of sympathetic overactivity. Breathwork can be a tool to shift us back into a more sustainable and balanced state of nervous system arousal.
Consciously deepening the breath, through pranayama, reactivates the parasympathetic nervous system and quiets the fight or flight response. This state has been described as “calm alertness” - a pleasant and satisfying state in which the mind and body are both relaxed yet alert. Research has shown that brief yoga interventions involving pranayama significantly reduce markers of stress and inflammation and help increased levels of pain-reducing and mood-boosting endorphins.
3) Yoga teaches us to extend kindness to ourselves and others when under stress
During this difficult time, when our normal routines are so disrupted and when stress levels are high, it is easy to become frustrated and to engage in self-judgement, especially if we are not responding as artfully and wisely as we might wish to the challenges at hand. Our self-care routines might be suffering, our relationships may be strained, and we might be facing challenges that we never could have imagined. However, the added layer of self-judgment only serves to create more suffering. One might even argue that this type of judgment is an act of violence toward oneself.
One way that yoga reduces stress is by helping to cultivate self-compassion. In fact, research supports the notion that the cultivation of self-compassion during mind-body practices like yoga and mindfulness is what predicts reductions in stress levels. Among the ethical teachings of yoga, the concept of non-violence (“ahimsa”) is paramount. This involves not just refraining from injury but also intentionally developing an attitude of kindness. Many people find that it is possible to explore this teaching on the yoga mat by paying very careful attention to how we respond to physical postures. By tuning in and noticing our responses (i.e. changes in breath rate, sensations, moods) during the postures and the movements, we learn to notice and honor our physical limits. Other forms of exercise often invite us to push past our limits; yoga invites us instead to acknowledge and respect our limits and to play with the “edges” of our current capacities. This practice empowers us to adapt a posture to ensure that we remain safe and supported, even if it means doing it differently from our neighbor or teacher. We learn to move through postures in a way that is healing and not harmful.
Building upon this compassionate stance towards our physical abilities, we can extend this attitude to remain non-judgemental toward our thoughts and emotions as well. Finally, it becomes natural and reasonable to extend this compassion toward others once we step off of the mat and into daily life.
4) While practicing social distancing, online yoga offers much-needed community
As social creatures, physical distancing is experienced as fundamentally threatening to our essential human needs. Health experts acknowledge that there are serious mental health consequences to social isolation amidst a pandemic, and virtual social connection is recommended as a coping strategy. When we practice yoga in community, even if that community exists in an online space, we can benefit from much-needed social support. Being part of a community of like-minded people who share similar values and interests is critical to our long-term health. While online channels may not feel ideal, during this time of social distancing, they can be a lifeline both for social connection and for access to wellness services that may help keep us accountable and inspired.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety during this understandably difficult time, it is worth exploring yoga for stress reduction. Yes, engaging in a full practice might feel intimidating and difficult when under so much collective stress and grief. If so, simply showing up and doing what you can do without pressure or self-judgement is cause for celebration. This might even mean resting in savasana (corpse pose) during an entire class. While you might not achieve tremendous fitness this way, that is not the point. The point is simply to feel calmer, more grounded and embodied, connected, and more balanced overall. It might provide just enough ease to help you move about your day with a little more comfort and perhaps even a bit of joy.