By Andrea Rice for Psych Central.
Many people turn to yoga for stress and anxiety relief. Learn how yoga for anxiety works, plus some basic poses to get started.
Many people living with anxiety use a combination of methods to manage their symptoms, including therapy, lifestyle changes, and often, alternative treatments like yoga.
Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million (18.1%) U.S. adults over age 18 each year. Anxiety is treatable, but only around 40% of people are receiving treatment.
Over the years, research studies have shown that yoga can help relieve stress and anxiety. It works by soothing an overactive nervous system, relaxing both the mind and body.
How does Yoga Help with Anxiety?
The 2021 State of Mental Health in America Report shows that the number of people seeking help for their anxiety disorders has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, so right now, the need for effective anxiety management is especially high.
Yoga is an accessible, adaptable practice you can do from the comfort of your own home. The practice can be modified to accommodate bodies of all types, abilities, and backgrounds.
If you live with chronic anxiety, your nervous system — specifically your sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight, flight, or freeze system — is operating in overdrive. This means your body has a heightened reaction to perceived threat, leading to anxiety responses such as agitation, stress, and heart palpitations.
As a consequence, you also have an underactive parasympathetic nervous system, or your rest-and-digest system. This system regulates your physiological functions, like heart rate and digestion.
According to research, stimulating the vagus nerve — a key part of the rest-and-digest system — is key to modulating the fight, flight, or freeze stress response.
One way to stimulate the vagus nerve is through practicing yoga.
Yoga Poses Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
“The parasympathetic nervous system helps us to feel safe and calm, and various aspects of yoga help to stimulate it,” says Valerie Knopik, PhD, a psychologist, professor at Purdue University, and yoga instructor at Yoga Medicine based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Yoga stimulates the vagus nerve by enhancing interoception, or how we perceive sensations arising in the body.
“Practices that increase interoception enable a person to distinguish between safe and fearful or dangerous situations,” Knopik says.
Yoga also increases vagal tone, which means your body is able to relax sooner after stress. Knopik says that increasing your vagal tone could reduce the symptoms of nervous system dysfunction, such as feelings of anxiety.
Yoga offers many opportunities to experience interoception and stimulate the vagus nerve. Through physical movement, you can explore sensation as it arises in your body by developing awareness of what muscles are being challenged, stretched, or released.
Pranayama Breath Work Connects the Mind & Body
Yoga, which means union, connects the mind and body through the breath. Pranayama, a Sanskrit term that describes how the breath is regulated during yoga, is a powerful tool for calming the sympathetic nervous system.
As Knopik explains, pranayama is a voluntary breathing practice that sends messages to the brain via the respiratory system.
“Certain breath practices can help with feelings of relaxation and calm, such as the long exhale or diaphragmatic breathing, primarily through stimulation of the vagus nerve and the vagus nerve’s connection to heart rate variability,” Knopik says.
But not all forms of pranayama may be appropriate for anxiety.
“Some breath practices are meant to be invigorating and more stimulating, such as Kapalabhati (‘Breath of Fire’), which can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and not the parasympathetic nervous system,” she says.
Depending on the severity of your anxiety symptoms, pranayama that encourages deeper, steadier breathing patterns, such as Ujjayi breath, may be more suitable.
Meditation Promotes Relaxation
“Meditation is perhaps the most interoceptive practice of all and encourages us to watch our thoughts,” Knopik says. “Practicing meditation can help with self-regulation and mindfulness, which helps to keep us in our bodies and out of our thoughts.”
Yoga poses (asanas) are a vehicle for exploration of the present moment. Observing your thoughts that arise during mindful movement is a practice of building awareness. This can promote relaxation.
A 2012 research review suggests that meditative therapies (i.e., meditation, yoga, qigong, etc.) are effective tools for alleviating anxiety symptoms.
Yoga Poses for Anxiety
The best yoga poses for anxiety relief are the ones that feel good for your body and help you get grounded and find a sense of calm.
On some days, slower practices like Hatha, or gentle practices like restorative or Yin yoga, might be exactly what you need to clear your mind. Practices like these can stimulate the body’s relaxation response.
On other days, faster-paced classes, such as Vinyasa, could be just as effective. Movement can help release stress and anxiety.
High anxiety levels can mean that you’re not always able to begin a yoga practice with relaxation techniques.
“When there is high sympathetic nervous system activity, the mind is likely racing, which would make still postures (seated or otherwise) distressful,” Knopik says.
In Knopik’s experience, those who benefit from faster-paced styles of yoga tend to have developed the necessary breathwork, self-regulation, and interoception skills to remain calm and centered throughout the practice.
Without these skills, faster-paced yoga classes could be overstimulating for some people with anxiety.
“Still postures or practices need to come after some aspect of movement where nervous or anxious energy is released and individuals feel calmer,” Knopik says.
More experienced practitioners may find that standing and balancing postures can help with feeling grounded and present, but can be more helpful following movement.
Yoga Sequence for Anxiety
The following yoga sequence offers suggestions for gentle movement to promote relaxation and stress relief.
A few poses focus on releasing tension in the neck and shoulders. Others help release the psoas muscle, a hip flexor that connects to the diaphragm. It can constrict and shorten the breath when tight, which may contribute to feelings of anxiety.
If you require more movement from your yoga practice, try Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar A). Sun Salutations synchronize breath and movement to flow from one pose to the next. They’re often practiced in Vinyasa yoga classes.
You might consider adding Sun Salutations to the following yoga for anxiety routine.
Seated Neck Stretch
To perform Seated Neck Stretch:
- Begin in Easy Pose (Sukhasana), also known as a comfortable cross-legged seat.
- Inhale and reach your right arm overhead.
- Exhale to place your right palm over your left ear as you gently draw your head to the right and chin toward your chest.
- Hold for 3–5 cycles of breath and release. Switch sides.
- Optional: Place a blanket under your bottom for support, or perform this stretch seated in a chair.
To perform Cat Pose (Marjaryasana):
- Cat and Cow Pose are performed together.
- Come to a tabletop position on your hands and knees.
- Inhale and press into your palms, round your spine like a cat, and drop your chin, crown, and tailbone.
- Move into Cow Pose (see below) on the exhale.
To perform Cow Pose (Bitilasana):
- From Cat Pose, exhale and drop your belly, broaden through your chest, and extend the crown of your head and tailbone upward.
- Rotate your inner elbows forward and avoid collapsing your shoulders.
- Inhale back to Cat Pose, and exhale to Cow.
- Repeat the movement pattern for 5–7 cycles of breath, synchronizing each move with your breath.
Extended Puppy Pose
To perform Extended Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishosana):
- From a tabletop position, shift your hands a little forward and knees back.
- Press into your palms as you reach your bottom back.
- Allow your forehead to touch your mat, and try to relax your neck and shoulders.
- Breathe deeply in and out through your nose for 5–7 cycles of breath.
- Optional: Place a blanket beneath your knees and shins for additional support. Or, depending on the level of your experience, you can tuck your toes under and reach your bottom up and back to come to Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana).
To perform Half Splits (Ardha Hanumanasana):
- From a tabletop position, step your right foot forward into a lunge position, and tuck your left toes under. Your fingertips should be about shoulder-width distance apart, framing your front foot.
- Slide your right foot forward until your leg is mostly straight.
- Dig into your heel to flex your toes upward as you shift your hips slightly back to stretch your right hamstring muscle.
- Hold for 3–5 deep breaths, then return to tabletop position. Switch sides.
- Optional: Place your hands on yoga blocks and keep a micro-bend in your front knee. You can also soften your chin toward your chest and allow your torso to fold toward your front knee.
Seated Forward Bend
To perform Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana):
- From tabletop position, shift your bottom back toward your heels, and extend your legs out long in front of you.
- Remove extra flesh from your sitting bones so you can feel them anchoring into your mat.
- Sit up tall, flex your feet, and inhale to reach your arms overhead.
- Exhale to hinge at your hips as you begin to fold your torso toward your thighs.
- Your hands can be placed on the outsides of your thighs, calves, ankles, or feet, depending on your range of motion.
- Drop your chin to your chest to release the back of your neck.
- Breathe deeply, softening with each exhale, remaining here for 5–7 cycles of breath.
- Optional: Place a rolled up blanket underneath the backs of your knees for support, especially if your hamstrings are tight.
To perform Constructive Rest (Savasana Variation Bent Legs):
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor, and arms by your sides with your palms face up.
- Adjust the placement of your feet and arms until you feel comfortable and supported.
- Find a neutral spine by allowing for a slight curvature at the back of your neck (cervical spine) and your lower back (lumbar spine).
- Allow for space between your chin and chest, and send your arms out a little wider.
- Breathe deeply. This is an excellent pose for releasing your psoas muscle and resetting your nervous system. You can remain here for a few minutes or longer.
- Optional: Widen your feet to the outside edges of your mat, and let your knees knock in toward each other.
Supine Spinal Twist
To perform Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana):
- From Constructive Rest, widen your feet to the outside edges of your mat (if they’re not already there).
- Take a deep breath in, then exhale to let both knees fall over to the right, keeping your legs staggered.
- Gently turn your chin to the left to deepen the twist.
- Breathe deeply into your belly, lengthening the exhales.
- After 5–7 cycles of breath, inhale to bring your knees and chin back to their starting position, adjusting your hips if needed.
- Exhale to drop your knees to the left, and turn your chin to the right.
- Optional: Stack or wrap the legs.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
To perform Corpse Pose (Savasana):
- From Constructive Rest, extend your legs out long and adjust the position of your arms until you’re comfortable.
- Consider supporting this final resting pose with yoga props to help you feel grounded and safe. For example, you can place a folded blanket over your abdomen and another behind your head.
- If your mind is still racing, keep your Savasana on the shorter side (1–2 minutes). If it’s uncomfortable to close your eyes, keep them open and find something overhead to affix your gaze, and focus on your breathing.
- Optional: Listen to a guided meditation or ambient music.
Is Yoga More Effective Than Clinical Treatment?
While many people practice yoga to relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety disorders, it should not always serve as a replacement for clinical treatment, especially when a person is experiencing panic attacks or has a severe anxiety disorder diagnosis.
While proponents may claim the “yoga high” experienced during a yoga practice can offer relief from stress and anxiety, it’s important to keep in mind that this emotional state is often fleeting.
In fact, a 2021 study suggests that in some cases, mindfulness practices can backfire and actually cause anxiety to spike.
While yoga can be a healthy coping mechanism, relying on it to resolve a psychological condition is not an effective long-term solution on its own.
“Anything can become unhealthy when done to extremes,” Knopik says. “Our bodies thrive with variability, both from a physiological perspective and an emotional perspective. Finding multiple ways to relieve anxiety would be most beneficial to most individuals. From a stress management perspective, the more resources we have available, the better.”
How to Get Started
A 2018 research review supports the practice of yoga for relief from symptoms associated with anxiety disorders, but more clinical studies are still needed before yoga should be used as a first-line approach to treatment.
Talk with your doctor or mental health professional to find out whether yoga is right for you. When practiced in conjunction with psychotherapy, medication, or both, yoga may be a wonderful complement to your treatment.
Yoga can enhance self-efficacy, which can be a valuable tool for calming minds and bodies to manage anxiety.
If you’re ready to begin your yoga journey and explore the power of the present moment, the safest and most effective way to learn is in person with a certified yoga instructor.
If you don’t have access to a yoga studio, most studios now stream classes online. Of course, countless instructional videos are available on YouTube at no cost. For example, this 20-minute yoga practice for anxiety from Yoga with Adriene is a great place to get started.