Yoga for Anxiety and Stress: The Mental Health Benefits of Gentle Practice

Therapist and yoga instructor Kristen Acciari answers common questions about yoga for anxiety and stress, and shares three yoga poses for restoring inner calm!  

Can yoga reduce anxiety?

Yes! Many studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of yoga in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. In one study, women who participated in a three-month yoga program experienced significant improvements in perceived stress, anxiety, and depression. In another study, ten weeks of yoga helped reduce stress and anxiety for participants.

How does yoga help ease anxiety?

Yoga eases symptoms of anxiety and stress through direct benefits to both the body and mind. On a physical level, yoga helps induce a relaxation response and reduce heart rate; on a psychological level, mindfulness promotes a focus on the present moment, guiding thoughts away from anxiety or worry about future events.

Physical benefits of yoga

When an individual is experiencing anxiety, the amygdala, or “alarm center” located in the brain, has gone into a state of hypervigilance or high-alert. The deep breathing practices associated with yoga speak directly to the amygdala to lower the state of arousal. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces a relaxation response. Yoga also helps to:

Psychological benefits of yoga

Stress and anxiety often include experiences of racing thoughts, overwhelming mental “checklists” and/or anticipation and worry about future events. Through mindful cuing from your instructor, yoga can help:

Which type of yoga is best for anxiety?

Classes titled “yoga for anxiety” or “yoga for stress” or restorative classes are especially recommended for reducing anxiety because they are intentionally designed to release tension, increase relaxation, and focus on the present. These classes have the specific needs of individuals experiencing these feelings in mind, and the practice is curated accordingly. For example, the class may include breathing techniques and self-compassion exercises.

If you do not have access to a class with an explicitly-stated focus on helping ease stress and anxiety, classes described as gentle, restorative, or mindful can also be a good fit. When in doubt, reach out to the yoga studio and ask! If you share what you are looking for, studio staff should be able to direct you to the class that best meets your needs.

Yoga is an extremely diverse practice; classes can vary from gentle to challenging, with intentions ranging from relaxation to strength-building. Due to the depth and diversity within yoga, it’s important to choose a class that fits your goals of reducing anxiety and stress.

What yoga poses help anxiety?

Three beginner-friendly yoga poses that help reduce anxiety include:

(1) Legs up the wall pose: This pose reverses the blood flow, increases lymphatic circulation, and nourishes the heart and mind

(2) Cat-cow pose: This pose works with the spine to calm the nervous system and induce a relaxation response.

(3) Restorative child’s pose: This pose supports the heart and opens up the back body creating a sense of comfort and release.

Where can I find yoga classes for anxiety?

Most yoga studios offer restorative yoga classes, and an increasing number of mental health centers are offering yoga for anxiety and stress as well. The immense benefits of yoga for mental and emotional wellness are well-documented, and centers that offer traditional talk therapy are starting to incorporate body-based services like yoga into their service offerings. Finding a class in a setting like this can be a great way to ensure the environment of the class is sensitive to your needs and experiences.

Happy yoga-ing!