Is yoga effective in treating anxiety? Yes, it absolutely can be.
I have been practicing yoga for 20 years (and became a certified yoga teacher 7 years ago), and have learned this lesson the hard way. In my personal practice, I've always gravitated towards fast moving vinyasa flow classes, and loved moving quickly from pose to pose. I noticed that certain poses I could naturally do pretty easily if they were purely flexibility or strength based, but other poses that are a combination of strength and balance, like headstand and crow, were much harder for me, and so I avoided them.
How we do one thing is how we do everything.
One of the amazing things about yoga, is that similarly to psychotherapy, it can be viewed as a microcosm for one's macro world. People tend to approach their practice in the same way that they approach other areas of their life. For this reason, it can be a very useful life lesson in learning how to strengthen the aspects of ourselves that we struggle with.
I started attending some new yoga classes this year that did not include music or any other distractions besides the teachers voice and focused not on how quickly I could get into a complicated pose (ego), but on being mindful, and how to become more present in the moment. It wasn't until I figured out that it was my own racing thoughts about what was coming next that was actually my biggest obstacle in being present in the moment. Once I figured this out, magically I was able to do crow and headstand for the first time in 20 years.
Staying in the pose vs. falling down.
I like to view being able to "stay in the pose" vs. "falling down" as a metaphor for life. Meaning, when we are able to stay mindful and present centered, we feel better and experience less anxiety, and when we focus on anxiety producing thoughts and the future, we feel worse, and "fall down". Improving one's own mindfulness, and the ability to stay present in the moment, can be extremely useful in reducing anxiety, and improving your overall emotional well being. This is primarily because you cannot be both completely focused on the present, while simultaneously focusing on anxiety producing thoughts about what is to come in the future.
I have learned this lesson the hard way in many of the poses that challenge me like headstand and crow, because if for a moment I begin to think about other anxiety producing thoughts that take me away from the present, I will begin to wobble, and may even literally fall down. What could be a more concrete lesson than falling down each time you stop focusing on the present moment?
The point is...
Yoga can be a very useful method to teach someone how to work on the areas that they could benefit from improving. This is individual for each person, but it might include: learning to breathe and focus on the breath, building self-esteem through learning the postures, mindfulness and focusing on being in the present, increasing energy (can be helpful for those with depression as well), and many other benefits as well. For more extreme anxiety, I believe that psychotherapy combined with a personal yoga practice can be enormously helpful, as more extreme anxiety would be very difficult to resolve with a yoga practice alone. For some clients, I have even incorporated certain yoga poses and breath practices into our sessions as a useful tool that they can learn to use in order to reduce their anxiety outside of therapy.
It is my belief that yoga can be a helpful (and enjoyable) way to see which areas in your life may have room for improvement; whether it's slowing down, speeding up, noticing your breath, or like me, learning not to focus on the future (the root of most anxiety), but instead to simply focus on "being present".
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