Meditation and other stress reduction techniques have been studied since the 1970s, as possible treatments for anxiety and depression. One of these practices, yoga, has received less attention in the medical literature, although it has become increasingly popular in recent decades. A national survey estimated, for example, that about 7.5% of American adults had tried yoga at least once, and in the previous year, almost 4% had practiced yoga.
Yoga classes can range from gentle and accommodating to intense and stimulating; the choice of style tends to be based on physical abilities and personal preferences. Hatha yoga, the most common type of yoga practiced in the United States, combines three elements: controlled breathing performed in conjunction with asanas; physical poses, called asanas; and a short period of deep relaxation or meditation.
Natural anxiety relief
The available reviews of a wide range of yoga practices suggest that they may be helpful for both anxiety and depression and may reduce the impact of exaggerated stress reactions. Yoga works like other self-soothing techniques, such as exercise, meditation, socializing with friends, or even relaxation.
By reducing perceived anxiety and stress, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems. This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal – for example, by reducing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and making breathing easier. Heart rate variability is also increased by yoga practices, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly.
A small but intriguing study at the University of Utah provided insight into the effect of yoga on the stress response by examining participants’ responses to pain. Researchers have noted that people who have a poorly regulated stress response are also more sensitive to pain. Their subjects were 12 experienced yoga practitioners, 16 healthy volunteers and 14 people with fibromyalgia.
When all three groups were subjected to varying degrees of painful pressure on the thumbnails, participants with fibromyalgia – as expected – experienced pain at lower pressure levels compared to the other subjects. Functional MRI scans have shown that they also have the greatest activity in areas of the brain associated with the pain response. In contrast, during MRI scans, yoga practitioners had the highest pain tolerance and the lowest pain-related brain activity.
Benefits of yoga
While many forms of yoga practice are safe, some are tiring and may not be suitable for everyone. In particular, elderly patients or those with mobility issues may want to consult a clinician first before choosing yoga as a treatment option.
But for many patients with depression, anxiety, or stress, yoga can be a very attractive way to better manage symptoms. Indeed, the scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are essentially equivalent, but are not only closely related. It is increasingly clear that the practice of yoga is a relatively low risk, high return approach to improving overall health.