Stress and anxiety were once considered only to be mental health conditions. But in fact, they affect us physically, especially when we experience them for long periods of time. They can lead not only to a diminished sense of wellbeing and happiness, but also to debilitating and costly health conditions. Recent years have seen an increased interest in the behavioral health field incorporating interventions involving the mind and the body to reduce anxiety and stress. One such intervention is yoga.
A recent study examined the effectiveness of using yoga to reduce anxiety, which many people label as “stress”. The study findings suggest that yoga is more effective than educating a person on standard ways to manage stress. As a Registered Yoga Teacher (and a licensed mental health professional), I believe that the findings are likely due to yoga’s experiential nature; individuals can engage in the practice as opposed to intellectually addressing their anxiety and stress. Today I’ll bring my perspective as both a licensed mental health professional and a certified yoga instructor to discuss this mind-body pathway to greater wellbeing.
Mystery can be an appealing characteristic with some products or concepts. But it can also be a barrier to access. Let’s demystify yoga a bit. First, let me tell you a little about yoga.
Yoga originated in India roughly 5 millennia ago. So, it pre-dates modern mental health therapies by a little – about 4,900 years! In the late 1800s and early 1900s, yoga masters in India decided to share the practice with the West after recognizing the incredible physical, mental, and spiritual impact that it had on people in Asia. As the years passed, yoga continued to grow in popularity among Westerners. According to the Yoga Alliance, which is the accreditation board for yoga teachers like me, there are over 36 million yoga practitioners in the US. That’s over 10% of the population and its growing rapidly.
Remarkably, 86% of ‘yogis’ reported that yoga provided them with a strong sense of mental clarity, but interestingly the number 1 reason for starting yoga was to improve physical ability. I find this to be true with the people I teach; most come for physical reasons but keep coming due to the mental and emotional benefits.
There are a ton of misconceptions I hear from people who are considering taking up yoga or trying a yoga class. When someone says the word ‘yoga,’ many people have an image of a person sitting crossed legged with their eyes closed, saying “ohm.” Others might picture a person on their head or balancing on one leg. These are all stereotypes. With these misconceptions come excuses, something we humans excel at. “I’m not flexible enough.” “I’m too old.” “I don’t have the time.” “I don’t have a mat, clothes or space.” “I can’t meditate.” The list goes on. What I want people to realize is that yoga is something that everyone can do regardless of age, body size, ability, gender, race or religion. There are no prerequisites, and, no, you don’t need a special mat or fancy yoga clothes to reap the benefits.
Yoga for Professional Drivers
Yoga doesn’t require a specific classroom, workout area or setting. In fact, it can be practiced in a wide range of settings, making it convenient and accessible. Recently I had a great experience teaching professional truck drivers yoga. Drivers experience such a chronically stressful work life. They need accessible, practical, and fun ways to stay fit and manage stress. I taught the class inside an 18-wheeler truck’s cabin- the home away from home for millions of over-the-road professional drivers. Now, if “no nonsense” drivers can do yoga in the privacy of their truck cabins to reduce anxiety and stress and get better rest, I’m pretty certain you can drop your excuses and can find a setting for your yoga workout! To see one of my Lessons for Professional Drivers, click here Yoga Lesson for Professional Drivers
A union of body and mind to reduce anxiety and stress
So what exactly is yoga and how does it work? The word ‘yoga’ is Sanskrit (the language of ancient India and the predominant language of most works of Hindu philosophy as well as some of the principal texts of Buddhism and Jainism) and means ‘union.’ We are essentially creating a union between the body and mind.
Yoga is the discipline of strengthening the focus of the mind, which allows us to gain more control over our body and senses. Once one can obtain the concentration and control over mind and body, true meditation can be obtained. When we can regularly strengthen the control over mind and body through yoga movements and then meditation, we see incredible benefits that positively improve daily functioning. Benefits of regular practice include but are not limited to: greater flexibility and range of motion, reduced pain and soreness, reduced fatigue, increased muscle strength and tone, improved respiration and energy, weight reduction, improvement in other athletic performance, improved circulatory health, improvement of posture, boost in immunity, prevents digestive problems, and reduces blood pressure. The practice improves sleep, mood, and mental focus, and increases self-esteem. One will notice they are less reactive because they are living in a more mindful way. If that’s not enough to get you on a mat I don’t know what will!
Breathing and mindful movement
The key to what makes yoga effective in reducing anxiety is the connection that is made between breathing and mindful movement. The quickest way to reduce anxiety in a given moment is through the use of proper breathing. Many people are either holding their breath unconsciously or taking very shallow breaths. Both are recipes for increased anxiety and even panic.
Aside from encouraging proper breathing, yoga is a way to bring awareness to the signals in our body that we might otherwise be ignoring on a day-to-day basis due to the business of life. When we combine movement and breathing, the central nervous system calms down and our stress level drops. For those people with diagnosed anxiety conditions, yoga may be combined with talk therapy so individuals can experience the benefits of both recognizing and changing thought patterns that contribute to the cycle of anxiety, while also making physical changes that further support those mental changes.
I hope you will explore yoga further, personally or for your workplace. Get your yoga on and start benefiting mentally and physically.
Visit these Resources to Learn More About Yoga or How to Find a Teacher or Class Near You.
Yoga Can Help with Anxiety more than Stress Education, Study Finds
Elizabeth Millard and Sean Blackburn
About the Author
Leanne Shub, LMSW, RYT-200, is a Customer Care Specialist at Espyr. A graduate of Indiana University’s Graduate School of Social Work, Leanne has a background in working with individuals dealing with substance abuse, trauma, and eating disorders. Her clinical interest is in combining Mind-Body interventions to help people cope and manage stress and anxiety.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized coaching solutions help employers reduce healthcare costs by identifying and addressing employee mental health issues before they require more expensive, long term care. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.