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Yoga for relaxation – stress relief and anxiety management


Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity

Is yoga right for you? It is if you want to fight stress, get fit and stay healthy.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Your mobile phone is ringing. Your boss wants to talk to you. And your partner wants to know what’s for dinner. Stress and anxiety are everywhere. If they’re getting the best of you, you might want to hit the mat and give yoga a try.

Yoga is a mind-body practice that combines physical poses, controlled breathing, and meditation or relaxation. Yoga may help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and lower your heart rate. And almost anyone can do it.

Understanding yoga

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    Yoga pose

Yoga is considered one of many types of complementary and integrative medicine approaches. Yoga brings together physical and mental disciplines that may help you achieve peacefulness of body and mind. This can help you relax and manage stress and anxiety.

Yoga has many styles, forms and intensities. Hatha yoga, in particular, may be a good choice for stress management. Hatha is one of the most common styles of yoga, and beginners may like its slower pace and easier movements. But most people can benefit from any style of yoga — it’s all about your personal preferences.

The core components of hatha yoga and most general yoga classes are:

  • Poses. Yoga poses, also called postures, are a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility. Poses range from simple to difficult. In a simple post, you might lie on the floor while completely relaxed. A difficult posture may have you stretching your physical limits.
  • Breathing. Controlling your breathing is an important part of yoga. Yoga teaches that controlling your breathing can help you control your body and quiet your mind.
  • Meditation or relaxation. In yoga, you may incorporate meditation or relaxation. Meditation may help you learn to be more mindful and aware of the present moment without judgment.

The health benefits of yoga

The potential health benefits of yoga include:

  • Stress reduction. A number of studies have shown that yoga may help reduce stress and anxiety. Yoga can enhance your mood and overall sense of well-being. Yoga might also help you manage your symptoms of depression and anxiety that are due to difficult situations.
  • Improved fitness. Practicing yoga may lead to improved balance, flexibility, range of motion and strength.
  • Management of chronic conditions. Yoga can help reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Yoga may also help manage low back pain, neck pain and menopause symptoms. Yoga might also help relieve symptoms of several chronic conditions, such as pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, arthritis and insomnia.

Yoga precautions

Yoga is generally considered safe for most healthy people when practiced under the guidance of a trained instructor. But there are some situations in which yoga might pose a risk.

See your doctor before you begin yoga if any of the following apply to you:

  • A herniated disk
  • A risk of blood clots
  • Eye conditions, including glaucoma
  • Pregnancy — although yoga is generally safe during pregnancy, certain poses should be avoided
  • Severe balance problems
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • Uncontrolled blood pressure

You may be able to practice yoga in these situations if you take precautions, such as avoiding certain poses or stretches. If you develop symptoms, such as pain, or have concerns, see your doctor to make sure you’re getting benefit and not harm from yoga.

Getting started

Although you can learn yoga from books and videos, beginners usually find it helpful to learn with an instructor. Classes also offer camaraderie and friendship, which are also important to overall well-being.

When you find a class that sounds interesting, talk with the instructor so that you know what to expect. Questions to ask include:

  • What are the instructor’s qualifications? Where did he or she train and how long has he or she been teaching?
  • Does the instructor have experience working with students with your needs or health concerns? If you have a sore knee or an aching shoulder, can the instructor help you find poses that won’t aggravate your condition?
  • How demanding is the class? Is it suitable for beginners? Will it be easy enough to follow along if it’s your first time?
  • What can you expect from the class? Is it aimed at your needs, such as stress management or relaxation, or is it geared toward people who want to reap other benefits?

Achieving the right balance

Every person has a different body with different abilities. You may need to modify yoga postures based on your individual abilities. Your instructor may be able to suggest modified poses. Choosing an instructor who is experienced and who understands your needs is important to safely and effectively practice yoga.

Regardless of which type of yoga you practice, you don’t have to do every pose. If a pose is uncomfortable or you can’t hold it as long as the instructor requests, don’t do it. Good instructors will understand and encourage you to explore — but not exceed — your personal limits.

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  1. Yoga: What you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga-what-you-need-to-know. Accessed Dec. 10, 2020.
  2. AskMayoExpert. Yoga. Mayo Clinic; 2019.
  3. Selectively and using a yoga program. American College of Sports Medicine. https://www.acsm.org/read-research/resource-library. Dec. 10, 2020.
  4. 6 things to know when selecting a complementary health practitioner. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tips/things-to-know-when-selecting-a-complementary-health-practitioner. Accessed Dec. 10, 2020.
  5. Goldman L, et al., eds. Complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine. In: Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Elsevier; 2020. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Dec. 10, 2020.
  6. Yoga for health (eBook). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health-info/yoga-for-health-ebook. Accessed Dec. 10, 2020.

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Why it’s beneficial

Many people turn to yoga when feelings of anxiety start to creep in or during times of stress. You may find that focusing on both your breath and your ability to be present in each pose can help quiet negative mental chatter and boost your overall mood.

It’s all about meeting yourself where you are. Practicing one or two postures for just a few minutes a day can have a major impact, if you’re open to the practice.

To get the most out of your session, take note of the sensations that move throughout your body as you come into each pose. Allow yourself to feel and experience whatever emotions arise.

If you feel your thoughts start to scatter, gently bring your mind back to the mat and continue your practice.

Read on to learn how to do some of our favorite anxiety-busting postures.

1. Hero pose

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Active Body. Creative Mind.

This seated posture can help you find your center. Focusing on your breath may help you find ease in the stillness of this pose.

Muscles worked:

  • erector spinae
  • quadriceps
  • knee muscles
  • ankle muscles

To do this:

  1. Get into a kneeling position. Your knees should be together, and your feet should be slightly wider than your hips.
  2. Keep the tops of your feet flat on the floor.
  3. Sit back so that your bottom reaches the floor in between your feet. If your bottom does not reach the floor, use a block or a book.
  4. Place your hands on your thighs.
  5. Sit up straight to open your chest and lengthen your spine.
  6. Hold this pose for up to 5 minutes.

2. Tree pose

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This classic standing pose may help you focus inward, quieting racing thoughts.

Muscles worked:

  • abdominals
  • psoas
  • quadriceps
  • tibialis anterior

To do this:

  1. From standing, bear your weight with your right foot and slowly lift your left foot off of the ground.
  2. Slowly turn the sole of your left foot toward the inside of your left leg.
  3. Place it on the outside of your left ankle, calf, or thigh.
  4. Avoid pressing your foot into your knee.
  5. Bring your hands into any comfortable position. This could be in prayer position in front of your heart or hanging alongside your sides.
  6. Hold this pose for up to 2 minutes.
  7. Repeat on the opposite side.

3. Triangle pose

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This energizing pose can help ease tension in your neck and back.

Muscles worked:

  • latissimus dorsi
  • internal oblique
  • gluteus maximus and medius
  • hamstrings
  • quadriceps

To do this:

  1. Come into a standing position with your feet wider than your hips.
  2. Face your left toes forward and your right toes in at a slight angle.
  3. Lift your arms to extend out from your shoulders. Your palms should face down.
  4. Extend your torso forward as you reach forward with your left hand.
  5. Hinge at your hip joint to bring your right hip back. Take your left hand to your leg, the floor, or a block.
  6. Extend your right arm up toward the ceiling.
  7. Gaze in any comfortable direction.
  8. Hold this pose for up to 1 minute.
  9. Then do the opposite side.

4. Standing Forward Bend

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This resting standing pose may help relax your mind while releasing tension in your body.

Muscles worked:

  • spinal muscles
  • piriformis
  • hamstrings
  • gastrocnemius
  • gracilis

To do this:

  1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and your hands on your hips.
  2. Exhale as you hinge at the hips to fold forward, keeping a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Drop your hands to the floor or rest them on a block.
  4. Tuck your chin into your chest.
  5. Release tension in your lower back and hips. Your head and neck should hang heavy toward the floor.
  6. Hold this pose for up to one minute.

5. Fish pose

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Active Body. Creative Mind.

This backbend can help relieve tightness in your chest and back.

Muscles worked:

  • intercostals
  • hip flexors
  • trapezius
  • abdominals

To do this:

  1. Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you.
  2. Place your hands underneath your buttocks with your palms facing down.
  3. Squeeze your elbows together and expand your chest.
  4. Then lean back onto your forearms and elbows, pressing into your arms to stay lifted in your chest.
  5. If it’s comfortable, you may let your head hang back toward the floor or rest it on a block or cushion.
  6. Hold this pose for up to one minute.

6. Extended Puppy pose

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This heart-opening pose stretches and lengthens the spine to relieve tension.

Muscles worked:

  • deltoids
  • trapezius
  • erector spinae
  • triceps

To do this:

  1. Come into a tabletop position.
  2. Extend your hands forward a few inches and sink your buttocks down toward your heels.
  3. Press into your hands and engage your arms muscles, keeping your elbows lifted.
  4. Gently rest your forehead on the floor.
  5. Allow your chest to open and soften during this pose.
  6. Hold this pose for up to two minutes.

7. Child’s pose

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This relaxing pose may help ease stress and fatigue.

Muscles worked:

  • gluteus maximus
  • rotator muscles
  • hamstrings
  • spinal extensors

To do this:

  1. From a kneeling position, sink back onto your heels.
  2. Fold forward, walking your hands out in front of you.
  3. Allow your torso to fall heavy into your thighs, and rest your forehead on the floor.
  4. Keep your arms extended forward or rest them alongside your body.
  5. Hold this pose for up to 5 minutes.

8. Head-to-Knee Forward Bend

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This pose may help soothe your nervous system.

Muscles worked:

  • groin
  • hamstrings
  • spinal extensors
  • gastrocnemius

To do this:

  1. Sit on the edge of a cushion or folded blanket with your left leg extended.
  2. Press the sole of your right foot into your left thigh.
  3. You can place a cushion or block under either knee for support.
  4. Inhale as you extend your arms overhead.
  5. Exhale as you hinge at the hips, lengthening your spine to fold forward.
  6. Rest your hands anywhere on your body or on the floor.
  7. Hold this pose for up to 5 minutes.
  8. Then repeat on the opposite side.

9. Seated Forward Bend

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This pose is thought to calm the mind while relieving anxiety. If you feel that your thoughts have been scattered throughout your practice, take this time to turn inward and come back to your intention.

Muscles worked:

  • pelvic muscles
  • erector spinae
  • gluteus maximus
  • gastrocnemius

To do this:

  1. Sit on the edge of a folded blanket or cushion with your legs straight out in front of you.
  2. You may keep a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Inhale to lift up your arms.
  4. Slowly hinge at your hips to extend forward, resting your hands anywhere on your body or the floor.
  5. Remain in this pose for up to 5 minutes.

10. Legs-Up-the-Wall pose

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This restorative pose allows for complete relaxation of your mind and body.

Muscles worked:

  • hamstrings
  • pelvic muscles
  • lower back
  • front torso
  • back of the neck

To do this:

  1. Sit with your right side against a wall.
  2. Then lie back as your swing your legs up along the wall.
  3. Your buttocks should be as close to the wall as is comfortable for you. This could be right up against the wall or a few inches away.
  4. Relax and soften in your back, chest, and neck. Allow your body to melt into the floor.
  5. Hold this pose for up to 10 minutes.

11. Reclining Bound Angle pose

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Active Body. Creative Mind.

This relaxing pose can help you let go of anxiety while promoting a sense of calmness. You can make it more of a heart opener by placing a block or cushion under your back.

Muscles worked:

  • adductors
  • groin muscles
  • pelvic muscles
  • psoas

To do this:

  1. Lie on your back and bring the soles of your feet together.
  2. Place cushions under your knees or hips for support.
  3. Place one hand on your stomach area and one hand on your heart, focusing on your breath.
  4. Stay in this pose for up to 10 minutes.

Does it really work?

Active Body. Creative Mind.

When researchers compared the results, they found that yoga significantly reduced feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Another small study from 2017 found that even a single session of hatha yoga was effective in reducing stress from an acute psychological stressor. A psychological stressor is a task or event that prompts an immediate response, like a fight-or-flight reaction.

In this study, the stressor was a math task. After completing a video-instructed yoga session, participants experienced reduced blood pressure and reported increased levels of self-confidence.

While this research is promising, larger, more in-depth studies are needed to expand upon these findings.

The bottom line

Although recent research supports yoga practice as a way to relieve anxiety, it may not be suitable for everyone.

You should always talk to your doctor before starting a new yoga or exercise program. They can help you identify any possible risks and recommend appropriate modifications.

Keep in mind that practicing yoga can sometimes bring uncomfortable feelings and emotions to the surface. Make sure you practice in a space that feels comfortable and safe. This may mean doing yoga at home or joining a class specifically tailored toward stress relief or emotional healing.

If you feel that practicing yoga is triggering your anxiety instead of alleviating it, discontinue the practice.

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