Updated: May 19
Increasingly, stigmas about mental disorders and attitudes about chronic stress are shifting as more and more seek to practice self-care for optimum mental wellness. Yoga is a natural fit, providing a soothing effect through mind-body awareness and breathwork. Yoga acts as a nervous system hack to relieve hard-wired chronic stress responses. The effectiveness of yoga for stress management has been well documented (Sharma, 2014), backing generations of anecdotal evidence.
Perhaps you’ve heard from a friend that yoga might help with your stress. You may have already started to experience the creeping consequences of chronic uncontrolled stress.
You worry even more, because we now know that chronic stress increases your risk for heart disease (Torpy, Lynm & Glass, 2007), sleeping difficulties (Cohen, Janicki-Deverts, & Miller, 2007), digestive problems (Chang 2011), and depression (Hammen, 2005). Even if these evils could be ignored, you can’t shake the sense that stress is aging you with alarming momentum. And you’re right: studies suggest that stress can literally speed up the aging process through telomere shortening (Epel et al., 2004).
Perhaps your friend is right and it’s time to finally give yoga a try. But does it matter what kind of yoga?
As it turns out, yes. Yoga style matters. And depending on your goals, you may want to pass on Power Yoga.
The two most commercially available options in the United States to date are Hatha (Meditative) Yoga and Power Yoga. Hatha Yoga is usually gentle and mindful, and involves slower transitions between held postures with an emphasis on breathwork (pranayama) and meditation practices. Power Yoga, also called Vinyasa Yoga, may or may not be performed in a heated room. Power Yoga usually involves vigorous motion coordinated with breath, an emphasis on muscular strength and endurance in held postures, and little to no emphasis on fully dedicated breathwork and meditation practices.
Personally, I began my yoga journey with Power Yoga. I adopted the practice to help cope with the stress of my life as an at-home parent of a baby and a toddler. I wanted to recover from childbirth, and I hoped a regular yoga practice would help me get fit and address my increasingly alarming sense of generalized anxiety. Like many, I thought of yoga as a fitness regimen, hopefully with stress-relieving benefits. This made sense to me, because exercise is supposed to relieve stress. Right?
Armed with a plan, I chose the Power Yoga approach. The athletic style appealed to my sense of drive, and I had the prerequisite fitness and joint range of motion to practice without injury. I was going to be stress free, fast.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
Power Yoga helped me get fit, but did nothing to address my anxiety. The lift in mood I experienced during practice never lasted. In fact, the more awareness I developed through my yoga practice, the more I realized just how bad my stress and anxiety really were.
So I doubled down on my efforts. I choose even more athletic styles of yoga, including a two year stint practicing Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga is a traditional style of yoga from which Power Yoga emerged. It requires extreme concentration and powerful physicality, with increasingly complex postures and movements added on as the student progresses in skill.
I progressed athletically, yet still, my stress levels were out of control and my anxiety was surging. I was perplexed. How could this be happening, when every study and article I read purported yoga to be the go-to treatment for stress?
Out of options, I sought medical support and started taking antidepressants. However, I was unsatisfied with the resulting side effects, including sleep disruptions and a general feeling of dullness.
Then, I discovered a new framework for applying the tools of yoga to my situation: the Yoga Therapy approach. Yoga Therapy is an individualized process of selecting yoga practices for the individual. The range of techniques used includes a broader range of pranayama and meditation techniques than one would usually find in the most common types of public yoga classes available today in the US. Other techniques, such as chanting and philosophical study, were new to me with this approach.
When I brought up my stress and anxiety problem in one of my first Yoga Therapy sessions, my teacher asked me if I regularly meditate. I responded that of course I did, for two to five minutes after my Power Yoga practice, while lying on the floor in savasana (a rest pose). He paused, considering me. After what felt like an eternity, he suggested that I was doing all the preparatory work, but reaping none of the rewards from my practice. His verdict: "You aren’t a Yogi if you don’t meditate."
Humbled and mildly taken aback, I decided to give meditation a try. Instead of an hour of preparation using asana (physical postures), I would now practice a few minutes of pranayama to prepare my mind for stillness. At first, I found it uncomfortable to sit, so I meditated supine. When that felt too vulnerable, I placed my hands upon my belly. I learned that meditation doesn't have to be uncomfortable. In fact, the best meditation for a given student is the one the student finds easiest to do. Slowly, I made space in my life for meditation, hoping to find space in my mind for peace.
And it worked. Meditation cured my anxiety.
I have been living stress free ever since adopting my meditation practice. While nothing external has visibly changed in my life (I still practice Power Yoga,) everything internal is very different. I’ve expanded my perspective. I've let go of over-exertion. I continue to refine my newfound ability to self-regulate my nervous system. Thanks to the increased neuroplasticity of the brain through meditation, lasting change in my brain's function is possible.
Today, as a trained Yoga Therapist, I regularly help my clients manage their mental health through stress reduction, and treat pathologies related to the effects of chronic stress in the physical body. They report feeling short term relief, and over time, many have experienced lasting change in their mental health.
But is my experience taming stress, and that of my clients, unique? A recent study suggests not.
The International Journal of Environmental Science and Public Health recently published “A Comparison of the Acute Effects of Different Forms of Yoga on Physiological and Psychological Stress: A Pilot Study” by Marshall, McClanahan, McArthur Warren, Rogers and Ballmann (2020). The study compares the stress-relieving benefits of Meditative (Hatha) Yoga versus Power Yoga.
The results were clear:
State anxiety scores were significantly lower following meditative yoga (p = 0.047) but were not different following power yoga (p = 0.625). Salivary cortisol levels were significantly lower following meditative yoga (p = 0.020) but not following power yoga (p = 0.242). Results indicate that acute engagement in meditative yoga decreases markers of psychological and physiological stress, while power yoga does not impart a significant stress-relieving benefit.
Marshall et. al. concluded that Meditative Yoga provides superior benefit over Power Yoga for reducing stress in physically fit practitioners. The authors suggest that not all yoga practices are equally effective at relieving stress. The methods used in the Meditative protocol included “mindful breathing techniques, flexibility, and meditation”, with the Power protocol focusing more on “maintenance of powerful poses, [and] muscular endurance”. This distinction is incredibly useful for practitioners adopting a yoga practice with particular goals in mind, as well as for Yoga Therapists or doctors applying select practices with specific therapeutic aims.
If your doctor tells you to get your stress under control and to consider trying yoga, chances are that he or she will not have received the evidence-based training necessary to advise you about exactly what kind of yoga to try. As doctors increasingly prescribe yoga as therapy, it becomes more critical that better research inform these recommendations. We must expand the definition of "yoga" to include the broad range of techniques that go beyond the limited view of yoga as a fitness regimen with intangible mental health benefits. Hopefully, the Marshall study signals the beginning of such research differentiating the physiological and psychological effects of specific types of yoga practices.
Yoga research is still a relatively nascent field, and only through the interest of a handful of medical doctors have studies on yoga, breathing, and meditation been funded and conducted at all. Yoga studies are an important way of quantifying the health benefits of yoga. Such studies often corroborate hundreds of years of traditional knowledge based on decades of “clinical” experience healing pathologies using traditional Yogic practices.
The complementary intersection of Western medicine and traditional Yoga, while useful, should not cause us to forget that the two systems operate using very different frameworks for defining wellness. The traditional Yogic view of wellness is that of achieving awareness and balance within every level of the Self. The “Self” is made up of five koshas, or layers of the Self. These layers include the physical body, the energetic body, the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, and the spirit. Yoga Therapists utilize this koshic framework to look for imbalances within the five koshas to restore balance and promote healing.
This holistic framework is distinct from Western medical models in that it looks beyond the physical and mental states of the individual, to assess an individual’s energetic alignment, state of the subconscious, and level of connectedness. If any of these aspects is out of balance, it could contribute to the root cause of “dis-ease”.
Ayurvedic medicine, India’s ancient medical system and corollary to Yoga, has yet another distinct framework for assessing imbalances that could lead to pathology, called “doshas”. These doshas, called vata, pitta, and kapha, represent three energies believed to circulate in the five koshas, and are said to govern physiological activity. Energetic imbalance in any of these doshas could lead to pathology or dysregulation leading to mental and/or physical disorders.
Yoga Therapists assess health through these two frameworks– koshic and doshic– as well as through a Western medical framework to create a holistic assessment and treatment protocol. Treatments include the full range of Yogic techniques, often (but not always) including more meditative techniques such as breathwork than can be found in group yoga classes, and a wide range of specialized meditation techniques rarely found in Power Yoga classes.
The popular notion of what constitutes "yoga" in the United States is that it is all about increasing flexibility and physical fitness, akin to a workout program. With the new attention around yoga's benefits for mental health, this popular definition of what constitutes yoga will need to expand.
So what type of yoga should you try? The good news is that treating stress and anxiety using any type of yoga is possible if it works for you.
But before you sign up for a class at the nearest yoga studio, consider this: If lessening stress and taming anxiety is your objective, the lesser known practices of yoga, such as pranayama (breathwork) and meditation are key for faster stress relief. Meditative Yoga trumps Power Yoga when it comes to offering more of these practices shown to lower both the physiological and psychological markers of stress.
So invite yourself to try yoga classes that are meditative and incorporate gentle movement, breathwork, and longer meditation practices.
Worried you can’t meditate? There are many types of meditation, and some might feel more enjoyable than others. Meditation can be guided, such as Yoga Nidra, or unguided, such as traditional thought meditation. Given the hundreds of pranayama and meditation techniques available, and the diversity of Yogic traditions to draw from, make sure you find a public class or private yoga teacher that offers at least some of these “non-exercise-based” practices. Don’t be afraid to try several classes before settling on a new routine.
If you need more help getting started, consider contacting a Yoga Therapist. Yoga Therapists will listen to your story and help you heal yourself using home practices customized to your needs and your wellness goals.
Whatever you do, don’t give in to chronic stress. It doesn’t have to be this way for those suffering from this ubiquitous mental health condition. Continue to seek balance in your life, and empower yourself to try new practices until you discover something that works for you in a sustainable way.
Move, breathe, notice, be.
Let the healing begin and know that a life without the detrimental effects of stress and anxiety is possible.