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Yoga Can Help with Anxiety More Than Stress Education, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • New research suggests Kundalini yoga may be more effective than stress education in treating generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Although yoga is helpful, it was less effective than cognitive behavioral therapy, which remains a first order treatment.
  • Part of yoga's major benefit could be in the combination of deep breathing, mindfulness and movement.

Kundalini yoga can improve symptoms of anxiety better than simple stress education, but it is still not as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), according to a new study published in August in JAMA Psychiatry.

Kundalini vs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Researchers recruited 226 people with diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder and separated them into three groups for 12 weeks. One group undertook CBT, considered the first-line treatment for this type of condition, while another did Kundalini yoga classes and at-home practices, and the third received education on stress reduction. They concluded that:

  • CBT was successful for 71% of participants
  • Yoga for 54%
  • Education for 33%

"Although CBT is the gold standard of treatment, the fact is that not everyone is able to have access to that," says Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D., instructor on mind-body medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Yoga Alliance's director of yoga research. "This study shows yoga may have an important role in managing anxiety, and it may be more accessible and practical for many people."

What This Means for You

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for anxiety, which is all the more reason to try something you've never considered before. With low cost, time, and physical barriers to entry, Kundalini yoga is an effective alternative stress reliever with far-reaching health benefits that you can practice in the comfort and safety of your own home.

The Advantage of Kundalini

Although they tend to get bundled under the single classification of "yoga," there are actually many styles of yoga with distinct differences, although there can be considerable overlap with poses—called asanas—and specific sequences like sun salutations. To give the recent study more context, it's important to look at how Kundalini is unique.

That style does utilize physical poses, but it gives equal emphasis to breathing exercises, meditation, and use of mantras—phrases, words, or sounds thought to aid concentration. The practice is designed to "awaken" energy while building self-awareness.

For example, in this specific study, each Kundalini home practice session—done five to six times per week—was 20 minutes long, with over half of that time spent on deep breathing and guided meditation.

Although styles of yoga that center around a postural practice are indeed beneficial and have also shown health advantages in past studies, it's the combination of breathwork, mindfulness, and moving with purpose that can be particularly powerful for alleviating anxiety, says Khalsa.

"This is a style with a strong emphasis on self-development and growth, and that is particularly good for those dealing with anxiety and stress," he notes. That doesn't mean the movements in Kundalini aren't important, he adds, or even that they're secondary.

Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.

[Kundalini] is a style with a strong emphasis on self-development and growth, and that is particularly good for those dealing with anxiety and stress.

— Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.

"Anxiety and stress are considered to be mental health concerns, but there are strong physical symptoms as well, and approaching it with a physical practice can address those," says Khalsa.

Get Your Yoga On

Although the recent study highlighted Kundalini, other types of yoga have been studied before and found to have benefits when it comes to emotional wellbeing.

In other recent research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers did a meta-analysis of 13 studies on yoga that included 632 total participants who had diagnoses that included depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, alcohol dependence, bipolar, and post-traumatic stress. They found that the higher the frequency of yoga sessions per week, the greater the reduction in depressive symptoms.

"The key take-home message is that yoga can be a helpful part of treatment, as it can have a significant effect on mental health," said lead author Jacinta Brinsley, Ph.D. (c) at the University of South Australia, and also a registered yoga teacher and exercise physiologist.

She says that given the breadth of yoga styles, it's helpful for those with emotional and mental health challenges to try different styles to see what the best fit might be. For example, you might find you prefer a fast-moving power yoga class over a slower-moving restorative class that has longer holds in each pose.

Jacinta Brinsley, Ph.D.

With its combination of mindfulness and movement, yoga is unique. You cultivate a greater sense of awareness and calm, and that can provide benefits for anybody.

— Jacinta Brinsley, Ph.D.

Although the review included only participants with diagnosed mental health conditions, Brinsley said the results would likely be similar for anyone struggling with stress and anxiety.

"With its combination of mindfulness and movement, yoga is unique," she says. "You cultivate a greater sense of awareness and calm, and that can provide benefits for anybody."

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  1. Simon NM, Hofmann SG, Rosenfield D, et al. Efficacy of yoga vs cognitive behavioral therapy vs stress education for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: A randomized clinical trial [published online ahead of print, 2020 Aug 12]JAMA Psychiatry. 2020;10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.2496. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.2496

  2. Brinsley J, Schuch F, Lederman O et al. Effects of yoga on depressive symptoms in people with mental disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysisBr J Sports Med. 2020:bjsports-2019-101242. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2019-101242