However buoyant we are usually, the current climate is triggering a tsunami of anxiety and depression, which affects people to varying degrees of intensity. Many of us don’t want to take medication – probably don’t even go to our doctor – and are looking around for alternative ways of calming our fearful brains.
In August, a new study found that yoga was significantly more effective for diagnosed anxiety (medically called generalised anxiety disorder or GAD) than standard education on stress management. Cognitive behavioural therapy was more effective than both at dealing with negative thinking but waiting lists are long and experienced therapists often difficult to access. Practising yoga offers a safe, non-drug and widely available way of dealing with these distressing states of mind.
Look online for research on yoga and anxiety and you’ll need to settle down for hours to read through a fraction of it. In a 2019 Boston University School of Medicine study, published in The Journal of Psychiatric Practice, patients diagnosed with depression practised Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing for between 87 and 123 hours over three months (so upwards of seven hours a week). Within a month their sleep quality significantly improved, as did tranquillity, positivity, physical exhaustion and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
One of the side effects of the Covid pandemic is the number of patients with cancer whose treatment was stalled or curtailed. So it’s timely that I was sent a rather wonderful memoir (which reads like a good novel) called Hidden: Young, Single, Cancer. The writer Annabel Chown was 31, a successful architect, single but longing for love and a family, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. ‘I had never been seriously ill and was suddenly told I needed six months of chemo and radiotherapy, and even with this treatments there was a 16% chance I wouldn’t survive more than five years.’
Inevitably, Annabel felt ‘deeply anxious’. She had started doing yoga six months earlier to help her cope with a high-pressure job and long hours. ‘From my first lesson, I felt connected to a part of me I didn’t even know existed, which felt spacious, peaceful and free. That feeling kept me going back to the class every week, even though I had to rush there from work to make the 8pm start.’
During her cancer treatment, yoga became Annabel’s ‘lifeline’. ‘ It always invites you to anchor yourself in the present moment. Our minds are so good at endlessly spinning back over the past and projecting into the future. When I was at yoga, I wasn’t panicking – I was right there, in my body and in my breath and by being there, I calmed myself.’
The practise helped on many levels, as Annabel recalls. ‘It’s easy to feel disempowered by the harsh side-effects of cancer treatment, such as hair loss and sickness, not to mention feeling that your body has massively let you down by getting cancer in the first place. The yoga poses with their beautiful and powerful forms helped remind me that despite everything, at my core I was still strong, still vibrant.’
Annabel continued practising after she finished treatment and ended up becoming a yoga teacher. (She also found the love of her life, married and they now have a small son.) Then, as now, she found that yoga helped her make space for any difficult emotions. ‘I know that by breathing into them, feeling them, I will help to release them. Yoga helps to connect me to a place where I know that I am not just my thoughts. I like to think of my thoughts as clouds travelling through the vast sky, and that while the clouds will come and go, the vast sky is always there.’
The science behind this ancient practise is all to do with slowing down and being present in the moment – often a difficult ask in our speeded-up lives and brains. As Annabel explains, ‘when we slow down and actually become present, we switch on the parasympathetic nervous system (the restful part of our nervous system) and switch off the sympathetic nervous system (‘flight or fight’) and that can have a profound effect on our anxiety levels. We start to train our minds to rest in the now, rather than constantly racing around and worrying about past or future.’
For people who are new to yoga, there are plenty of beginners’ courses (online as well as in person) that teach the basics over six to eight weeks. Most importantly, says Annabel, ‘find a teacher you connect with and a class that’s the right pace for you. If you enjoy the class, that’s what will keep you coming back to it, and what will help make yoga an integral and long-term part of your life, which is how you’ll reap its deepest benefits.’