Yoga, what is it good for?
May 22, 2011 11:59 AM   Subscribe

How much do yoga and meditation help for anxiety? Is it time for more serious help or is this worth a shot?

I have a lot of stress-inducing issues in my life right now. Many of them are actually GREAT things, but I'm worried they won't go well. Other things are not so great, and it's just all happening at once.

I'm guessing that all of this is the reason I'm having frequent panic attacks lately. My regular doctor prescribed Xanax for emergencies. It helps when I'm having a full-on attack, but the constant feeling of unease I'm experiencing remains. And, of course, I'm now worried about THAT, which isn't helping anything.

She also suggested I try meditation and yoga. I've never done this before, and I'm wondering... has it helped you? Or did it NOT help you, and it's time I just skipped right on to a therapist?

Basically, I'm looking for experiences from people who've been through this before.
posted by katillathehun to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Mindfulness meditation helps me with low-level background anxiety. Even ten minutes in the morning gets me off on the "right foot" for handling what's coming over the course of a normal day. A close friend does something similar, but he uses yoga. YMMV, of course, but I can certainly tell a difference if I am running late and don't get to "sit" for a period before I leave (usually more because I'm saying, "Bad Buddhist! Bad!" for not making time than because anything is really different!)

Also noting your MD prescribed Xanax - maybe a half dose daily, instead of just taking it when big anxieties hit during this period of stress would be beneficial? I find Xanax is great for preventing full-on attacks. I do feel some anxiety, but it never spirals out of control into a full blown attack. I've done this a few times, over the course of probably ten years, and it's been pretty effective for me. I don't do it for more than a couple of weeks or a month or so, and I've never felt any sort of "addictive" issues.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 12:08 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do Bikram yoga and I would say it definitely helps with anxiety. The classes are 90 minutes long. You're not supposed to talk. You are focusing on yourself for the full 90 minutes and while in savasana you are expected to be very still. I find I'm much more calm and relaxed in my day-to-day life when I'm practicing Bikram on a regular basis. Bikram is not ideal for everyone. It is hot yoga and can be uncomfortable. It's also expensive and the 90 minute class may not work for all schedules. Other forms of yoga could work just as well.

I'm bad at meditation. I think it's great but I have a hard time doing it on my own. There are some guided meditation recordings on iTunes. Here are some videos. I own Kathy Freston's Perfect Weight Guided Meditation. It hasn't helped me lose weight but is very relaxing and oftentimes makes me fall asleep. It has it's goofy parts but her voice is very relaxing. It's too expensive in my opinion. There are less expensive options.
posted by Fairchild at 12:18 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I meant to add that the reason Bikram yoga helps with anxiety is because it's mind-clearing. Because it's a challenging environment you tend to focus on the posture and the posture only. You also get the "yoga brain" that tends to aid in coping with everyday life.
posted by Fairchild at 12:22 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can do both, you know (meditation/yoga and therapy). I have no experience with yoga, but a consistent meditation practice has made a huge difference in my anxiety levels. It really trains your mind to relax under stress. I do also have Klonopin for emergencies (similar to Xanax) but I use it a lot less when I meditate more often.
posted by desjardins at 12:38 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: At a time when my life and work were filled with intense stress, I started doing yoga (not on my own--gentle classes with a good teacher). My body soaked it up like a dry sponge soaks up water. I hadn't realized the havoc the stress had been creating in my body (and mind) until I started to learn how to feel it and undo it. Very quickly, I began learning better ways to avoid letting stress and anxiety chew me to pieces every day.

I was so delighted by the effects of yoga in my work and personal life that I took the training to be a certified teacher. I only taught part-time for a couple of years, but I saw similar beneficial effects in many people. I even started a lunchtime class at work to try to mellow the folks out a bit. I only do a tiny amount of yoga these days, but the beneficial effects have persisted, and still make every single day easier to deal with.

Yoga won't necessarily be a good fit for everyone; there are many different forms, and sometimes the package includes more (or less) "spirituality" stuff than you may want. But with a half-decent teacher (which are a dime a dozen), it can be great stuff.

Lots of people would say that meditation is even better at producing these effects. I would have no argument with that, but it is often a very frustrating experience to try to go from a state of being anxious to "doing meditation." Most yoga classes include (or even are) a form of meditation, and it's much easier to begin to learn that skill after an hour of guided movement. So yoga would be a great place to start.
posted by Corvid at 12:46 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is totally anecdotal but true...for awhile I was doing Bikram yoga two evenings a week and staying w/ my elderly father who lived a very short drive from the Bikram studio. He had a home blood pressure machine to keep an eye on his high blood pressure and I would test myself when I got back from the yoga classes. I can't remember the numbers now, but they were crazy low. I remember leaving class, easing myself into the car and driving as calmly as possible to his place in an attempt to get an ever lower number. In all honesty I've never felt so clear-headed and healthy inside as I did at that time.
posted by pandabearjohnson at 12:50 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: Yoga definitely helps me. I recommend starting out with an actual class if you've never done it before. (Sign up for the beginner's class at the Y or something.) It's good to have a teacher show you how to do the poses so you won't injure yourself. After you've got the hang of it, Netflix and Hulu both have a pretty good assortment of streaming workouts.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:15 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get tests from your doctor, too.

I just had a week of panic attacks... Turns out I was severly anemic. I was shocked there was a physical cause!

Otherwise, I'm a big proponent of meditation, yoga, acupuncture, and massage. And walking! Really, you have to experiment and find what works for you, but a half hour of yoga + a half hour of meditation to start the day worked well for me in the past. YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 1:19 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: I use both to help me out although my anxiety level and stress. The key is to find a good teacher and/or mentor. I found "Wake Up Your Life" by Ken McLeod the best distillation of Buddhist meditation for westerners. He also has a website called Unfettered Mind that has all the same materials and podcasts.

Both work on stress by focusing your mind on your breathing and body. Once you learn to pay attention to your breath and body, it makes it easier to be aware of the signs you are getting into anxiety attack and can take steps to stop the reaction. However there are some differences. Buddhist meditation encourages you to place your focus on your breath with out actively manipulating it. Yoga and Hindu meditation styles focus on active breath control. So I would recommend start with one and sticking to it. Once you feel comfortable add the other. It seems, in my opinion, a lot easier good yoga groups than good meditation groups in most cities. If neither fits your taste you can also do Tai Chi(movement excercises)/Qigong(meditation). Tai Chi and Qigong are usually taught by the same centers.

Good Luck! It took me a while to find something that I enjoyed so I could stick with it. Hopefully this makes it quicker.
posted by roguewraith at 1:20 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yoga's helpful for anxiety in some very concrete ways. There's obviously the benefit of exercise and physical activity, but even more significantly, the breathing exercises you do in yoga are a lot like anti-anxiety breathing exercises that therapists and self-help books teach. Definitely try it out!
posted by mchorn at 1:30 PM on May 22, 2011

I imagine your mileage may vary. I can relate to being in a sort of constant-stress mental state (like you, not necessarily bad things, just stuff that weighs on the mind a lot). I wouldn't go so far as to say I get panic attacks, but I do feel overwhelmed. Like the thoughts won't just slow down and get in a line. Lots of sighing involved.

Anyway, I've been doing yoga (the studio calls it "flow yoga" - not sure specifically what varietal it is) for about a year now, and I have had mixed results. Most often, I find that the yoga does a good job of quieting things down for the duration of the class and maybe an hour or so afterwards. If I'm too distracted, though, I don't get much relaxation out of it. Though, even then I'd say I sometimes thoughts line up a little more clearly and small epiphanies can happen.

I recommend you give it a shot, but if you find yourself really not enjoying it, do try another studio/teacher/type of class. I feel lucky to have an excellent teacher, but I've heard some real weird stories. Try it, though. If not for the meditation, at least for the physical benefits. Good luck!
posted by TangoCharlie at 1:37 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I just had a week of panic attacks... Turns out I was severly anemic. I was shocked there was a physical cause!

Oh, I've had all kinds of tests, and even specifically for anemia, before my doctor finally sat me down and said "Okay. What's going on in your life right now? Talk to me." What little meditation I've done with guided mp3's has helped at night, but I haven't made time for it during the day yet. I will make a point of doing so, though! Anyway, I really do think it's psychological. It seems like whenever I've been to the doctor for it, I feel a huge sense of relief and calm for a few weeks after and then the effect wears off, and I start feeling panicky again.

I just toured a local yoga studio that offers a free trial week. They don't do bikram, but they do vinyasa? I'm still learning this stuff.

Thanks so much for the advice so far!
posted by katillathehun at 1:44 PM on May 22, 2011

Also, check your local yoga studio schedules for a "community class", which is usually free, and occurs once a week. Community classes are geared to both the new and experienced.
posted by swingbraid at 2:11 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pranayama breathing, in particular, has been really helpful to me--it got me through a fairly crazy unmedicated labor, and I'm not sure that my dentist and periodontist even believe that I have anxiety about seeing them (I am nearly paralyzed by the thought of doing so).

The actual yoga itself cannot hurt, and I always feel much more mentally shipshape if I'm getting regular exercise. But for me personally it is the breathing aspect, specifically, that really gets me through the rough spots.
posted by padraigin at 2:19 PM on May 22, 2011

I agree that you have to experiment a bit -- sitting-still meditation makes me MORE anxious because I am bad at it. I do much better with "active" meditation, which is where you do an activity that engages enough of your brain that you can calm the racing feeling, but doesn't require hard thinking. Some people like to wash dishes or mow the lawn or drive; I like to sew. Folding mailers and stuffing envelopes also works well for me, not that that comes up a lot. :) Some people play simple video games, or build with Lego, or whatever.

Walking is another good thing to try in addition to yoga.

Another suggestion I got years ago was to designate a particular chair your "anxiety chair" and when your thoughts start in that direction, for any reason or none, you go sit in your anxiety chair and give yourself permission to be anxious for 5-10 minutes. Think your worst-case scenario, worry yourself out, and then get up and stop worrying. If you start again you must go back to the anxiety chair. This is particularly useful for people having trouble sleeping because of anxiety -- sometimes you manage to "train" yourself to only worry in bed because it's the only time you slow down enough to experience your anxiety, and then you end up always having anxiety in bed and not sleeping. Not good. This may or may not work depending on what your anxiety currently is like, but I throw it out there in case it's helpful.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:20 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: Vinyasa is good. Hatha, hatha flow, or iyengar would also be good. The studio, and the instructors will make the largest difference. Try several studios, if you can.

I don't think Bikram is the best yoga variety if calmness is your goal, at least it wasn't for me. I was amazed at how much more piece of mind I felt after a "regular" yoga class, during a period when I was doing Bikram 4-5 days/week.

Also, I warn people about Bikram and what I consider to be its irresponsible approach to safety. I did Bikram regularly for several years. I quit because I believe I was injured in my early months there, and the injury would periodically get exacerbated or re-injured. The final straw was asking the teachers for modifications to two of the poses, which seemed to be the culprits. They didn't have any, and in fact, seemed not to be trained to acknowledge a difference between good pain and bad pain. I repeatedly heard that the pain was the experience of "healing." (I found that hard to believe.)

I expected ashtanga to be more meditation-oriented due to its repetitious nature (it's like vinyasa but the flowing sequences are the same every time). In my experience, it attracted lots of athletic achiever-types and was a less calming practice. But YMMV.

I do think yoga, meditation, or both would help.
posted by slidell at 2:25 PM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's good that the studio you found does vinyasa. (Bikram is very hardcore and though you may love it, it's not appropriate for every beginner.) Just try whichever classes they promote as beginner or level 1. You might also look into their "restorative" classes, which are purposely extra-relaxing. Also, remember that every teacher and every studio is different, so if you don't like the first place try another. Almost all yoga studios have great discounts for first-timers.

You've already seen lots of comments about how helpful yoga is, but I'll just add this: my Honda Insight has a rating system that shows how calmly you're driving (in the "eco mode," because that's better for the gas mileage). The ONLY time I ever get the full "five tree" rank is right after my favorite yoga classes.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:00 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think Vinyasa is a great place to start. I find it enormously calming. Take the breath stuff seriously: it is at the heart of what makes yoga such a stress reliever. Remember it is all about going at your own pace, too, not being the most flexible person in class. That's why each yoga practice is a "practice," not a performance, and also why you should be attuned to what is comfortable for you and your body at the time you are doing it, not trying to be as good as anyone else.

I am fond of doing yoga at home with a DVD and a lit candle. Sometimes just being alone with yourself is an especially restful approach.
posted by bearwife at 3:48 PM on May 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yoga and meditation certainly helps. Also CBT - check out: Mind Over Mood.

For the science behind exercise and anxiety: Why Exercise makes you less anxious.
posted by storybored at 6:05 PM on May 22, 2011

Yoga and meditation might help you a lot. Or they might not help you at all. This is all relative and depends on the individual (as well as lots of other complications like what kind you do, what your approach is, etc). It's not really a quantifiable thing.

Anecdata: yoga has really helped me shed some anxiety in the past, and I generally leave a yoga class feeling about as relaxed and open as I get. However meditation has been less successful, mainly because in most kinds of meditation I worry that I'm not doing it right; it becomes another source of anxiety.

I'm not sure that either yoga or meditation would be specifically effective for clinical levels of anxiety - they're not going to prevent you having a panic attack. Though if your doctor recommends it, it's certainly worth a try.
posted by Sara C. at 6:57 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: Breathing retraining is great for reducing physical signs of anxiety and can be very similar to the breathing in yoga exercises. I'd say you would be best off by doing some exposure treatment with a psychologist, to get the panic attacks under control. The mindfulness and yoga you can do on your own, and would complement the treatment, but on its own, I wouldn't expect yoga to reduce the frequency of your panic attacks or your anticipatory anxiety.
posted by gilsonal at 8:02 PM on May 22, 2011

Yoga helps big time because it forces you out of your head and into your body. You have to think about how to position yourself and when to breath to do the poses right making it kind of hard to worry about X when you're busy thinking about whether your butt is in the right position when you're doing the plank. Sun salutations helped me get past the panic attack I had last fall with minimal Xanax involved and still do them because it has helped my insomnia too.

Mindfulness which for me it meant mostly becoming really aware of what was setting the anxiety off and learning how to avoid/lessen those triggers and, breathing helped immensely too. Meditation otoh made things worse; all that free floating meandering thought makes the obsessive thinking I'm prone to doing more intense and heightened my anxiety.
posted by squeak at 8:16 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: Yoga is good stuff. If I stay in the habit of doing it once or twice a week, I feel remarkably better-- less anxious, higher energy, my body feels stronger, my mind clearer. It works.

I think even if you opt for other forms of treatment, give yoga a shot. Hot yoga is good for a work out and really sweating out the crazy, but for anxiety, any kind of gentle, flow yoga really works best for me. Even a really really light yoga class can get me from an anxious, cranky, depressed placed to calm and centered in about an hour.

The key is to try it for a couple months with an open mind. Just getingt in touch with your body more is reason enough.
posted by Rocket26 at 6:14 AM on May 23, 2011

Best answer: One other thing I forgot to note about sitting meditation:
"Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed" - Henepola Gunartana on meditation
It is difficult even people who are good at it have spent alot of time working on it. So don't be hard on yourself if it's not working. It is a different skill than doing something like Tai Chi or yoga where the object of attention is on body and breath rather than mind and breath in sitting meditation. As some of the other folks mentioned your mindset when doing these activities is important. If you worry about getting results it'll just make things worse. Having fun and enjoying the activity will take you pretty far and get you through the tough part at not be good at it.
posted by roguewraith at 9:16 AM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Meditation helps loads, and I'm an anxious person.

What really helped put things in perspective though was listening to Alan Watts on youtube. That man was amazing and I am envious of the students that got to listen to his lectures.
posted by penguinkeys at 2:45 PM on May 23, 2011

Response by poster: I gave vinyasa yoga a try for the first time tonight. Some of it was hard, but I already feel some very positive effects! I'm not writing off therapy by any means, and I'm going to keep at it before I make my opinion more decidedly, but I'm looking forward to another class.
posted by katillathehun at 10:07 PM on May 23, 2011

If you find vinyasa to be physically difficult/strenuous, you might like hatha better. Also look for classes with words like "gentle", "chill", etc. in the name.

In my experience vinyasa yoga feels more like a cardio class or "getting a workout in" than more traditional forms of yoga, and thus isn't relaxing in the same way. But YMMV, of course. Some people absolutely love it for that.
posted by Sara C. at 5:52 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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