How Yoga Calms Anxiety Holistically

What It’s Like to Be a Black Yoga Teacher
May 23, 2017
For those suffering from anxiety, yoga can be a lifeline. Here’s why doctors are increasingly recommending it as a complementary therapy.

When her daughter, Eden, entered the 1oth grade, Avigail Posner, ordinarily a self-described “strong, rational” woman, began to unravel. “Eden is a high-functioning autistic child, and had previously been in some mainstream classes,” says the 52-year-old biochemist by training from Hollywood, Florida. “When they put her in a special program again, she grew extremely sad and upset about it, recognizing her disability and separation from the ‘normal’ kids.” Watching her child suffer pushed Posner to a scary, unfamiliar place. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night from terrible dreams, my heart pounding, and I started having anxiety attacks during the day. One evening, my husband and I were out at a nice restaurant with friends, and I started feeling panicky—my heart was racing and I was sweating—and I had to leave. I went to the beach and just cried and cried.”

Posner began taking medication to treat her depression and anxiety, but it wasn’t an ideal solution.“I didn’t like the way it made me feel because it sort of blunted my feelings,” she says. Desperate for help, she made an appointment with her primary-care doctor. “One of the first things he recommended was yoga,” she recalls. “He said it would help me relax, be more aware of my body and emotions, and handle what was happening.”

She started a vinyasa class three days a week, and within a month she was sleeping better and her panic attacks had decreased. “The breathing helped, and being present in the poses taught me to stay in the moment and observe what was happening,” Posner says. “It helped me find a sense of peace in a turbulent time, and that’s carried over into my daily life.”

Asanas and breathwork have been calming jittery minds and smoothing the jagged spikes of stress for thousands of years. Even so, Posner’s doctor’s recommendation to get on the yoga mat is surprising, as doctors and psychiatrists who treat anxiety (defined as persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about the future) are often slow to endorse the practice. “Many in the medical community have had a bias toward medication, because until recently that’s what was most well studied,” says Jennifer Griffin, MD, an integrative medicine physician at the Institute for Health & Healing Clinic at Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation in San Francisco. “But attitudes are changing. Some of my patients struggle with anxiety, but I rarely prescribe medications. I feel more comfortable prescribing holistic modalities like yoga.”