Yoga and Anxiety: An Overview of Research Studies

Yoga and Anxiety: An Overview of Research Studies

About 40 million adults in America suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Despite improvements in the pharmacological and psychological treatments of anxiety disorders, a high percentage of patients resist therapy for numerous reasons, including the cost of treatment, side effects of medication, and having an inadequate response to drugs. Yoga as a stand-alone therapy or a complement to medication may decrease anxiety disorders, according to a review of evidenced-based literature from the University of Toronto Department of Psychiatry. They found that alternative therapies, such as yoga and meditation, offer patients a drug-free, self-treatment option to help alleviate their condition.

The Yoga Studies in This Review

The data for this comprehensive overview of yoga’s effects on the symptoms of anxiety disorders comes from several evidence-based studies and published reviews. These studies include “two randomly controlled trials, two open trials, three non-randomized studies, and one case series.”

Does Yoga Help Relieve Anxiety?

The review of studies through 2005 show yoga as a stand-alone therapy or as a complement to medication “may benefit anxiety conditions” and “maybe superior to medication for a subgroup” of adult anxiety patients.

Despite this positive result, these earlier studies on yoga and anxiety suffer from various shortcomings. Most importantly, for us, yogis and yoginis, the reports frequently didn’t provide specific information on the type of meditation, yogic breathing exercises, or yoga asanas prescribed. Additionally, the criteria for the clinical diagnosis of anxiety disorders have changed over time. Never the less, the findings are interesting and offer encouragement of the power of yoga to reduce feelings of worry and anxiety.

  • A four-week randomized controlled trial (Vahia et al., 1973) with 27 participants found “the combination of Patanjali-based yoga and placebo was significantly superior to the control combination of ‘‘sham yoga’’ (relaxation with postures and breathing resembling yoga techniques) and placebo in reducing psychoneurotic symptoms.”
  • A 6-week non-randomized study (Vahia et al., 1973) with 21 participants found “Patanjali-based yoga significantly superior to pharmacotherapy (amitriptyline or chlordiazepoxide) in alleviating psychoneurotic or psychosomatic symptoms.”
  • A 12-week open trial (Girodo, 1974) with 13 participants found “yoga meditation monotherapy… (produced) significant improvement in anxiety neurosis in five patients…with a brief history of anxiety.”
  • A 12-week non-randomized trial (Sahasi et al., 1989) with 91 participants – 38 in the yoga group and 53 in the medication group — found “yoga monotherapy significantly superior to diazepam treatment in reducing anxiety neurosis symptoms.”
  • A 12-week non-randomized study (Sharma et al., 1991) with 71 participants – 41 in the yoga group and 30 in the placebo group — found “yoga produced clinically greater improvement in anxiety neurosis than a placebo capsule.”
  • An 8-week open trial (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992) with 22 participants found “a stress reduction and relaxation program with postural elements of Hatha yoga significantly improved anxiety and co-morbid depressive symptoms in patients with” general anxiety disorder when prescribed as a stand-alone therapy or as a complement to medication.
  • In a series of three case studies (Miller 2005) found “yoga combined with short-term psychodynamic therapy, as the sole intervention, resulted in modest to significant improvement in symptoms in patients with a general anxiety disorder.”


References for Yoga and Anxiety: An Overview of Early Studies

1. Da Silva, T. L., Ravindran, L. N., & Ravindran, A. V. (2009). Yoga In The Treatment Of Mood And Anxiety Disorders: A Review. Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 2(1), 6-16

2. National Institute of Mental Health: Anxiety Disorders

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