Yoga and Anxiety Disorders: The Links Between Physical and Emotional Balance

One of the most important papers in medical yoga from recent years doesn’t mention “yoga” even in passing — as is true of many other key papers in the field. This aside, the paper suggests a lot about yoga’s neurobiological effects and remarkable psychological benefits.

The paper takes a new approach to an oddity that has long puzzled brain researchers. Clinical studies going back decades have repeatedly shown that major overlaps exist between balance and anxiety disorders: subjects with chronic anxiety nearly always have problem with balance, and people with balance disorders typically display symptoms of general anxiety disorder (GAD).

In the late 2000s a group headed by Orit Bart of the University of Tel Aviv conducted studies using very young children that explored those overlaps in an innovative way. If comorbidity exists between balance and anxiety disorders, Bart reasoned, could you treat the anxiety disorders simply by teaching patients simple balance?

They began with a cohort of very young children with severe anxiety disorders (mean age only 5.8 years old) and balance disorders. Rather than treating the kids with so-called anti-depressants for the anxiety problems or talk therapy, they simply trained them, without explaining why, how to do simple balance poses

(Remarkably, kids as young as 6 with anxiety are often prescribed adult anti-depressants, due to heavy industry marketing and industry-financed studies, despite the well-known dangers of the drugs even for adults and the fact that response rates aren’t better than that of placebos.

Bart doesn’t discuss yoga in her work, but many of the poses she teaches children are identical to the balance poses we teach in Slow Flow yoga classes — including Avalon’s weekly Free Classes for young children.

The results were spectacular. After three months of once-a-week training, lasting only 45 minutes a session, anxiety levels of the children as measured by standard batteries of anxiety tests dropped sharply when compared to untreated controls, down to levels of “normal” children.

See the chart below of the results from a conference presentation Bart made in Europe in 2007.

Click here for the abstract of the formal paper her group published the next year. (Write us here if you want a copy of the full paper and can’t access it yourself or if you want information on related research.)

What on the neurobiological level explains the overlaps between balance and anxiety disorders — which is one of many related factors underlying the well-known psychological benefits of yoga and related movement traditions (qigong, pilates, taiji, etc.)?

A great deal of recent research has dealt with overlapping circuitry in the brain that helps explain the relationship between balance and anxiety disorders. Click the next link to download the most recent technical review of that problem by a group at the University of Pittsburgh that has been studying the question for the last 15 years.

But at a higher theoretical level the origins of those overlaps can be explained simply. Those overlaps are related to ways in which all emotions are affected by yoga, which beyond balance involves postural tone and what is known in neuroscience as  “embodied emotion” (click here to see our story on this closely related topic).

Abstractly, systems in different parts of the brain can be viewed as being linked in a series of interconnected “maps” that change in highly correlative or analogical fashions. As the Nobel Laureate immunologist-turned-neurobiologist Gerald Edelman argued over two decades ago, in a series of hierarchically linked maps throughout the nervous system, “changes on any one level must result in readjustment on all ‘linked’ levels.”

(See in the chart below, adapted from a paper we gave in Beijing now presented at the start of our Teacher Training Program.)

The correlative links between different parts of the brain — whether those involving balance and emotion in single brains, or the communicative processes that link multiple brains in cultures — explain much in the effectiveness of yoga, all the way from the way breathing in harmony occurs in classroom om‘ing to the predictable emotional effects of different types of movement, use of lighting, use of music, etc.

The benefits of yoga don’t come from cultivating extreme poses often associated with old-style and often violent yogic traditions like Ashtanga, which had their roots in the 1930s-1960s (the claim that those poses were ancient is an historical myth).

Bart’s work has uncovered the power of the simple things in yoga — which, remarkably, from a therapeutic point of view are the most important, which is another topic we will pick up often in future articles.