When asked why he still does yoga after 40 years, the renowned teacher David Swenson replied: “It’s like brushing my teeth. It’s not particularly exciting, but if I don’t, my mouth feels terrible.”
For Swenson, and millions around the world, yoga is a tool for coping with the stresses and strains of life.
Now scientists are wising up too. A study published this week, conducted at the Grossman School of Medicine at New York University, found that yoga can be an effective treatment for anxiety.
As part of the study, a group of 226 adults with Generalised Anxiety Disorder were randomly assigned to three different treatment groups: for 12 weeks, they did either cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Kundalini yoga, or stress-management education. 71pc of those who were treated using CBT saw an improvement in their symptoms, while 54pc of the yoga group met the same criteria. The stress education course fared less well, seeing a 33pc improvement among participants.
I can attest to the idea that yoga is flossing for the mind.
A lot of people take it up because they think it will make them more flexible. Not me. A childhood of ballet means I’m one of those annoying people that find yoga ‘easy’.
Instead, it’s the mental side that attracts me. I first tried yoga at university, and I still remember the odd calm with which I left the Student’s Union on that cold and dark Monday evening in 2004. It ensured I went back the next week, and the next.
Skip forward over a decade, and life dropped the kind of grand piano on me that’s hard to bounce back from.
My dad died of cancer.
I thought I needed counselling. It’s not easy to arrange when you’re working full-time and grieving. I ended up fighting my way through rush hour to a strange backroom in a church hall in Brentford, a long way from home in East London, where for an hour I sat stiffly on a wooden school chair and did a sort of performance version of my feelings.
It was helpful. Kinda. I learnt to accept that life had lost some levity. That I couldn’t expect everything to go back to normal. But what really helped me to rebuild my life after 17 months of hospital visits, was yoga.
I started Ashtanga Vinyasa, a set sequence of yoga postures. The repetition helps build routine. You can step on your mat anywhere, anytime. Every practice is the same. Every practice is different. It’s a bit like taking each day as it comes. And the more often you do it, the more it becomes a moving meditation.
Of course, there are lots of different types of yoga, but Ashtanga Vinyasa helped me to build a lasting structure of calm that counselling had left the door open for.
It’s part of what made me decide to train as a teacher; the desire to immerse myself more deeply in something I found helpful, at what was quite a dreadful time. I wasn’t the only one. Most of my fellow students, mostly women, talked more about the mental than the physical effects that had brought them…