YOGA can be used to treat anxiety and has been a vital tool for thousands of people in the UK during lockdown, according to experts.
A study found that doing the ancient Indian practice regularly was almost as effective as talking therapies, which are offered by the NHS for generalised anxiety disorder.
The findings have renewed calls for it to be clinically prescribed on the health service. Yoga is “socially prescribed” in England where medics refer patients to services outside the NHS.
Separate research revealed that yoga could be a lifesaver for people with the most common type of irregular heartbeat, atrial fibrillation. Researchers in India found that it almost halved the number of symptoms which include palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, fatigue, chest pain and a racing pulse.
Dinesh Bhugra, professor of mental health and diversity at King’s College London, said the exercises have a mix of gentle physical activity, breathing exercises and consciousness awareness.
He told Eastern Eye: ”Yoga allows stretching, focused attention, mental awareness and meditative awareness. It is well recognised as a means to reduce levels of anxiety.
“During lockdown, keeping fit and managing loneliness and anxiety through yoga, whether working with teachers online or individually, has been helpful to many individuals.
“Yoga can help manage symptoms of anxiety such as palpitations by breathing exercises. Physical activity is gentle and not strenuous thereby making it easier for older individuals.
“Yoga has major advantages across cultures taking into account that cognitive behaviour therapy may be difficult for some minority groups. However, it is important that people learn to practice yoga properly, using techniques which do not harm them physically.”
His comments come after Prince Charles said last year that encouraging people to take part in yoga classes could ease pressure on the NHS because of its therapeutic effects on the body and mind.
An estimated 460,000 Britons take part in yoga classes each week.
The British Wheel of Yoga (BWY) charity has offered classes and courses online and on the Zoom app during lockdown.
Gillian Osborne, vice-chair of the BWY, told Eastern Eye: “Hatha yoga is extremely beneficial in treating a range of physical, psychological and emotional states in a safe and balanced way.
“During lockdown, the BWY responded quickly, developing guidelines, insurance and procedures to enable its teachers to take yoga into an entirely new sphere of online classes.
“Remote sessions operate as a virtual classroom and are not available to the world at large. Attendees must register with the teacher beforehand. This type of delivery builds and informs the student-teacher relationship and enables rapport with other participants.
“Online classes have made yoga accessible to people who have been isolated, to those whose mental health has suffered and to those who are still house-bound owing to vulnerability.
“Providing the benefits of yoga remotely has extended a lifeline to those in greatest need and maintained crucial social engagement as well as health benefits.”
Retailer Argos revealed that yoga mats were among the top 10 best-selling products during the coronavirus lockdown while sportswear brand Adidas saw “record sales” from January to March.
Gurch Randhawa, professor of diversity in public health at the University of Bedfordshire, said maintaining mental wellbeing was vital during lockdown through yoga, praying or meditation.
Stephen Buckley is head of information at mental health charity Mind.
He said: “We know that physical activity is good for both our mental and physical health, and that lots of people find meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises helpful, especially people who experience problems with anxiety and panic attacks.
“Therefore, it’s no surprise that research suggests yoga can help people with depression, as it helps improve our physical fitness and draws attention to our breath.
“Yoga can also help boost our confidence and self-esteem and combat feelings of hopelessness or a lack of control, which are often associated with mental health problems.
“Group yoga sessions can have an even greater impact as they provide an opportunity to strengthen social networks, talk through problems or simply laugh and enjoy a break from family and work.”