Twice a week, yoga teacher Amy Lawson drives through the gates of Walden Behavioral Care clinic for disordered eating in South Windsor, Connecticut, clears the tables and chairs from a conference room, and leads small classes of recovering patients through a gentle hour-long practice. With rare exception, all of her students—female or male, young or old, and from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds—are moody, withdrawn, and showing classic signs of stress and anxiety. They are restless, their hearts pounding, bodies tense, and breathing quick and shallow. “They fidget,” says Lawson. “They are stressed out about being observed and judged.”
Americans are no strangers to angst—in fact, nearly 40 million have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. And while not all of us suffer the intense level of stress and anxiety that many of Lawson’s students do, we’re not immune to the symptoms. For instance, nearly 75 percent of respondents in a 2014 American Psychological Association Stress in America survey reported stress-related symptoms, such as nervousness and irritability, because of money. Stress and anxiety aren’t necessarily bad things, explains Nancy Molitor, PhD, an Illinois-based psychologist and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, but when they persist for weeks on end they can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension, lingering restlessness, insomnia, panic, and depression. And over longer periods of time, stress and anxiety have been linked with inflammation, which researchers correlate with migraines, cardiac issues, and even cancer.
Though they have some distinct differences, both stress and anxiety represent varying degrees of nervous-system imblance, explains Robin Gilmartin, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. (Gilmartin is also a student and teacher of Mindful Yoga Therapy