Feeling stressed out about work? You might want to find some time to spend on a yoga mat. New research has found that yoga is particularly effective at reducing work-related stress.
A report published this month in the Journal of Occupational Health reviewed the findings of 15 trials on healthcare workers that involved various types of physical relaxation for stress relief. The analysis showed that while all physical relaxation techniques reduced work-related stress, yoga seemed to provide better results than other methods.1
Here’s a closer look at the findings, along with ways you can use yoga to relieve stress from your job.
Understanding Yoga and Stress Management
For the study, researchers from Nevada and Florida reviewed 15 randomized controlled trials that explored the use of physical relaxation methods for work-related stress among healthcare workers. The techniques studied in these trials included yoga or yoga-like exercises (tai chi and qigong), massage therapy, progressive muscle relaxation, and stretching exercises.
The trials involved a total of 688 healthcare workers, including mental health professionals, nurses, and staff at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital. While not all studies included data on gender, those that did involved a majority of women participants.
The results showed that healthcare workers who tried any of the physical relaxation techniques experienced a significant reduction in occupational stress compared with control groups.
The researchers also conducted a network meta-analysis (a research technique used to compare multiple treatments in randomized controlled trials at the same time) to see which relaxation method was the most effective at easing work stress. They found that yoga was probably the best for stress relief, followed by massage therapy, progressive muscle relaxation, and stretching exercises.1
“This study reinforces the previous findings that yoga is a highly effective stress management practice for improving tolerance and resilience to stress and prevention of burnout,” says Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of research at Yoga Alliance.
This study reinforces the previous findings that yoga is a highly effective stress management practice for improving tolerance and resilience to stress and prevention of burnout.
— SAT BIR SINGH KHALSA, PHD
Overall, this study offers a jumping-off point for further study on the potential for yoga to treat stress in people’s lives. Future research could help determine if one type of yoga is more beneficial than others, suggests Cheryl Albright, OTR/L, C-IAYT, an occupational therapist, yoga therapist, and owner of Soul to Soul Yoga in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
“The analysis did not state which type of yoga was performed. The physical postures are only one limb of yoga—there are seven others, including breathing, singing mantra, meditation, and guided relaxation,” she says. “We have got to get out of the mindset that yoga is only physical postures.”
It could also be interesting to look at how yoga compares to primarily physical practices, such as aerobic exercise and dance, adds Dr. Khalsa.
Benefits of Yoga for Healthcare Workers
The findings of this study come at a particularly important time, considering the extraordinary amount of stress the pandemic has placed on healthcare workers. Research from May 2021 shows that nearly half of healthcare workers in the U.S. were experiencing burnout.2 Yoga could become a key part of a larger intervention aimed at providing relief to healthcare workers.
“As physicians, we have been trained to cure illnesses and heal our patients’ maladies. When it came to this novel disease, we felt completely helpless and loss of control over what we used to be able to offer remedies for,” explains Ingrid Yang, MD, JD, a physician, certified yoga therapist, and medical advisory board member to the wellness tech company obVus Solutions.
She continues, “Yoga is unique in that it allows us to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty and helplessness. Yoga’s connection with the breath and yoga’s underlying philosophy of being in the present moment allows us to let go of a predictable outcome and be open and ready for whatever any outcome, whether it is welcome or not.”
Furthermore, yoga can be a source of connection for healthcare workers who have felt isolated from colleagues, patients, and loved ones over the last year.
“Yoga, on its most basic level, is about connection. The actual translation of the word yoga in Sanskrit is ‘union,’” says Dr. Yang. “Union is our connection to all—to our breath, to our hearts, to nature, and to others. Yoga brings us back into connection when we feel lonely and disconnected.”
While this study was conducted on healthcare workers, experts believe that yoga can be beneficial for people in just about any other field, as well.
“There are many studies demonstrating the effectiveness of yoga on reducing stress for workers and people living with health conditions or chronic pain,” says Michelle R. Zechner, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatric rehabilitation and counseling professionals at Rutgers School of Health Professions. “Yoga offers an integrated strategy to address stress that includes other physical relaxation techniques, including stretching, slowing down the breath, and relaxation practices.”
Getting Started With Yoga
The accessibility of yoga makes it a viable form of stress relief for people across the country. Data from the industry research group IBISWorld shows that there are more than 42,000 Pilates and yoga studios in the U.S.3
“It is usually best to take in-person yoga classes with an appropriately trained and qualified yoga instructor to ensure safe and effective yoga practice,” advises Dr. Khalsa. “Because there are many different styles, schools, and traditions of yoga practice, beginners should take some time to identify a yoga style and yoga teacher that are appropriate for their goals, interests, and personal life circumstances and limitations.”
Yoga is unique in that it allows us to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty and helplessness. Yoga’s connection with the breath and yoga’s underlying philosophy of being in the present moment allows us to let go of a predictable outcome and be open and ready for whatever any outcome, whether it is welcome or not.
— INGRID YANG, MD, JD
If you’re not near a studio, can’t afford to pay for a class, or simply prefer practicing at home, you can also learn yoga through free videos online, such as those from Yoga With Adriene.
Experts say it’s important to keep in mind that yoga doesn’t require you to be flexible, or engage in any movement at all. Tapping into different parts of a yoga practice can allow you to access its benefits in whatever way works for your body and preferences.
“Even if you cannot perform the physical movements, most people can benefit from yogic breathing for anxiety or stress relief,” says Dr. Zechner.
With all the changes the pandemic has brought to the workplace and our lives, many people are facing high levels of stress right now. Yoga may provide some relief, but if the stress feels overwhelming, it can also be helpful to connect with a mental health professional for additional support.
What This Means For You
If work has become increasingly stressful during the pandemic, consider starting a yoga practice. New research shows that yoga is better than other relaxation techniques at relieving work-related stress.
You can get started with yoga through an in-person class at a local studio or at home with a free online video. Even if you can’t or don’t want to participate do yoga poses, you may be able to reduce stress through other elements of yoga, such as breathing exercises and meditation.