From a medical perspective, Uddiyana Bandha (the abdominal lock) combined with Ujjayi breath (the breath we use in Ashtanga yoga) should in theory increase anxiety.
The Ujjayi and uddiyana bandha practices are the virtually the opposite of what anxious patients are taught in order to reduce their mental anxiety. From the perspective of western medicine, the therapeutic mechanism of Ujjayi breathing and uddiyana bandha may be through a kind of behavioral conditioning… beginning Ashtanga yoga practitioners are frequently exposed to anxiety-inducing moments of chest-breathing and oxygen-hunger, wondering “how can I get enough air â€¦ I’m going to explode!” This repetitive exposure to a stressful situation conditions the practitioner to other physiologically stressful situations.
While much of the research and anecdote indicates that yoga does have a calming, focusing effect, I have seen little that explains how such stress inducing breath could lead to such benefits.
Richard Peterson, a psychiatrist and Ashtangi, in his thorough article called The Healing Psychology of Ashtanga Yoga developed a compelling theory.
Yoga practitioners who are breathing smoothly and shallowly though their noses, while simultaneously experiencing a racing heart and air-hunger, are training their bodies and minds to react smoothly and calmly when they are in a similar physiologic state in another context. For example, a non-yogi who is terrified of public speaking, and who has no practice with controlling racing thoughts and shortness of breath before a speech, is likely to perform poorly when compared to a similarly terrified speaker who is a yogi. The yogi has successful experience working through these same feelings in yoga practice.
In this article, Richard uses his extensive medical education to theorize about possible psychological effects of Ashtanga. He also cites 36 sources; 28 of these are from scientific studies or medical journals. Because of his educational background, because he cites his sources and because of his scientific approach, I have confidence in Richard’s conclusions and think his article is a great resource.
Plus, Richard has written this article out of his love of and curiousity about Ashtanga and psychiatry; he’s not earning money from yoga therapy or anything like that. To top it all, how many medical articles end with “Practice, and all is coming”?
About Rich Peterson: I’m currently practicing with John Berlinsky and Lea Watkins at YogaStudio Mill Valley (California). I go about 2 times per week currently, down from 4x/week following the birth of our baby girl 5 months ago. My wife and I trade baby sitting duties. I learned Ashtanga in Mysore in 2004 at AYRI. Our blog from that trip is here and the Mysore section is here.