Yoga vs CBT in alleviating anxiety (plain language summary)

Photo by Fi Bell on Unsplash

This post was prompted by two things:

  • It’s always exciting to see a new yoga study, especially one that is properly designed, controlled and published in a decent journal, and that shows the positive benefits of yoga in health
  • As a science writer and communicator, it is interesting to see how scientific discoveries are reported and cascaded through media and social media (it’s especially interesting right now, but that’s a topic for another conversation!)

The evidence to support yoga’s benefits for mental health and anxiety in particular is growing every day; I’ve written about the benefits of yoga and yoga nidra in mental health here, here and to some extent here. With cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as the gold-standard treatment* for many mental health conditions including anxiety, it was really interesting to see this hot-off-the-press study, published in a prestigious journal no less, which compared the effectiveness of Kundalini yoga** and CBT in treating anxiety (specifically, generalised anxiety disorder).***

So, how did they fare?

  • Both Kundalini yoga and CBT were significantly better at improving anxiety than stress education (ie proving information on stress and health) – amazing news, right?
  • BUT Kundalini yoga was actually not as good as CBT

This is how the study was reported in the news. While the body of the article (or the bit I can read anyway) is accurate, the title is slightly misleading, don’t you think?

While it may seem disappointing that Kundalini yoga was not as good as CBT, that doesn’t detract from the fact that it was effective at improving anxiety. It actually worked. Let’s repeat that again:

Yoga was effective at improving anxiety!

This means that there is definitely reason to advocate for its prescription on the NHS and other healthcare systems, as a safe, effective and non-pharmacological way to treat anxiety.

As different things work for different people (personally, I didn’t find CBT that helpful but I believe that yoga has helped me a lot), it’s great news that we have different options to tailor to individuals. It means more people have a chance of actually seeing improvements in their anxiety.

One last thought: it’s also important to point out that this is the only published study comparing yoga to CBT in this context (another one is underway, looking at anxiety in older adults, but has not yet reported results). Science is a process of building on our knowledge in a gradual and collaborative basis, and new evidence may have different results; for example, another study comparing yoga, hypnosis and CBT in patients with breast cancer found that yoga and hypnosis led to mental health improvements whereas CBT did not.

*Gold-standard treatment is the currently best available treatment for a condition.

** I think it’s important to note that this study specifically looked at Kundalini yoga, which is very different to other types of yoga. One of the biggest issues in yoga studies is that they don’t specify the type of yoga they investigated, so conclusions tend to be generalised to all types of yoga.

*** You can also read more about the study on the Clinical Trials database, which is an excellent resource if you ever need more information on a clinical trial.


  1. This is super! As always!!!

    I’ll ask Melanie if I can share this in our facebook group (the big one). She’s still on holiday so she’ll get back to me at the end of this month.

    YOU ROCK! _____________________ JENNIE WADSTEN E-RYT 500, CEO: YogaLeela / Yoga Treat Online Ltd / Yoga Treat Retreat Ltd +91 9545 620 578 (India) / +46 70 649 99 92 (Sweden)


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