Social anxiety is often categorized as a phobialike fear of situations or places that aren't inherently dangerous but can provoke heart-racing panic. Most people can think of at least one social circumstance that makes them uncomfortable, and most of us quite naturally avoid situations that make us feel anxious.
But some people experience such intense anxiety it causes them to make significant adjustments in their lives in order to avoid it. If this type of anxiety and avoidance gets to the point that it significantly hinders one's life, it may be called social anxiety disorder. Over a lifetime approximately 13 percent of adults have some symptoms of social anxiety, and as many as 3 percent have a full-blown disorder.
The conventional approach to social anxiety disorder is to treat it with medication (tranquilizers, antidepressants), counseling, and exposure therapy—carefully putting a person into the feared situation in order to experience it without anxiety. This is done gradually and systematically. A therapist talks with the patient to determine which elements are causing the most distress and then determines the best way to ease that person into the situation. For example, if you're anxious about addressing a big crowd, you might begin with a short speech to a small group. This type of exposure can be helpful to people with milder cases of social anxiety as well.
Another key to treating social anxiety is to learn to relax systematically. Yoga training includes tremendously effective methods of relaxation, and by practicing them regularly and then applying them in social settings, you can go a long way toward alleviating your anxiety. Perhaps the biggest problem for people with social anxiety is the fear of being judged or rejected by other people. The spirit of yoga reinforces just the opposite perspective: a sense of positive self-regard. Often yoga is a wonderful way for people to teach themselves to relax, to experience the confidence that comes from stretching their bodies and minds, and to do it all in a supportive and safe environment. Also, yoga teaches skills that can be used anywhere, meaning yogic breathing can be practiced (or even a few simple poses) whenever one feels anxious.
There's no one "best" style of yoga for managing social anxiety, however it is best to begin with a class that emphasizes breathing and a slow increase in the difficulty of the movements. Many people with social anxiety are most fearful of the unknown, so to make it easier, check out the class beforehand.
Rolf Sovik, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist who has been practicing yoga for 25 years. He is spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute and codirector of the Institute's center in Buffalo, New York.