Makoto (not his real name) was visibly shaking. The crinkled, trembling A4 list of keywords in his hands was now the focus of the whole class. Not the meticulously designed Canva slide. Not the thoroughly-researched content. His hands. He was shifting uncomfortably from one leg to another as he tried to remember what he was supposed to say next. The class started to shift with him. Everyone was holding their breath.
My heart was breaking for him. This is one of the most proactive, diligent, kind, and humorous university students I’ve had the pleasure to teach. He and his team had worked so hard on this presentation. His growing frustration was palpable. Though Makoto managed to struggle his way through the rest of his part, as he and his group returned to their seats he was visibly upset. It’s a scene that every teacher and student will be familiar with.
Glossophobia (the fear of public speaking) is frequently reported as the most common phobia (Gallego et al, 2022). Interestingly, public speaking anxiety prevalence in university students in Sweden correlates to that of the general population (Tejwani, 2016). Dwyer and Davidson (2012) report that 61% of American university students have some form of public speaking anxiety. Therefore, providing as many tools as possible to overcome this problem for students is vital in order for them to have greater opportunity to excel both personally and professionally. I will suggest one such tool, one that might surprise you.
What actually is public speaking and public speaking anxiety?
Miriam Webster defines public speaking as “the art of effective oral communication with an audience.” Public speaking can include giving presentations, speeches, recitals, interviews, debating, pitching to clients/superiors, or even having a difficult conversation with a loved one.
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines public speaking anxiety as “the fear of giving a speech or presentation in public because of the expectation of being negatively evaluated by others.” PsychCentral describes physical symptoms including shortness of breath, an increased heart rate, and even panic attacks.
So, how can we ease public speaking anxiety?
First, we must delve into the nervous system, defined by McGonigle and Huy (2022) as our connection between the brain, the body, and the environment, in charge of maintaining homeostasis.
Specifically, we are interested in the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) responsible for relaxation, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responsible for activation (colloquially known as “fight-or-flight” and “rest-and-digest” responses, respectively).
Interestingly, rather than just being a form of exercise, a common misperception, yoga is a practice that specifically works on regulating these two nervous systems. It follows reason then, that it could be used to reduce public speaking anxiety. This might seem like a slightly radical idea, but the possible benefits are too great for us to ignore. And by using yoga, I don’t mean you have to equip your classroom with mats to employ it. Even simple breathing techniques can help.
What actually is yoga?
When you hear the word “yoga,” your mind might jump towards images that saturate social media feeds of slender women in tight leggings twisting their bodies into impossible shapes on a yoga mat. This is because, for many of us, particularly in the West, our entry point into yoga tends to be through the physical practice. Rarely does it extend beyond that.
Originating from the Indian subcontinent, yoga is essentially a way of life. Though its vast and rich history extends beyond the scope of this article, we will focus on one path of yoga, Hatha yoga. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1:2) it is written that “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” So, one interpretation is that we practice yoga in order to be calmer, more grounded individuals. Physical flexibility and strength are purely a happy side effect, and neither are prerequisites to start practicing yoga.
How does yoga act on the nervous system?
When we do not feel threatened, our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems work in harmony. We are in what is called our Window of Tolerance (WoT), a term first coined by Dan Siegel (1999). We respond appropriately to our surroundings, feeling grounded and authentic, akin to the yogic concept of sattva.
Perceived threats trigger the sympathetic nervous system, leading to increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and energized muscles for fight or flight—a primal survival response. In contemporary scenarios like public speaking, the perceived threat isn’t a predator but potential negative judgment, leading to physical symptoms such as trembling, shortness of breath, and anxiety, known as “hyperarousal”, or rajas in the world of yoga.
Once the threat diminishes, the parasympathetic system activates, returning our bodily functions to normal, and we return to a state of sattva. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are often likened to the body’s gas and brake pedals, determining responses.
Sometimes, when the brain perceives the threat to be too big to fight or flee from, it can instruct the parasympathetic nervous system to apply the emergency brake. This is the freeze response, transpiring as stage fright, lethargy, disconnection, depression, or dissociation. In yoga, this is referred to as tamas.
Yoga plays a crucial role in regulating the nervous system and can mitigate public speaking anxiety. In Makoto’s class, I began connecting the dots between my yoga training and understanding anxiety. While we had covered conventional public speaking techniques in the course, we hadn’t delved into the physiology of anxiety and how to address it.
How can I apply yoga to help combat public speaking anxiety?
Let’s explore this through the lens of three components of yoga: asanas (poses), pranayama (breath work), and dhyana (meditation).
- Asana (Poses)
Asanas essentially prepare the body for stillness during breath work and meditation. Movements like side-bends, backbends, forward folds, and twists, done in conjunction with deep inhalations and exhalations, strengthen and open the chest, allowing for deeper, calming breaths which activate the parasympathetic nervous system. In class, we practiced seated side bends, seated cat-cow, and seated twists.
- Pranayama (Breath Work)
In most conventional yoga classes, after asanas, breath work follows. A few moments will be spent seated, practicing controlled breathing techniques that help to regulate the nervous system. These can be categorized into equalizing, vitalizing, and tranquilizing practices. For example, Nadi Shodhana (an equalizing practice) maintains emotional and physiological balance, while tranquilizing practices like Belly Breath and Box Breath shift us from fight-or-flight (the state we are in when experiencing PSA) into our WoT. In class, we rotated between various pranayama practices including Belly Breath, Three-Part Breath, Humming Bee Breath (also beneficial for warming up vocal cords) and beginner-level Nadi Shodhana.
- Dhyana (Meditation)
Meditation at the end of a yoga class involves focusing on the breath and keeping the mind focused on the present amidst life’s distractions. Though the word “meditation” can often make people grimace, it is essentially the practice of noticing that your mind has wandered onto past regrets or future worries, and gently guiding it back to the present, knowing that it will shortly wander off again. I like to think of it as a kind of mental decluttering process that helps to develop focus and clarity. Therefore, it is beneficial to reducing PSA as it helps to alleviate PSA-related confusion, brain fog, and forgetfulness. In class, we practiced sitting silently for a couple of minutes, and occasionally tried a guided meditation to encourage relaxation from head to toe, much like this one:
What is the best approach when applying yoga to help reduce PSA?
With your help, students can take two approaches to applying yoga to ease public speaking anxiety:
Long-term: A consistent yoga practice with a qualified teacher will, over time, regulate the nervous system so that you stay in your Window of Tolerance more frequently and for longer periods. This is the long-term approach which students can do in their own time and own home. YouTube is saturated with many wonderful yoga teachers providing free well-rounded yoga classes. I recommend Fightmaster Yoga and Aham Yoga to start with.
Short-term: Apply cherry-picked practices from the three components just before their presentation to help get them into their Window of Tolerance. In class, this approach often lasted anywhere between ten to twenty minutes before we moved on to the topic of the day. We included some seated asanas, one breath work practice, and a minute of two of silent meditation picked from the practices listed above.
In my opinion, both long-term and short-term approaches are necessary for yoga to really have an impact on easing public speaking anxiety. That said, not all students have the time and energy (or interest) to pursue yoga long-term, in which case the short-term approach might be the best option.
Does it work, though?
Anecdotally, yes. Though I have yet to collect any empirical data on this, let’s go back to Makoto.
It’s now his final presentation of the semester. He’s at the front of class, no script in his hands. He is speaking with ease and I am feeling very smug. But then, he falters. He stops completely and stares at the floor. He is in a freeze state (tamas) and my heart begins to sink for him again as I simultaneously question all my career choices thus far.
From the back corner of the room, his cheeky friend pipes up “Ellie, I think he’s crashed.” Everyone chuckles, including Makoto. He straightens up, and takes not one but two full deep belly breaths, like we have been practicing each class. Then he looks at the class and says “I’m sorry, my CPU needed updating.” Everyone bursts into relief-filled laughter, and he carries his team successfully over the proverbial finish line. Over one semester he has gone from someone visibly shaking and struggling to get words out, to someone who still experiences set-backs, but has another tool in his kit to get past them in real time.
Observations in eight classes with approximately twenty students in each revealed largely positive reactions. Students felt a little uncomfortable doing asana at first, but once they noticed the difference in how they felt each week after we completed each of the three components (asana, pranayama, and dhyana), they started to voluntarily practice breath work together before their presentations.
How to apply yoga off the mat has been a long-talked-about topic among practitioners keen to expand awareness of yoga beyond asana. Additionally, given the value that being a competent public speaker holds in presenting ideas with clarity, and the subsequent prevalence of public speaking requirements at universities, finding ways to overcome public speaking anxiety are vital to students’ development. Blending the two fields could potentially help towards solving both issues.
Danylchuk, L. (2019). Yoga for trauma recovery: Theory, philosophy, and practice. Routledge.
Dwyer, K.K., & Marlina M. Davidson (2012) Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death? Communication Research Reports, 29:2, 99-107. https://doi.org/10.1080/08824096.2012.667772
Gallego, A., McHugh, L., Penttonen, M., & Lappalainen, R. (2022). Measuring Public Speaking Anxiety: Self-report, behavioral, and physiological. Behavior modification, 46(4), 782–798. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445521994308
McGonigle, A., & Huy, M. (2022). The physiology of yoga: An evidence-based look at how yoga affects health and well-being. Human Kinetics.
Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. Guilford Press.
Tejwani, V., Ha, D., & Isada, C. (2016). Observations: Public Speaking Anxiety in Graduate Medical Education–A Matter of Interpersonal and Communication Skills?. Journal of graduate medical education, 8(1), 111. https://doi.org/10.4300/JGME-D-15-00500.1
Eleanor Smith is an assistant professor at Aichi University and founder of www.elliesmithyoga.com. She has taught English in Japan for 18 years and yoga for three years. She holds an MA in Applied Linguistics, and a 200-hour yoga teaching certificate from Akasha Yoga Academy.