Over the last few decades, yoga has become quite popular, even trendy, outside of the Eastern Buddhist and Hindu cultures. For example, Harris Interactive Service Bureau reported in February 2012 that 16.5 million US adults practice yoga. (source) With so much hype, it is easy to get carried away about the many ways yoga is good for us.
In the Western world, yoga practice mainly comprises of physical postures and movements called asanas, working with the breath, which is referred to as pranayama, and meditation, resulting in numerous benefits on the body. Easily recognized by the practitioner are improvements in strength, breath capacity, flexibility and balance.
Most yogis will claim that yoga has many other benefits, perhaps not as clearly visible at first, such as improved circulation, digestion and elimination, lowered stress and tension, improved concentration, and on, and on. Luckily for us, we are now starting to see more research to back up some of these claims, and slowly yoga is becoming an accepted treatment for stress and mental health disorders.
A recently published review in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry has revealed that a regular yoga practice can have positive effects on various mental health disorders, such as depression and sleep complaints, as well as improve symptoms of illnesses such as schizophrenia and ADHD. It is also a natural treatment for children and individuals seeking refuge from side-effects or costs associated with conventional drugs. Researchers from Duke University evaluated 124 trials, of which 16 were considered in the final review that led to the findings presented in the published paper. The conclusion of the study reads:
There is emerging evidence from randomized trials to support popular beliefs about yoga for depression, sleep disorders, and as an augmentation therapy. Limitations of literature include inability to do double-blind studies, multiplicity of comparisons within small studies, and lack of replication. Biomarker and neuroimaging studies, those comparing yoga with standard pharmaco- and psychotherapies, and studies of long-term efficacy are needed to fully translate the promise of yoga for enhancing mental health. –source
How Yoga Can Help in Psychiatric Care
It is no secret that the state of public health has been declining. The American Psychological Association estimates that 1 in every 5 Americans are taking some type of psychotropic medication. Whether the distribution of these drugs in such capacity is warranted or not, many people legitimately suffer from mental health illness. The World Health Organization states that over 350 million people globally are affected by depression, and, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the US alone, 5.4 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2007. With such staggering numbers, it is refreshing to see that the medical establishment is starting to evaluate natural treatments such like yoga as potential solutions, instead of relying on pharmacological treatments.
With a regular practice incorporating specific postures, such as shoulder stand (Sarvangasana) and fish (Matsyasana), and movements with the breath and body, called vinyasa flow, yoga balances the endocrine system, revitalizes the nervous system, helps eliminate toxins from the body, and decreases the amount of overall stress that is felt by the body. The meditative and spiritual aspects of a yoga practice further allow us to cope with anxieties and life’s realities.
What the Indian people have believed for thousands of years, Western scientific research studies are now supporting:
By reducing perceived stress and anxiety, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems. This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal — for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration. There is also evidence that yoga practices help increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly. (source: Harvard Health Publications)
Most studies conducted to understand yoga’s effects on mental health, up to now, have looked at small sample sizes, so it will be some time before mental health professionals start prescribing yoga to treat psychiatric disorders, in lieu of medication. Yet, studios around the world are now filling with regular people who are realizing the calming and healing effects of yoga. The research presented here should serve as groundwork for personal study and practice.
Note from the editor: We do not suggest any changes in existing medical treatments or medications without the consultation from your prescribing physician. The author did not intend in any way to offer medical advice.