Yoga and mental health
In a week when mental health services have been under the spotlight in the news, our latest blog looks at yoga and whether it can benefit mental health.
Normally delivered by a group fitness instructor, there are many different kinds of yoga, such as Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga and Bikram yoga (see our blog on: Bikram yoga) and the reasons that people practice yoga are wide ranging, from physical health and flexibility to relaxation and overall wellbeing.
Sometimes defined as a moving meditation, all forms of yoga involve breathing exercises and postures, but variations include carrying out the exercises in a heated room, using blocks and straps, chanting and meditation.
Conditions that some people use yoga to ease include:
- Sleep disorders
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
How can yoga benefit mental health?
Concentration on physical activity is known to benefit mental health and yoga’s focus on breathing and relaxation can help with issues of stress. While some forms of yoga may prove mentally and physically challenging, by sticking with the exercise the practitioner should see improvement and feel a sense of achievement and self-worth.
Can yoga fight depression?
In 2010, a study carried out by the Boston University School of Medicine, US, found that taking part in three sessions of yoga a week boosts levels of the amino acid GABA, which promotes a state of calmness.
At the time, Katie Prior of mental health charity Mind said: “Yoga is a relaxing, low impact activity… It can be done in the privacy of a person's own home, or people can join a class where they can meet others – this is a great way to meet people, especially for those who may suffer from isolation and loneliness.”
What other conditions might yoga help to ease?
In 2013, the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry published a report by researchers from Duke University Medical Center, US, which reviewed more than 100 studies on the effect of yoga and mental health.
The lead study author, Dr P Murali Doraiswamy, said that by practicing yoga, “Mentally, people feel calmer, sharper, maybe more content.” The findings were that yoga was beneficial in combating mild depression, aiding sleep and helping to relieve the symptoms of schizophrenia and ADHD.
What is Behavioral Action and how does it related to yoga?
Behavioral Action (BA) is an evidence-based treatment for depression, which involves encouraging activity, regardless of how someone is feeling. People suffering from depression often lack motivation and become inactive; BA encourages them to consciously act to break the cycle.
Like other forms of exercise, yoga replaces passivity with action and requires focus on something outside negative and isolating thoughts. Additionally, the element of controlled breathing, the connection of mind and body, and the accomplishment felt after practicing yoga can all have positive effects on mental health.
How can yoga help with anxiety?
Anxiety and panic attacks relate to our “fight or flight” instincts. While some people who experience anxiety may find some aspects of yoga challenging – from the discomfort of reaching and holding a difficult pose, to being in a mirrored room – by gradually exposing themselves to the challenge and increasing confidence in their abilities, they can break through to a more positive state that brings longer term benefits.
While studies suggest that yoga can be beneficial to mental health and some of the best personal trainers continue to use it as a form of flexibility training– wider, large-scale studies are still warranted into its beneficial effects. Meanwhile, it is not recommended that people should come off prescribed medication for mental health-related issues unless recommended by their GP or specialist.