Yoga and Mental Health
A practice for whole body healing
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | February 8, 2019 (edit January 10, 2022)
The ancient practice of yoga is much more than an exercise routine. Yoga brings together the mind, body and spirit in a whole body cleansing experience.
Over the last couple decades, Yoga has entered the western exercise scene, stretching our understanding, while strengthening core understandings of mental health. Yoga, initially a passing fad, is picking up steam in the medical community. Science is backing practitioners’ claims of healing through this ancient practice. A quick journey through the growing compilation of literature supports the mind-body claims. Yoga can heal our mind.
I’m a born skeptic. I was interested in yoga more for the style of workout. The yoga poses fit well into the boot camps I was conducting. In 2009, I took a two-day comprehensive instructors’ course. The sixteen-hour overhaul of stretching, working, and breathing refreshed my mind and rejuvenated my soul. My life was in upheaval at the time; a victim of the housing crash, struggling through divorce, and facing a lawsuit.
Yoga didn’t solve the problems; I needed several more years to sort through these thorns and regain stability with a rekindled enthusiasm for life. However, I made it through the turbulence with my psyche intact. I felt balanced and healthy. Perhaps, my yoga practice of several sessions a week while instructing clients and classes, contributed to the healing.
In the November of 2000 issue of Psychology Today, readers were introduced to Jenny Smith. Jenny suffered from bipolar disorder. The severity of the depression and anxiety landed her in the hospital. Frustrated by ineffective medications and the growing helplessness in the face of a debilitating disease, she turned to something different—hatha yoga. “As she practiced daily, Smith noticed that her panic attacks—a symptom of panic disorder, a disease that some bipolar disorder sufferers also contend with—were subsiding” (Weintraub, 2000).
"Yoga didn’t solve the problems; I needed several more years to sort through these thorns and regain stability with a rekindled enthusiasm for life."
Exercise, in general, has mental health benefits (Murphy, 2019). Yoga, however, provides something extra, separating this Ancient Eastern practice from other typical exercise routines. A rich and spiritual philosophy underlies the movements, giving the purposeful poses more than a physical characteristic. Yoga means to yoke, bringing together all aspects of the mind and body. The ultimate aim is to create a deeper connection with ourselves and the world around us. (Shaw, 2009. Pg. 13)
Yoga has shown tremendous hope, benefitting those suffering from a variety of illnesses, including cancer treatment patients (Diorio, C. et al. 2016; Vandiraja, S.H., et al. 2009; Lundt, A., & Jentschke, E. 2019), elderly in hospice care (Ramanathan, Bhavanani, & Trakroo, 2017), people being treated for type 2 diabetes (Bock, B., et al. 2019), victims rehabilitating with cardiovascular disease (Sharma, S. et al. 2019), people being treated for eating disorders (Ostermann, T. et al. 2019), and even for those in treatment for addiction (Mallik, D., Bowen, S., Yang, Y., Perkins, R., & Sandoz, E. 2019).
The scientific support is strong, suggesting yoga is an excellent supplemental treatment for many illnesses of the body. Perhaps, the connecting factor in all of these studies is the mind component.
Deepak Chopra argues there is no separation between the mind and the body. The mind and body are interconnected and interdependent. The health of one leads to the health of the other. There is more to this then some vague metaphysical philosophy, curiously discussed but loosely applied. The medical field overwhelmingly agrees that mental conditions impact health. Depression and anxiety, when prolonged, can be devastating to the physical health of the body. Accordingly, treatments that relieve mind ailments can heal physical ailments as well.
Mental Health, Yoga and Homeostasis
A healthy body maintains a homeostatic balance. When we encounter threats, our body reacts, spiking necessary components into action to protect or escape. Once the threat is confronted and subsides a healthy body returns to balance, and inner peace is experienced. With mind disorders, such as anxiety and depression, this process is disrupted. The parasympathetic nervous system (the brakes that return our system to normal) fails to effectively engage.
“The parasympathetic nervous system quells activation via a brain-wide inhibitory neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), lowering the volume on overall neuron activity, as contrasted with glutamate, and excitatory neurotransmitter which amps up neural activity.” (Brenner, 2019)
A recent study theorized that yoga normalized GABA levels in a key area of the brain—the thalamus. The results are encouraging. After a twelve-week program there was a significant difference in the GABA levels compared to a control group. (Streeter, C. et Al. 2018). The metaphysics of yoking the mind, body and spirit has scientific grounding. The ancient practice of yoga with physical postures (asana), breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation techniques (dyana) heal the body and mind.
Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it together this way:
Suffice it to say that yoga is one of the great gifts on the planet, and availing yourself of it and bringing mindfulness to your body and mind through the gateways of yoga asanas and the flowing sequences of various postures can be extraordinarily uplifting, rejuvenating, invigorating, transporting, and just plain relaxing (2017).
Whether healthy or ill, yoga may be the answer you’ve been seeking. Discuss this whole-body avenue of healing with your health professionals, and then give it a try. Perhaps, like Jenny Smith and I, you may discover new balance and control over your mental and physical being. You may find that yoga heals your mind.
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Balasubramaniam M., Teller, S., Doraiswamy, P.M., Yoga on our Minds: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Depress anxiety. 2013;30(11):1068-1083.
Bock, B., Thind, H., Fava, J., Dunsiger, S., Guthrie, K., Stroud, L., Gopalakrishnan, G., Sillice, M., & Wu, W. (2019). Feasibility of yoga as a complementary therapy for patients with type 2 diabetes: The Healthy Active and in Control (HA1C) study. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 42, 125-131.
Boni, M., Schütze, R., Kane, R., Morgan-Lowes, K., Byrne, J., & Egan, S. (2018). Mindfulness and avoidance mediate the relationship between yoga practice and anxiety. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 40, 89-94.
Brenner, G.H. (2019, January 19) How Yoga and Breathing Help the Brain Unwind. Psychology Today
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Diorio, C.; Ekstrand, A., Hesser, T., O’Sullivan, C., Lee, M., Schechter, T., Sung, L., (2016) Development of an individualized yoga intervention to address fatigue in hospitalized children undergoing intensive chemotherapy. Integr Cancer Ther 15(3):279-284
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Lundt, A., & Jentschke, E. (2019). Long-Term Changes of Symptoms of Anxiety, Depression, and Fatigue in Cancer Patients 6 Months After the End of Yoga Therapy. Integrative Cancer Therapies, 18, 1
Mallik, D., Bowen, S., Yang, Y., Perkins, R., & Sandoz, E. (2019). Raja yoga meditation and medication-assisted treatment for relapse prevention: A pilot study. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 96, 58-64.
Murphy, T. F. (2019) Exercise and Mental Health. Flourishing Life Society. Well-being website.
Ostermann, T., Vogel, H., Starke, C., & Cramer, H. (2019). Effectiveness of yoga in eating disorders – A case report. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 42, 145-148.
Posadzki, P., & Streeter, C. (2011). Yoga improves mood and anxiety in healthy subjects. Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies An Evidence-Based Approach, 16(2).
Ramanathan, M., Bhavanani, A., & Trakroo, M. (2017). Effect of a 12-Week Yoga Therapy Program on Mental Health Status in Elderly Women Inmates of a Hospice. International Journal of Yoga, 10(1). Retrieved from Questia.
Sharma, S., Pailoor, S., Choudhary Ram, N., & Shrestha, S. (2019). Development of a yoga module targeting cardiovascular health for patients with post-myocardial left ventricular dysfunction in India. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 42, 170-177.
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Streeter, C., Gerbarg, P.L., Nielsen, G.H., Brown, R. P., Jensen, J.E., Silveri, M. Effects of Yoga on Thalamic Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, Mood and Depression: Analysis of Two Randomized Controlled Trials. Neuropsychiatry (London) (2018) 8(6), 1923–1939.
Vandiraja, S.H., Rao, M.R., Nagarathna, R., Rekha, M., Vanitha, N., Gopinath, S.K., Srinath, B., Vishweshwara, M., Madhavi, Y., B, S.A., Ramesh, S.B., Rao, N. (2009) Effects of Yoga on Symptom Management in breast cancer patients: a randomized control trial. International Journal of Yoga 2(2):73-79.
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