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Yoga and Mental HealthExercise plays an important part in overall mental health, including decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Does yoga benefit your mental health? Absolutely! Here are 7 ways yoga benefits your mental health.

1. Can yoga help with symptoms of depression?

Yes! While it is well accepted that exercise helps depression, yoga offers a unique approach of attending to body, mind and spirit which can improve mood. Elements of yoga include movement, breathing exercises, meditation and vocalizations, all of which can help depression. There is increasing research that support the efficacy of yoga in improving depression. Amy Weintraub has been a pioneer in developing yoga practices for depression and she founded the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute which trains mental health professional and yoga instructors in these practices. Her book Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga and the LifeForce Yoga website www.yogafordepression.com are great resources. I completed the Level I and Level II training programs in LifeForce Yoga and am now incorporating practices into my sessions with patients as an adjunct to pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy.

2. How does yoga help relieve anxiety?

Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that meditation can relieve anxiety. Meditation is grounding and present-focused, which helps calm anticipatory anxiety. Various breathing techniques such as alternate nostril breathing help calm the nervous system and promote relaxation. Yoga poses provide strengthening, flexibility and relaxation for the body. Yoga also helps boost calming brain neurochemicals such as GABA which can lower anxiety.

3. Will yoga help my ADHD?

Studies show that exercise helps ADHD with benefits such as improving focus, increasing breath control, decreasing hyperactivity and decreasing stress levels. Depression and anxiety are often comorbid with ADHD and as discussed above, yoga is therapeutic for preventing and improving these conditions.

4. Can yoga help with PTSD?

Studies are showing that yoga is helpful for PTSD and trauma. Trauma survivors often become disconnected from their physical bodies to protect themselves, and instead live from the neck up. Yoga is a very effective practice for improving connections between the mind and body and allows trauma survivors to feel like they have more ownership and control over their physical bodies. Yoga also enhances well-being and fosters a sense of wholeness, which is very therapeutic for patients with PTSD.

5. What types of yoga (or poses) work best for each illness?

Movement, breathing, chanting and meditation are helpful for mental well-being in general. Yoga leads to relaxation, integration of body and mind and a general sense of wholeness. There are some practices that are particularly helpful for depression or anxiety that utilize energizing or cooling/calming practices (such as chakra clearing meditations). PTSD symptoms respond to practices that focus on integration and connectedness, such as creating a safe space, directing awareness, cueing to sensation and grounding.

6. Is yoga an effective treatment option for those with schizophrenia?

There is some research demonstrating that yoga can be a helpful complementary therapy for schizophrenia, but more research needs to be done. Yoga movement and breathing seems especially helpful for decreasing negative symptoms and improving social cognition. Meditation may be less helpful in this population.

7. What happens in the brain during yoga?

We are in the early stages of understanding the impact of yoga on the brain, but thus far the research is very exciting. Our brains have plasticity and can generate new neurons and make new neural connections and studies show yoga enhances this growth in the brain. There is also MRI evidence that over time yoga can lead to increased gray matter volume in certain parts of the brain associated with activities like attention and managing stress. There is also evidence that the consistent practice of yoga can increase the release of GABA in the brain, which is an inhibitory neurochemical that is calming for the nervous system. Anti-anxiety medications target this neurochemical as well. Overall, it appears that yoga may be neuroprotective and can serve as a preventative measure for depression and anxiety, as well as being therapeutic for patients who are symptomatic. In general, yoga is most effective as part of a multidimensional approach to treating psychiatric disorders including psychotherapy, medication if appropriate, good sleep hygiene, healthy diet and regular exercise as well as yoga poses, meditation and breathing exercises.

Dr. Erin Sutton
Erin Sutton MD

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