In Western culture, we have understood the benefits of yoga for decades. It improves flexibility and balance and helps to tone muscles. Of course, practitioners of yoga have been around for thousands of years, not mere decades. What these people may have known for millennia, modern Western science is just now starting to prove. Yoga is not just good for the body; it is also good for the mind.
In ancient India, yoga developed as a discipline involving physical aspects such as strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance. It also originated as a mental and spiritual discipline, though, and it is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. As any modern practitioner of yoga will attest, practicing this ancient tradition leads to a feeling of calm, peacefulness of mind, as well as physical well-being.
Modern science is testing the possibilities of yoga as an aspect of treatment for psychological disorders, and finding out that it is promising. The journal Frontiers in Psychiatry recently published a study out of Duke University to this affect. The researchers were motivated to investigate yoga because of the cultural phenomenon that it has produced in recent years. Because yoga is so popular today, they say, it has become difficult for consumers, and even physicians, to distinguish between genuine claims about what yoga can accomplish and general hype.
The journal article comprises a comprehensive review of the literature on yoga and relief of mental illness symptoms. Although many people report feeling better overall, mentally sharper, calmer, and more relaxed after practicing yoga, it is important to see what hard research says about these statements and whether they can be backed up with evidence.
After the comprehensive review, the authors from Duke believe that yoga does indeed help to relieve symptoms of some psychiatric and psychological disorders. These include depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, and sleep disorders. The reviewers concentrated on 16 studies in particular that targeted the use of yoga for patients with eating disorders, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, sleeping issues, and cognitive disorders.
The studies concluded that yoga had a positive effect on all types of patients, excepting those with cognitive and eating disorders. There is still potential there, however. The studies looking at these two classes of mental illness had too few participants or came up with conflicting conclusions. More research would be needed to identify any positive effects.
A few of the studies investigated even concluded that yoga may have an effect on people that is similar to drugs like antidepressants and psychotherapy. This means that like these other treatments, yoga changes levels of brain chemicals, reduces oxidative stress, and lowers inflammation. It is important to note, however, that these effects are similar to those found with other types of exercise.
Yoga as Treatment
The review authors do not suggest that yoga can be a solitary treatment for any mental illness or that patients should replace any part of therapy or medication with yoga, but do recommend further study. They believe that a wider study of yoga and its effects on mental illness is warranted based on the smaller studies already conducted. They also suggest that yoga should be considered as a valid aspect of treatment and potentially even a first line type of treatment.
Yoga has already been implemented in the care and treatment programs of many people with mental illness. Treatment programs for mental illness and for addiction with a holistic philosophy often use yoga as one part of care, for instance.
Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder are using yoga as well. Research funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs has also concluded that there are benefits to using yoga. Research using veterans as participants has found that doing yoga improves sleep and reduces anxiety. That a physical activity can help reduce the symptoms of this painful and devastating disorder, is a boon to many veterans and their families.
As the evidence in favor of yoga mounts, experts expect to see this ancient tradition utilized more and more in the mental health and addiction treatment professions. While people have long known its benefits, having the proof helps physicians and patients to make better choices about care.