Yoga, yoga, yoga, it seems everywhere you look there is always someone in some place doing yoga. What is so special about this practice? Is there anything especial really? Can we be objective or is it all metaphysics?
These are the kind of questions that puzzle many of you who want to practice yoga or those of you who want to study the suppose effects of yoga as a medicine or therapy.
Since I am a psychologist let’s begin there. Can yoga be used to help cure mental illnesses? Well first of all, anything that a patient tells you that helps him or her is beneficial, even walking a dog, but is that really sufficient proof? Is that the only therapy you are going to prescribe? Let’s get academics for a minute, the therapy that is used the most nowadays is CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy), its premise is that our behaviour is a product of our thoughts, and so, if we change our thoughts then we change the unhealthy behaviour and the feelings and affections that come with thinking and behaving that way. Although I should tell you that doing so is not an easy task.
The way you are is a product of well-established patterns and most of them are unconscious. You will have to create new patterns and get rid of your limiting beliefs, irrational thinking and automatic thoughts, and again, those are unconscious. So the job of a therapist will be to help a client understand the way he or she thinks and train a new behaviour. Yoga can be helpful in both of those factors.
Yoga is a philosophy and because of that it could help you see the world in a different way. It can provide us with purpose and meaning, both things that sometimes are lacking in mentally ill people, and heck, even people who are not ill but are suffering anyways. Yoga also resembles the techniques used in behaviourism, like progressive relaxation techniques and systematic desensitization. What this techniques have in common with yoga is the training of the parasympathetic nervous system. So a therapist may very well indicate you to take yoga to help manage with symptoms that stimulate in a negative way your autonomic nervous system, which the previous system mentioned is a part of.
Ok, let’s take a second here and break this down a little bit. Many of you are familiar with the way those systems work, but also many of you are not. In any case, let’s review it so we can draw our own conclusions. There are many bodily functions that don’t go pass your brain which is part of the central nervous system, instead, those functions are regulated by your autonomic nervous system, examples of those would be digestive process, blood circulation, breathing etc. When your body is exposed to a stress factor, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes the lead, it puts your body on the fly or fight mode. In that case your sweating mechanism activates, you start breathing faster, your body temperature rises, your pupils dilate, etc. Your body is ready either to face the situation or to run away from it and put you in a safe place. After the stress factor has been dealt with your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) gets in charge. It starts cooling down your body, decreasing your heart rate, slowing down your breathing, in other words starts relaxing your body now that danger is gone, that is how it’s supposed to be. Both systems are important, you need stress in order to grow as much as you need to relax.
In a perfect world that is what it will occur, after stress there comes relaxation. But when you have a mental illness that has symptoms like mood swings or anxiety, what happens is that your body lives in a perennial state of stress and most of the cases it interprets neutral situations as dangerous ones, and that activates your sympathetic system, which gets overstimulated cause you are stressed out all the time. Because in Power Yoga you are told to breathe in a conscious way, most of the time using ujjayi breathing, you are training yourself to activate the PNS, which is a life saviour for people with an overstimulated SNS. The results will be a decrease of anxiety related symptoms, you would be able to sleep better, manage your mood swings better, and regain control of the quality of your life.
What happens with constant episodes of stress, is that cortisol, the hormone of stress, is activated, and when the levels of it stop being normal, that has a tremendous effect on many bodily functions, for example, it has an effect on how your store fat, in how you metabolize energy (in severe cases your cortisol levels will tell your body to use your muscles as energy), your digestive process, your circadian rhythm, and it also affects neurotransmitters.
Power Yoga is very useful because it makes a priority out of training a person to be present, which is a quality of being relaxed, physically and mentally relaxed. When you are present, and have your PNS activated your cortisol levels decrease, so the bad influences that it has in your bodily functions also decrease. For mentally ill people that is excellent news, especially for what happens to neurotransmitters when they are no longer under the bad influence of abnormal levels of cortisol. The levels of serotonin, for example, can go back to being normal again and that has an impact on the mood swings a person experiments, they can begin to stabilize.
Power yoga derives from astanga yoga, and during the physical practice it focuses in creating heat through: concentration, static contraction, bhandas, breathing and flow. All of these elements require the practitioners to be present, to concentrate, to link their breathing to their mental activity. After practicing for a while a person can begin to feel comfortable not moving, just staying still, both physically and mentally. Can you imagine how that will be for a person whose thoughts torture them, and make them feel uneasy? Yes, that’s right, it would be like a magic pill for them.
The reasons above are some of the ones proving the link between mental health and yoga and how it can be used to help in the treatment of some mental illnesses.
A couple of years ago I treated a beautiful kid who was described as hyperactive by his parents, although his neurologist said his brain had no abnormal behaviour. That same doctor asked me to treat him. I created a play therapy using yoga as a tool. The therapy was complex in the sense that I used many techniques, so I cannot and won’t single out yoga as the big magic solution in that case, all I will say is that that boy memorized Surya Namaskare A and B, and learned to practice deep breathing, and by the end of our months together he was still an energetic kid but a kid who had improved his attention spam to learn new things and who used breathing to help his fellow 8 year old classmates to feel better as he once told me he did.
So yeah, I think yoga is a great tool for clinical uses and not just for psychological illnesses. Because of the stimulation on the muscular and skeletal system, yoga can be used for many kinds of conditions. The way that power yoga strengthens and extends your muscles, makes it a perfect tool to heal injuries, many of which are caused by structural or muscular imbalances. At the same time it stimulates both of your hemispheres by making you treat both sides of your body equally, that proves helpful for a great deal of conditions raging from learning disabilities (which have a poor communication between hemispheres), to neuromuscular illnesses like Parkinson or Guillian-Barré syndrome. Furthermore yoga helps with Parkinson because it lowers cortisol and that improves the levels of serotonin in the body, neurotransmitter that suffers because of the illness.
You should also remember that because yoga is not a high impact physical practice (Although we do have advanced levels), and nevertheless is a practice that improves your aerobic condition because of the breathing exercises, it can be done to help people with exercise resistance conditions like metabolic illnesses (hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, fatigue syndrome etc.). Illnesses like this improve a lot when you add exercise, and yoga is a good option to begin with because of its gentle nature, although I will say that Power Yoga is a bit more active so you should take a beginner class and go at your own pace.
Remember that metabolic conditions disrupt your hormonal health, so yoga is very useful because of what it does to cortisol levels, although it should not be a substitute for medical treatment. I have lived with hypothyroidism for almost 4 years now, so I know what I am talking about. As my final thought I will say that because of this characteristics, I think yoga can be used as a helpful tool in medical conditions and it can be used on daily basis to improve fitness and the quality of our mental health, making it a perfect prevention tool. There are a lot of upsides and no downsides to this beautiful philosophy and practice, making it also a smart inversion. Is that not what you look for when seeking to improve your life?