For several years now it is also known in the West what in India has been common knowledge already for centuries. The understanding that a regular yoga practice is contributing to good health and optimal well-being. Yoga has been proven to reduce stress by balancing and relaxing the practitioner’s mind. An outcome that is very much needed in today’s busy lifestyle and one of the reasons it has grown so popular in the West over the last years.
Recently also health care providers and therapists jumped on the bandwagon promoting the supporting effect yoga has on the healing of mental health issues. This awareness is so important, as instead of purely handing out antidepressants, they empower the patients to experiment themselves with what makes them feel better. Even a new field has formed: Yoga therapy, which focuses on the healing attributes of yoga asanas (the physical practice), meditation and breathing exercises.
But does yoga really help with depression?
A recent study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and reported on by Time in May 2017, (http://time.com/4695558/yoga-breathing-depression/) was conducted with 30 people of the age 18 to 64. They were all suffering from clinical depression, were on a steady dose of antidepressants for the last three months or more, or were not taking any medication at all.
The yoga practice chosen for the study was Iyengar yoga. Iyengar yoga focuses on the practitioner’s alignment and posture, combined with the right breathing. It is considered a safe practice for everyone.
The group was split in two: One half was attending a 90-minute yoga class three times a week, plus had to practice at home four times a week for 30-minutes. Participants of the other group were practicing less: They attended two group classes of Iyengar yoga a week, plus conducted three sessions at home every week.
Almost all participants of the study have shown a 50% or more increase in well-being after three months of practice, according to their answers to a depression-screening questionnaire. The group who practiced yoga three times a week had a better outcome than the participants who practiced yoga only two times a week. So that’s good news! We can say indeed, that yoga helps to decrease the symptoms of depression.
How can this be explained?
Mainly this positive effect can be explained by the relaxation and breath work that are essential elements of a yoga practice. They help to balance our body’s nervous system. When people suffer from depression, their nervous system is out of balance, so yoga targets precisely this problem.
Without going into too much scientific detail, here is a short summary of how the autonomic nervous system works. It consists of two parts: The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible to set our body in an ‘alarm’ mode, which helps us to quickly respond to threats from the outside world. It is responsible to set in effect our primal responses, which are ‘fight or flight’. These still stem from the times when we were under constant threat of being killed by wild animals and had to make quick decisions in order to survive. The threats might have changed but the demands to our bodies and minds have not: We are under a steady bombardment of huge amounts of information that needs processing, requests that need to be answered, and expectations that need to be met, so we multitask more that is good for us. This means our body runs in the ‘fight and flight’ mode almost constantly.
On the other hand, the responsibility of the parasympathetic nervous system is relaxation and healing. It’s also common to say it’s responsible for ‘rest and digest. Two functions that are neglected in our daily life, when the sympathetic nervous system is in charge. A yoga practice actively stimulates these very important functions by targeting the parasympathetic nervous system, so our mind and body can heal.
Another factor that contributes to the positive effects yoga has on wellbeing and the healing process of depression is that people learn to connect with their bodies. Many people never learned how to listen to their own bodies. All the lives they were reacting to demands from the outside world, from family, friends, society, and their jobs. It’s so important though, that we take the time to look after ourselves, to do what we want, and especially to do what makes us feel good, without fulfilling any deeper purpose.
Listening to our body, finding out how we feel, being aware of our breath. How does it feel when I lift my leg? Do I want to lift it further or is it enough for me today? Is my breath shallow or deep? All these questions you can ask yourself in your yoga practice, tune in with your body, decide for yourself how far you want to go, as no one else can tell us how you feel.
This might be a first for some people, but it’s so important. Connecting with the body and breath is important for a healthy long-term relationship between mind, body, and soul.
Can yoga substitute therapy?
While yoga is proven to help with depression and other mental illnesses, it’s not a cure-all. People suffering from depression should avoid relying solely on yoga but keep also working with their therapist, even if it’s only to discuss their new yoga routine and the effect it has on their mental state.
While yoga helps to calm and balance the mind, it’s important to stay away from any unsafe practices, like deep visualizations where trauma can be revoked. So it’s good to try different yoga teachers and styles, in order to find one’s personal feel-good practice.