“A strong body makes the mind strong” Thomas Jefferson
It is well known that mind and body are not separate and that stress and distress can affect our bodies in various ways. We commonly try to treat mental health problems by targeting the mind by using medication or talking therapy. Whereas medication alters neurotransmitters in the brain to help people to feel less anxious and low, talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy help people to change unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaviour. However, can physical practices like yoga lead to changes in mental health and wellbeing? The answer, according to Amy Weintraub, author of ‘Yoga for Depression’ is yes: “The yoga mat is a good place to turn when talk therapy and antidepressants are not enough”. (1)
A major component of yoga is learning how to breathe slowly and deeply (around six breaths per minute for adults) and there is evidence that slowing down breathing leads to changes in the functioning of the vagus nerve in the brain. Researchers have highlighted the fact that the 80% of the fibres in the vagus nerve travel from the body to the brain, which means that slowing down our breathing can have a major impact on mental and emotional wellbeing. (2)
There is growing evidence that yoga can help specific mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, insomnia, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder, which has led to a new field called Yoga Therapy. (3) Yoga therapists are trained to develop tailored sequences of postures to address different difficulties. However, is yoga more beneficial than other kinds of exercise? Studies have shown that whereas exercise tends to increase cortisol levels, yoga reduces them (4) and that yoga has a more beneficial effect on certain brain chemicals (e.g., GABA) than other forms of exercise (5).
Given that yoga can involve holding challenging, sometimes uncomfortable, postures for extended periods of time, one’s attitude towards postures on the mat can serve as a helpful analogy for one’s approach to difficult situations in life. That is, if we learn to approach challenges both on and off the mat by taking a deep breath and adopting a calm, non-judgemental approach, life will progress with more balance and ease.
1) Weintraub, A. (2004). Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga. USA: Broadway Books.
2) Gerbarg, P. & Brown, R. (2012). The Healing Power of the Breath. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
3) Khalsa, S. (2012). Yoga for Mental Health Conditions: Prevention and Treatment. Paper presented at Yoga, The Brain and Mental Health Conference, 2-4 November 2012, London.
4) West, J., Otte, C., Geher, K et al. (2004). Effects of hatha yoga and african dance on perceived stress, affect and salivary cortisol. Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 28, 114-118.
5) Streeter, C.C., Gerbarg, P., Saper, M. Ciraulo, D., Brown, R. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and Post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical Hypotheses, 78, 571-579.
For more information on yoga therapy, visit the Minded Institute: http://www.yogaforthemind.info/