This paper explores the way yoga affects a person’s mental health. Mental health issues addressed are depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Iyengar yoga focuses on the posture of the body and helps those with depression feel more confident. Kundalini yoga focuses on breath control and helps those with anxiety and panic attacks. Those who have OCD have a Kundalini yoga protocol that helps them stay away from their obsessions and compulsions. Yoga also helps those with PTSD feel more in control in their life. Yoga is shown to help not just people diagnosed with a mental illness but raise mental health in the everyday person as well. Even though yoga is shown to improve mental health, there are still limits that stop yoga from being the best answer.
Yoga’s Effect on Mental Health
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is about the theory and practice of yoga. Yoga means to “yoke” or “become one with.” Yoga involves the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Those eight limbs are self-discipline, ethics, proper posture, breath control, mastery over body, concentration, meditation and complete union with god. The goal of yoga is to achieve enlightenment and can be achieved when all these practices are combined. Yoga therapy is all about a therapist using the eight limbs to help a person become aware of what is causing their suffering and alleviate their symptoms. Modern yoga mostly focuses on three of the eight limbs of yoga, posture, breath control and either meditation or concentration. Overall, yoga is something that helps the individual in becoming their true Self. Because of the popularity yoga has gained in Western culture, research has been done to find the benefits of it in a therapeutic setting. A study in 2009 asked soldiers returning from active duty to practice yoga as a way to integrate themselves back into society. These soldiers reported back that they began to feel a sense of control in the livers with the help of yoga. There was also a decrease in both depression and anxiety symptoms, along with other health conditions (Hanson 11-12). Yoga can be a safe and efficient method in alleviating mental illness symptoms and help those overcome mental illnesses.
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Yoga is very much about how your body moves as much as it is about your mind. One type of yoga, Iyengar yoga, emphasizes body movement and posture. Those who practice Iyengar yoga have a sense of self confidence and have an increase control over their own body. This style of yoga helps those affected with depression. With the emphasis on body and posture the participants practicing Iyengar yoga have elevated moods because their body language is more open and positive. People who are diagnosed with depression are shown to have closed off body language and Iyengar yoga practices the opposite type of body language. Participants of Iyengar yoga have reported to feeling, “less anxious, tense, angry, fatigued and confused after classes than just before class” (Shapiro 495). The differences in body language helped to elevate the moods of those who have diagnosed depression. Practicing Iyengar yoga has been shown to help those who experience depression.
Another type of yoga is Kundalini yoga. Kundalini yoga focuses on breath control. The use of breathing skills is to help individuals with anxiety in order to regain a sense of control in their body. When someone is having a panic attack their body is in a state of flux, often described by labored breathing, chest pains and other symptoms. Kundalini yoga helps to restore the body to its normal functions (Hanson 28). Breath control is also an important foundation in the practice of yoga. Learning how to breath properly causes the mind to become clear. When the mind becomes clearer a person is less likely to participate in activities that are deemed self-destructive, which is something someone with depression often engages in. With a clear mind a person is better able to think and act in a way that is more positive for that person and their surroundings (Shannahoff-Khalsa 96).
Kundalini yoga also helps people who have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Those with OCD have obsessions, which are thoughts or impulses that occur over and over again, and compulsions, which are behaviors or actions that must be done again and again. People who have OCD often go through behavioral therapy to combat their obsessions and compulsions, but Kundalini yoga is also shown to help combat symptoms of OCD. For people with OCD there is the Kundalini yoga protocol (Shannahoff-Khalsa 91). There are eight poses main poses one can do to help with the disorder. All eight poses are written out in great detail and this helps because those with OCD have a need to make sure they are doing things correctly. One study was done with five participants over twelve months of practicing Kundalini yoga. After completing the twelve months, three of the participants were off their medication for OCD and the other two had reduced their dosage by fifth percent (Shannahoff-Khalsa 92). Another study was done between two groups, over twelve months again, to compare relaxation and meditation techniques. This first group, which primary focus was meditation, showed a more significant improvement over the second group, whose focus was relaxation. Then, because the first group has such a significant improvement over the second group both groups continued by practicing Kundalini yoga, not putting an emphasis on either meditation or relaxation (Shannahoff-Khalsa 93). Both studies showed that practicing Kundalini yoga helped those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. People with OCD find it very hard to relax since their obsessions and compulsions are constantly present in their mind. Kundalini yoga helps to bring balance to the mind and body and can be used to help treat others who have OCD.
Another way in which yoga helps those who have a mental illness is those who have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when people have gone through a traumatic event such as war, natural disaster, serious accident or any type of life-threatening event. Many symptoms of PTSD are nightmares, flashbacks to the event, anxiety and depression. Yoga has been shown to lessen the effect PTSD has on an individual. Yoga is mainly used to help relax the body and mind. This relaxation causes a decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms. While yoga does help decrease some symptoms of PTSD, like depression and anxiety, there are still symptoms that yoga cannot ease. Because of this, there has even been a new style of yoga developed to help those with PTSD, termed trauma-sensitive yoga. This style of yoga has been specifically fitted to help each person and varies from person to person. Trauma-sensitive yoga has lowered PTSD symptoms such as nightmares and relieve stress (Bennett 167). Trauma-sensitive yoga is specially catered to help those suffering with PTSD and personalized for each person’s trauma. With this level of personalization people are concentrating on living in the moment and being mindful, which is what yoga is about. The emphasis yoga places on being mindful also helps lower symptoms of nightmares and reliving the event.
Just because yoga is a way to relieve mental health issues, it does not mean yoga can completely get rid of the problem. There are still many limitations on the effectiveness of yoga on these problems. A problem found in many of the researches taken place is there are small sample sizes in many of the studies. These small sample sizes create a problem because it is hard to tell whether the outcome occurred by chance or not. Bigger sample sizes mean a closer approximation to the population versus smaller sample sizes. Yoga is not seen as something that is easily studied and measured. Thus, it is hard to simply study yoga’s effectiveness on an individual when much of the data collected is through self-observation and self-reporting. Another problem is that not many studies on yoga’s benefits has occurred in recent years. Many of the studies done happened more than ten years ago. Much of how we view science and scientific data has changed over the last several years and with this research on yoga being outdated it can become a less reliable source of information. Another limitation that persists is the meaning of yoga and how we are using it. Yoga is a very Eastern idea and believed to have originated from ancient India. How we are trying to research and study it is a very Western notion. These two varying ideologies cause the view on yoga to be seen through two very different lenses.
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Yoga is not just beneficial to those who have diagnosed mental illnesses, but also the general population as well. Yoga has been shown to have a positive effect on mood and behavior, along with lowering stress levels. “When comparing Iyengar yoga with walking, yoga elicited greater improvements in anxiety and mood level than metabolically-matched walking” (Bennett 167). Yoga not only helps those who are suffering, but the everyday person as well. It is also shown that yoga is as effective, or even more effective at improving mental health than exercise alone. These findings helped pave the way for yoga to be studied and researched as a way to improve the health and well-being of those with mental illnesses.
Yoga is shown as an effective and secure way to ease the symptoms of mental illnesses. In conclusion, yoga seems to be a beneficial way of improving mental health for everyone. While the emphasis is on those who have a mental illness, yoga is shown to improve the mental stability for all. Yoga creates beneficial mindsets, emotions, attitudes, and physical improvements for those who practice it. Since there are many ways of practicing yoga there is no clear answer on what type of yoga helps with mental health and how it does so, but there is an overall positive correlation between practicing yoga and an increase in mental health. There is no one specific yoga practice that is helpful in treating anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, but rather a mixture of several types to help people. Yoga has shown to be effective with the help of lessening symptoms of mental illnesses. It has also shown to help increase positive thinking in individuals suffering with depression, lessen symptoms of PTSD, help those who have anxiety and OCD. Yoga is a way for individuals who are suffering to heal in their own way since yoga is so personalized and can be changed to fit a person’s needs.
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