Yoga as Psychotherapy
Yoga is a gentle form of exercise that improves strength and flexibility without putting stress on the body. As such, it’s an ideal exercise for helping people recover from physical trauma. While yoga has been used by many practitioners as physical therapy for quite some time, it’s only relatively recently that the value of yoga as a form of psychotherapy has been explored.
Exercise and Mental Health
The beneficial effects of exercise on mental health are well established, particularly as they relate to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. People who are physically active on a regular basis are less likely to suffer from depression, and people with depression respond better to a treatment plan that incorporates regular exercise along with medication than one which includes only medication. In fact, some studies have shown that regular exercise alone can be just as effective as medication. As well as this, people who incorporate exercise into their lives while recovering from depression are less likely to become depressed again if they continue to exercise on a regular basis. Similar studies have shown that regular exercise can help people with anxiety disorder by reducing the frequency and severity of anxiety and panic attacks.
Most studies so far have looked exclusively at the beneficial effects of cardiovascular exercises like walking; few have explored the potential of other forms of exercise. However, there is a small but growing body of evidence indicating that activities like yoga can be just as beneficial, if not more so, as a therapeutic tool—not just for depression and anxiety, but also for mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
How Yoga Benefits the Mind
At a basic level, yoga is beneficial for both body and mind, in the same way as any other type of exercise, with benefits like increased strength, improved mood, and better sleeping habits. In the case of yoga, however, the benefits go far beyond the basic; yoga has traditionally been a form of movement in which both body and mind play a role, and this may be why it’s proving to be an effective form of therapy.
For example, many studies have shown how yoga can help people undergoing treatment for life-threatening illnesses, and also that it is more effective than other similar types of exercises. In one study, women who received radiation therapy for breast cancer were offered additional therapy that included a regular program of stretching exercises or yoga as a way of counteracting the fatiguing effects of the radiation. The researchers noted that yoga is more beneficial than stretching exercises that incorporate similar types of movement—women who took part in regular yoga sessions had less fatigue, less stress, and a more positive outlook, than women who engaged in simple stretches. It seems that key aspects of yoga, like controlled breathing and focused muscle use, are part of what makes this type of exercise improve mental well-being.
One particularly beneficial aspect of yoga is the way that it encourages awareness—of breathing, of tension, of muscle use, for example. Mental illnesses like obsessive-compulsive disorder are characterized by intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that people with the disorder are unable to control. Therapy for this kind of illness involves methods that help the person learn how to control the thoughts and behavior, in part by cultivating an increased sense of awareness about how and why they occur.
Practicing yoga, with its focus on intense concentration and awareness, can help people with OCD, as well as other mood disorders, both in the short term and the long term, by providing a period of relief from intrusive thoughts and behavior, reducing stress levels and promoting relaxation. Yoga also provides the opportunity to focus on something else besides the anxiety-producing thoughts that someone with OCD is affected by—practicing yoga requires mental as well as physical energy, and occupies the mind at the same time as it does the body.
Alana B. Elias Kornfeld. “Psychotherapy Goes from Couch to Yoga Mat.” Accessed April 18, 2014. TIME Magazine.
Health and Yoga. “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” AccessedApril 18, 2014.
Kiran Kumar Salagame. “Psychology of Yoga and Yoga Psychology.” Accessed April 18, 2014. Therapy and stress reduction.
Kirsten Weir. “The Exercise Effect.” Accessed April 18, 2014. American Psychology Association.
Megan Langelier. “Yoga and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” Accessed April 18, 2014. Yoga for treating OCD.
Psych Guides. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” Accessed April 18, 2014. Symptoms and treatment.
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Yoga Regulates Stress Hormones and Improves Quality of Life.” Accessed April 18, 2014. Benefits of yoga for women undergoing radiation therapy.