It can be surprising for people to learn that yoga, which is perhaps most often perceived as a gentle method of self-help and exercise, is being taken increasingly seriously for its potential therapeutic value by mental health professionals.
In many ways, one of the most exciting areas in yoga therapy is where it intersects with psychology. Yoga therapists require rigorous, evidence-based training in order to work safely with particular mental health populations, and these high standards – alongside mounting research into yoga’s mental health benefits in clinical and therapeutic settings – has inspired interest from the wider medical and therapeutic field.
Psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors and practitioners of talking therapy are increasingly moving towards a person-centred approach to the therapeutic relationship. As they consider the individual needs of their clients and expand their continuum of care, there is a growing conviction that the use of techniques from a variety of complementary therapies can be helpful in tailoring therapy to the singular requirements, needs and personalities of their clients.
Yoga, which can be modified to safely support people living with a range of mental health issues, is a particular point of interest. When approached with the appropriate base of knowledge, teaching clients simple yogic techniques (such as mindfulness meditation, breath work and planned movement) within therapy sessions can lead to improvements in psychological and physiological symptoms.
The research concerning the therapeutic implementation of yoga in the treatment of mental health conditions isn’t yet definitive, but there is a growing core of good quality evidence to suggest that yoga improves wellbeing in a range of mental health conditions – from anxiety disorders to schizophrenia. Yoga can also give therapists the tools to address the sometimes overlooked physical aspects of mental health disorders, whether that’s lowering blood pressure (and often, alongside it, feelings of panic) through breathing exercises, or easing physical tension held throughout the body with asanas.
We still do not have a full understanding of what is happening in the brains of those who live with mental health problems, or a conclusive “cause” in the development of these illnesses (with a variety of genetic, social and environmental factors appearing to play a role). However, one common theme is that poor mental health is associated with decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex and lower executive function.
The efficacy of yoga is relieving the symptoms of mental health disorders and improving wellbeing may lie in its ‘bottom-up’ impact on the brain, which strongly links yoga with beneficial activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Studies suggest that planned movement and controlled breathing involved in yoga can promote neuroplasticity and improve executive function, while also promoting the release of important neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and gamma-aminobutyric acid.
Alongside this, mindfulness training has been associated with positive brain changes (such as reductions in the amygdala), and can help people reappraise their existing assumptions, increase their present moment awareness and encourage the cognitive flexibility to respond in novel ways. Yogic techniques, which include mindfulness, can help people in nurturing emotional resilience and regulation. This can be particularly helpful in allowing people, who perhaps struggle with overwhelming feelings, use calming techniques in order to better engage with further therapeutic work.
Yoga also offers potential benefits for therapists themselves; a growing area of research suggests that both mindfulness and yoga reduce burnout in mental health practitioners, supporting greater wellbeing and resilience. Interestingly, research has found that patients who work with psychologists who practice mind-body techniques report greater overall satisfaction with therapy.
This all goes some way to explain why therapists are increasingly interested in yoga. In fact, for some psychologists, yoga therapy has even become the basis of their professional work. One example is senior clinical psychologist Dr Samantha Bottrill, who states on her website that the ‘more I learned about yoga and its benefits the more I wanted to find a way to bring yoga into my work as a psychologist.’ She went on to spend nearly a decade working within the NHS, including yoga and mindfulness in her clinical practice, where she worked with eating disorders in children.
As research grows, and we develop our understanding of the complicated relationship between mind and body, it is likely that techniques such as yoga will continue to become part of the wider whole in therapeutic care, and give therapists another tool with which they can help patients in the path to recovery.
Heather Mason is a yoga therapist and founder of The Minded Institute, which offers yoga therapy training to yoga and health professionals.
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