Yoga is widely known for reducing stress, improving flexibility and concentration, and promoting a sense of peace—to name just a few of its possible positive outcomes. On top of its physical benefits, however, researchers are beginning to understand more about yoga's therapeutic benefits for mental health concerns. In fact, some research indicates that yoga can be an effective "prescription" for a myriad of the most common reasons why people seek psychotherapy.
Just as certain psychiatric medications have shown some efficacy for reducing anxiety and depression, it is important to understand that other therapies like yoga have been shown to improve mental health. Yoga is no longer considered a solely “holistic” approach to improving mental health and well-being—in recent years, it's gained a scientific following, and has extensive research behind it to support its benefits.
For instance, yoga has been shown to help with the following:
1. Reducing Anger: In one study of adolescents (2012), yoga was shown to increase one's ability to control anger, compared to a group that participated only in physical education. Practicing yoga has also been shown to decrease verbal aggression in adults.
2. Reducing Anxiety: Numerous studies have found that yoga may decrease anxiety symptoms, including performance anxiety. In one study (2013) with adolescent musicians, yoga decreased anxiety in group and solo performances.
3. Improving Sleep: In one study (2012) of postmenopausal women with a diagnosis of insomnia, yoga reduced insomnia severity compared to a control group. Another study of women with restless leg syndrome showed yoga improved multiple domains of reported sleep quality.
4. Reducing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms: In one study (2014) focusing on adult women diagnosed with PTSD, yoga significantly reduced PTSD symptoms in women who received a 10-week yoga treatment compared to the control group. At the end of the study, 52 percent of the women who practiced yoga no longer met criteria for PTSD, compared to 21 percent in the control group.
5. Improving Mood: Studies have shown yoga can help reduce depression, improve affect, and decrease perceived stress. For example, in a study with a prison-based population (2013), a 10-week yoga class increased positive affect and reduced reported psychological stress.
Why Does Yoga Work? Yoga Helps the Heart
Many people who practice yoga believe it works simply because they feel good afterward. But research supports the concrete physiological effects of yoga, helping to explain why it helps with mental health issues and emotion regulation. This has to do with yoga's ability to increase heart rate variability, or HRV. Increased HRV calms the autonomic nervous system, where the body stores trauma.
Researchers have found both yoga and meditation can help increase HRV. Why is HRV important? HRV is simply the distance between one heartbeat to the next. The goal is to try to have increased HRV because it has been shown to calm your autonomic nervous system and regulate your emotions. Imagine when you feel stressed or anxious. Your breathing is shallow and your heart may be beating fast. This is decreased HRV. When you are feeling relaxed or are engaging in deep breathing, there is more space between each heartbeat and your HRV is increased. This leads to feeling more emotionally regulated or calm.
Decreased HRV is correlated with negative affective states such as anxiety, stress, PTSD, and anger. Individuals who suffer with depression, anxiety, flashbacks, and angry outbursts often have trouble regulating their emotions. People who have poorly regulated autonomic nervous systems can be thrown off balance easily both on a mental and physical level. Examples include being "set off" by a minor hassle, road rage, or crying in public when it isn't warranted. By practicing activities that increase your HRV—like yoga—you can help retrain your heart and physiology, which can lead to emotion regulation and a calmer state.
Yoga is a great complimentary therapy whether it is "prescribed" by your therapist or not. Luckily, no real prescription is necessary! Finding the right program may consist of some trial and error as there are several types of yoga to choose from (hot, yin, hatha, yang, etc). Some enjoy the more physical active styles (yang) like vinyasa or bikram. Others may enjoy a slower-paced practice (yin) or a combination of both. Regardless of the type of yoga you choose, its numerous physical and psychological benefits can make it an important part of your therapeutic process.
This blog post was also posted on my website.
Afonso, R. F., Hachul, H., Kozasa, E. H., Oliveira, D. S., Goto, V., Rodrigues, D., . . . Leite, J. R. (2012). Yoga decreases insomnia in postmenopausal women: A randomized clinical trial. Menopause, 19, 186–193.
Deshpande, S., Nagendra, H. R., & Raghuram, N. (2008). A randomized control trial of the effect of yoga on verbal aggressiveness in normal healthy volunteers. International Journal of Yoga, 1, 76– 82.
Khalsa, S. B. S., Butzer, B., Shorter, S. M., Reinhardt, K. M., & Cope, S. (2013). Yoga reduces performance anxiety in adolescent musicians. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 19, 34–45.
Khalsa, S. B., Hickey-Schultz, L., Cohen, D., Steiner, N., & Cope, S. (2012). Evaluation of the mental health benefits of yoga in a secondary school: A preliminary randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, 39, 80 –90.
Menezes, C. B., Dalpiaz, N. R., Kiesow, L. G., Sperb, W., Hertzberg, J., & Oliveira, A. A. (2015). Yoga and emotion regulation: A review of primary psychological outcomes and their physiological correlates. Psychology & Neuroscience, 8(1), 82-101.
van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY, US: Viking