There is plenty of anecdotal evidence available for the idea that regularly doing yoga can improve a person’s state of mind, not just in the sense of feeling better and calmer generally, but even to the point of being a viable treatment option for a variety of serious mental health issues.
How Yoga may Benefit the Mind
Intuitively, this makes sense in a number of ways. Mindfulness meditation has long been accepted to be an effective way of countering problems with depression and anxiety, and in fact has been shown to be just as effective as medication in dealing with these conditions. There is also a well-known link between depression and heart disease, so anything that tends to improve blood circulation can only be beneficial. While it’s difficult to say with certainty whether mental ill health causes cardiac problems or vice versa, it does seem like improving one has a positive effect on the other. Finally, regular exercise, whether strenuous or relatively mild, has indeed been demonstrated to relieve the symptoms of chronic anxiety, depression and several other mental health problems. How much of a workout a yoga session is depends on the individual and the style, but it’s undeniably a form of exercise.
Yoga, Mental Health and Science
As it happens, the therapeutic applications of yoga in the mental health sphere are very strongly supported by scientific research. The implications of this may be pretty significant: with somewhere upwards of one in twenty people (in the United States) suffering at least one episode of major depression in any given year, anything that offers effective and long-lasting relief should be seen as a ray of light. Even mental health professionals are increasingly moving away from a medication-only model of treatment. Pills may alleviate the symptoms of a mental condition, but often cause them to worsen instead, while the side effects of any given drug may range from insomnia to decreased libido and alertness to digestive problems. The effectiveness of each drug and the kinds of adverse reactions it may produce vary from patient to patient, making prescribing psychoactive medicine a little like a game of Russian roulette that’s repeated until a pill that more or less works is found.
Where to from Here?
One difficulty in evaluating this kind of research is that there are so many forms of yoga that it is difficult to compare the effects of one with another. Will we be seeing the development of yoga programs specifically intended to cure mental disorders? This is certainly a possibility. Despite what some people would have us believe, yoga is a dynamic discipline that has probably evolved as much in the last two decades as in the two centuries before that. If so, how can it be combined with other forms of treatment, most notably cognitive behavioral therapy? Most people who have practiced yoga for some time will be familiar with the strong emotions that it sometimes evokes during or directly after practice, and it may make sense to make use of this in a therapeutic context.
Ultimately, any efforts in this direction should be aimed at devising a way to cure, as opposed to treat depression. Currently, cases of depression that aren’t caused by physical factors (medication side effects, underactive thyroid glands, etc.) can only be effectively addressed, long term, through talk therapy and changes in lifestyle. If yoga presents an option that can effectively be combined with these – as certainly seems to be the case – millions of people can potentially benefit from it.