Yoga for Balancing Mind and Body

Hispanic woman practicing yogaYoga is in ancient practice that originated in India but has gained considerable popularity in the US. Breathing exercises, postures, and meditation are core components of yoga. Although many people develop a yoga practice to become more physically toned or flexible, the benefits of yoga are purported to extend to calming the mind and balancing the emotions.

In recent years, a number of studies have examined the potential benefits of yoga to improve mood. Although all of these studies have fallen under the broad heading of “yoga,” some have evaluated the potential benefits of breathing exercises, whereas others have looked at the impact of yoga postures, and still others have looked at some combination of the two.

In one study, participants who had severe depression were asked to practice Shavasana (lying on one’s back and breathing rhythmically) for 30 minutes per day, for one month. Those who have taken yoga classes will recognize Shavasana as a common end to the day’s practice. In the aforementioned trial, practicing Shavasana was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms by the middle of the treatment, and this improvement was maintained at follow up. In different study, engaging in Iyengar yoga asanas or postures was shown to alleviate mild symptoms of depression in participants who did not have a formal diagnosis of depression.

Another type of yoga practice, Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY; a series of specific breathing techniques), has been evaluated to determine whether it would reduce depressive symptoms. In one trial, SKY was compared to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and drug therapy. After one month, benefits were seen for all three therapies. Although the reductions in symptoms associated with practicing SKY were not as great as those associated with receiving ECT, they were comparable to the changes seen in those receiving imipramine (an antidepressant), without producing the sides effects often associated with drug therapies. SKY has also been shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety in other research.

Other studies evaluating yoga postures and breathing have found that they may reduce stress in patients with stress-aggravated medical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, and hypertension. Thus, the research to date suggests that yoga practices may help those who struggle with mood issues, as well as those whose physical illnesses are worsened by stress.

People who practice some form of yoga have often developed a greater capability to pay attention, increased ability to deal with stress, and improved pain coping for those with a chronic pain condition.

Several years ago I happened upon a simply written but instructive book called Beat Fatigue with Yoga. The author, who had suffered from severe chronic fatigue syndrome for years, found that engaging in gentle, simple yoga postures significantly improved her energy levels and helped her to become more physically functional over time. Given how often depressed and anxious people also report significant fatigue, it seems worth mentioning this resource. In my own clinical practice I have observed that people who practice some form of yoga have often developed a greater capability to pay attention, increased ability to deal with stress, and improved pain coping for those with a chronic pain condition. Thus, yoga may be a beneficial component of one’s mood management regimen.

It is important to note that many trials of yoga have had design flaws that make it difficult to definitively recommend yoga as a therapy for mood symptoms. Yet, the results are encouraging and consistent with what many people have reported personally. As with any exercise program, it is important to consult with a health care professional prior to beginning a new regimen, particularly for those with medical issues. Yoga breathing exercises such as those featured in SKY practice may not be suitable for those with panic issues, bipolar, or other conditions.

References:

  1. Agombar, F. (1999). Beat Fatigue with Yoga: A simple step-by-step way to restore energy. Element Books Ltd.
  2. Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part I – Neurophysiologic model. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(1), 189-201.
  3. Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part II – Clinical application and guidelines. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(4), 711-717.
  4. Pilkington, K., Kirkwood, G., Rampes, H., & Richardson, J. (2005). Yoga for depression: The research evidence. Journal of Affective Disorders, 89, 13-24.

© Copyright 2011 by Traci Stein. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • rah

    rah

    August 4th, 2011 at 2:30 PM

    Yoga IS my therapy of choice :)

  • Kelly

    Kelly

    August 4th, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    I’ve been into yoga breathing techniques for a few weeks now and it definitely makes me feel better.I have no illness or breathing issues but I took it up because I had heard of it’s benefits and I already feel like my lung capacity has increased and I’m sure this will improve my strength for activities like running and other exercises.

  • TR

    TR

    August 5th, 2011 at 11:49 PM

    Is yoga a substitute for regular exercise or something that compliments it?I have heard about it but dint know much really!

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    August 6th, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    @TR: That’s a great question. Yoga is wonderful for many reasons, among them that it can improve flexibility, strengthen muscles, and help calm the mind. Unless you are taking a very fast-paced class, however, yoga tends not to count as aerobic exercise – and aerobic exercise is important for cardiovascular health. For most people, adding some regular, brisk-walking or other aerobic activity can help round out your fitness program. (BTW, regular exercise in general can help with mood-management.)

    Again, if you have any medical concerns or have been inactive for some time, it’s worth checking with your physician before starting a new exercise regimen.

  • ERIN

    ERIN

    August 6th, 2011 at 3:00 PM

    I have always been excited and open to the fact that yoga could be a pleasant experience, but to be honest I would be terribly embarassed to try it anywhere except alone. I am kinda big, totally not flexible and I guess those two hang ups alone are holding me back from being all that I can be. I know that getting in touch with yourself is so much of what yoga is about but sometimes those fears hold you back, or at least they do for me anyway.

  • Harper

    Harper

    August 7th, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    @ Erin- you should not feel that way!
    Yoga is not only a great way to get in shape physically, but it is awesome for feeling better about yourself spiritually and emotionally. Don’t be so concerned about what other people think- that does not matter. Live your life and be open to what yoga and other aspects of life have to offer. You will be amazed at what you could learn. But the main thing is please do not let others hold you back. That is not cool, but yoga is!

  • Rosemary

    Rosemary

    September 29th, 2011 at 4:08 PM

    Yoga is a win-win. You’ll brighten up your mood and feel better about yourself but you’ll also become healthier, more flexible and less prone to injuries. You kill multiple birds with one stone. I’ve been praising the benefits of yoga for years and have gotten several friends to become regular class goers. They’ve all noticed that they feel more relaxed and happier. It’s an amazing feeling to feel this way, where you feel invincible and that nothing can ruin your day.

    Many people think that yoga is all about getting into all sorts of uncomfortable positions. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Yoga is about finding inner peace, through the use of breathing exercises and body positions. It’s really just a fun, active way to meditate.

  • Lori

    Lori

    September 11th, 2012 at 7:02 AM

    Just wondering if you can suggest a good beginner yoga DVD please?
    Thanks Lori

  • Traci Stein

    Traci Stein

    September 11th, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    Hi Lori,

    Yoga Journal has some useful info: yogajournal.com/video/level/beginner/
    I also like the videos by Rodney Yee. Good luck!

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