Yoga; Therapy for Mind and the Soul? Let’s know more about it.
In the recent past, there has been a surge of interest in holistic healing, especially when it comes to managing mental health disorders. A holistic approach to treatment takes into consideration all aspects of the individual’s wellbeing — physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. Rather than focusing on one illness or problem, holistic healing looks at healing the individual as a whole. In practice, it underlines the connection between the mind, body, and spirit.
Why is this important?
The prevalence of mental illnesses has been rising, with a 2017 report by the WHO indicating that 7.5 percent of the Indian population is suffering from a mental health disorder. The real figures might be higher as indicated by a nationwide survey conducted by NIMHANS between 2014 and 2016 which placed the figure at 10.6 percent.
Over the last few decades, great progress has been made in refining and improving the treatment of mental health disorders, with new medicines and therapy spearheading the approach. This method, however, relies more on a biochemical and behavioural model of the mind which, while necessary and highly effective, is a little simplistic in nature.
Individuals are not a group of symptoms and trying to address mental health issues that way misses the importance of social, cultural, and spiritual factors.
That bring us back to holistic healing. The holistic approach to treatment integrates important parts of western medicine like pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy with other complementary therapies. Yoga therapy is one such.
So what is Yoga?
Put briefly, yoga is an ancient Indian practice that teaches ways to gain mastery over the body and the mind. It is a combination of mindful movement (physical postures called asanas), controlled breathing (called pranayama), meditation, relaxation, and sometimes mantra chanting.
Yoga therapy is the use of these yogic techniques to achieve a specific health goal, like anxiety relief or stress reduction. In a more general sense, yoga is a way of healthy living incorporating ways to find physical health and peace of mind.
Asanas are physical postures that are done in a mindful way with deep awareness of the body and the breath. They might involve postures to develop strength, improve flexibility, and induce relaxation. Pranayama is a broad term used to refer to any sort of breath control, be it breathing through one nostril at a time, or simple conscious deep breathing.
In a yoga session, you are likely to encounter a series of postures, breath-work, and meditation aimed not just at ameliorating your symptoms, but also going one step further and asking what positive wellbeing means for you.
How does it work?
Western medicine categorises disorders in a way that makes them easier to treat, but yoga therapy doesn’t fit into that model. While medication and psychotherapy look at what needs to be fixed, yoga asks you to look inwards and see who you really are, and what you want to be. Yoga believes that every individual is whole, that no one is broken or damaged, and that the inherent wholeness just needs to be brought out.
And therefore, the approach is to figure out what “wellness” means for you rather than trying to figure out what illness needs to be treated. It is not a specific asana or pranayama practice that cures a specific mental disorder. So if you were to ask me what sort of yoga to do to help with depression, I would have to say, well it depends, what are you feeling/struggling with?
What are the symptoms you’re facing?
What does healing mean for you?
A growing body of research presents therapeutic yoga as a promising aid to mental wellness. Studies show that yoga can help reduce rumination, stress, and anxiety, improve sleep, alleviate depression, and even help reduce the negative and cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia, which are hard to treat with standard methods of treatment.
Research also shows yoga to be beneficial for eating disorders, and the various symptoms of PTSD.
Yoga emphasises the connection between the body, the breath, and the mind. This is great because it is notoriously challenging to work directly with the mind. Ask anyone who has anxiety and wants to calm down. Mental illnesses sometimes also manifest physically as stomach issues, headaches, unexplained body pains etc., underlining the mind-body nature of these conditions. When the mind can affect the body, there is scope for the body to affect the mind. And that is the principle yoga therapy works on. We use the body and the breath as a way to reach the mind.
Yoga, it appears, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that is responsible for recovery and rest. This is especially true for deep, rhythmic breathing. Your heart rate reduces, and your mind and body calm down. Yoga also increases awareness. You get to understand your mind better, you observe the effects specific situations have on you, and you notice symptoms before they get out of control.
A lesser known aspect of yoga therapy is the application of yoga philosophy to the aspects of life that might be causing stress. It is surprising to see how many troubles are resolved with awareness, kindness, and compassion. It provides basis for cognitive restructuring to help reduce the effect that external circumstances can have on your state of mind. It helps you understand that you are not defined by your illness, and that being ill does not mean there is something wrong with you.
Medication for mental health conditions also comes with a range of unpleasant side-effects. But medicines can play a crucial role in recovery and so it becomes important to figure out how best to handle the side-effects. Common issues are weight gain, an increased risk of diabetes, trouble concentrating, and lethargy, to name a few. A regular and consistent asana and pranayama practice can help with all of these.
Health is not merely the absence of disease. Similarly, good mental health is not just the absence of mental illness. The WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Yoga has much to offer for mental wellness. It leads many towards happiness and health, and not just people with diagnosed mental illnesses. As a practicing yoga therapist, I encounter individuals with different mental health goals. I see a whole range of emotions and experiences that they come to the session with. Most of us, it turns out, have plenty of scope for mental and spiritual growth.
On the whole, yoga is relatively safe, but there are a few contraindications to be kept in mind. Not all practices are suitable for everyone. For instance, if there is a co-morbid health condition like hypertension, certain yogic practices are not suitable and can be dangerous. Meditation is also something to approach with caution in individuals with severe mental health conditions — done without the supervision of a trained yoga therapist or mental health professional, it can lead to worsening of the condition.
People are turning to yoga to combat daily issues for general wellness and self-care. It is a lifestyle change that can help you discover well-being and happiness. Yoga therapy for mental health is slowly being established as a scientific discipline and a school of holistic medicine and is expected to grow in practice.
About Ms. Ramya Pillutla
Ramya Pillutla, C-IAYT, RYT500 is a certified yoga therapist with a passion for mental health. She works with individuals with a wide range of health conditions and hopes to bring yoga to those who would benefit from it. She combines her specialised yoga therapy training with her with her personal mental health experience to take yoga therapy out to those with mental illnesses. When she’s not out teaching yoga, she likes to read, trek, skate and play piano.
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