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Yoga as a Mental Health Treatment

  • September 18, 2019
  • Anxiety, Depression, Patients and Families

In a recent review in the journal Focus, Maren Nyer, Ph.D., and colleagues highlight the mounting evidence that yoga is helpful for a variety of mental health conditions and support integrating yoga into conventional mental health treatment.

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Yoga is a physical and spiritual practice that originated in ancient India and is widely practiced for health and well-being. There are many different types of yoga, each with its own emphasis and with varying levels of physical intensity and spiritual focus. In the Western world, yoga often refers to Hatha yoga which uses breathing techniques,
specific body postures and meditation.

Yoga continues to grow in popularity. Nearly one in 10 Americans practice yoga as a complementary health approach and one in three have tried yoga. The most popular reasons for doing yoga include improving flexibility, stress relief, general fitness and improving overall health.

Research has shown yoga can help with a variety of physical problems, such as breast cancer, high blood pressure and chronic pain conditions, particularly back pain. Among mental health disorders, research has found benefits of practicing yoga particularly for addressing symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For about one in three people with depression, antidepressants are not effective. Studies suggest that for people who are taking antidepressant medications but who are still experiencing symptoms adding a yoga-based program may help.

A number of studies have found that practicing yoga can reduce PTSD symptoms. One study of women with chronic PTSD found that participating in a trauma-sensitive yoga treatment program significantly reduced PTSD symptoms. At the end of the 10-week study, more than half of participants no longer met criteria for PTSD. There is also some evidence that yoga is helpful in treating generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

yoga 2.jpgYoga offers some advantages over other types of treatments. It may be useful for people who prefer not to take antidepressants or for pregnant women where there may be concerns about medication-related effects on the baby.

To gain the mental health benefits of yoga, however, requires the motivation to practice and persistence to continue over time. However, there is little research comparing the benefits of different types of yoga or identifying how frequently or how long yoga practice needs to be to benefit. One study found that even a single session of yoga can have some positive impact on mood, tension and anxiety.


The Good Body. Yoga Statistics.

Nyer M. et al. Application of Yoga in Psychiatry: What We Know. Focus Vol. 16 No. 1, winter 2018.

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