The ancient Eastern practice of yoga combines mindfulness training with exercise (hence the term, “mind-body”). For years, practitioners all over the world have reported receiving mental and physical health benefits from yoga.
Only recently has yoga been subject to Western scientific evaluation, and so far, its effects are promising for a host of conditions from fibromyalgia to depression. Results of numerous studies found yoga offers some of the same therapeutic benefits, both physiological and psychological benefits, as other widely accepted mental health treatments. For example, regular yoga can regulate hormones in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (also known as the human stress response system) and enhance immune system functioning. Yoga can also reduce stress, anxiety, and depressed mood.
Yoga is actually similar to several existing gold standard treatment approaches and especially complements treatments used for depression and anxiety.
Yoga for Mood
Depression often involves a lack of motivation and interest in physical activity. When depressed, a person may wait to participate in activities they once enjoyed until their depressed mood remits. Behavioral Activation (BA) is a common, longstanding evidence-based depression treatment. As an, “act before you feel” approach, its aim is to establish greater levels of activity in patients despite the mood they experience. By consciously deciding to resume normal levels of activity — from completion of daily tasks to exercising — regardless of how we feel, our behaviors provide powerful feedback to the brain that we are not prisoners to our thoughts and emotions. In other words, positive emotions can be produced by our actions.
Therefore, from the BA standpoint, activity is not optional. Breaking the cycles of inactivity/isolation involved in depression requires first taking a behavioral step in that direction while depressed.
Yoga and other forms of exercise represent a pure form of behavioral activation. Putting the body in motion replaces passivity with action. Exercising outside or in a group imputes a person within the greater world, forcing their attention on space beyond dark, isolating thoughts. Given the effects of acute exercise on various brain chemicals, even exercising alone indoors can benefit well-being.
Arguably to even a greater degree than traditional forms of exercise, yoga requires attention to a range of inward and outward sensations. Completing the practice relies heavily on reciprocal feedback between mind and body. In this way, the mind can be a valued ally in our experience instead of a dark enemy. This notion is echoed by the greater concentration and flexible attention capacities seem in experienced yogis and meditators.