Yoga therapy can help improve schizophrenia symptoms, reduce stress, and enhance quality of life. But meditative yoga isn’t suggested for some people.

Schizophrenia is a complex mental disorder characterized by hallucinations, delusions, social withdrawal, and impaired cognitive function.

The term “schizophrenia” means “split mind,” referring to the fragmented thinking and disrupted perception of reality often experienced by people with this condition.

Yoga, a part of the ancient heritage of India, may be a helpful, holistic response to schizophrenia. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit “yuj,” meaning “union” or “yoke.”

Yoga is believed to enhance the union between mind and body, and it’s been used as a therapeutic intervention for numerous conditions.

Within the last few decades, a series of promising studies have shown that yoga may be helpful when added to a traditional treatment plan for schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a complex disorder that affects all aspects of life.

Most people with schizophrenia are able to manage their positive symptoms (hallucinations and delusions) with atypical antipsychotics. But about 30% don’t respond well to these medications.

Because of this, it’s important to consider alternative therapies that can be added to a standard treatment plan.

Yoga is one such therapy that addresses the whole person. It can even reach some of those difficult-to-treat cognitive and “negative” symptoms, such as poor memory and lack of concentration.

The science behind yoga for schizophrenia

Several studies support the use of yoga as a complementary therapy for schizophrenia.

Research from 2012 reveals numerous benefits of yoga for schizophrenia, including the reduction of:

  • psychotic symptoms
  • depression
  • improvements in cognition
  • greater quality of life
  • neurobiological changes, such as increased oxytocin levels

A large study from 2019 also shows that yoga-based interventions may help reduce:

  • negative symptoms (e.g. social withdrawal, lack of motivation)
  • emotion recognition difficulties
  • residual symptoms (milder symptoms still lingering after treatment)

Yoga may also help balance the neuroplasticity abnormalities in schizophrenia and improve real-life functioning.

An older 2007 study on yoga for psychosis divided participants into three groups:

  • yoga
  • exercise
  • a wait-list (control)

The findings show that the yoga group was five times more likely to experience improvement in negative symptoms.

They also experienced improvements in emotional recognition, positive and negative symptoms, and social cognition.

Specifically, 2018 research has shown that yoga plays a role in the following mechanisms:

  • Regulates the autonomic nervous system, creating a reaction that is the opposite to a “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.
  • Reduces blood cortisol levels.
  • Regulates heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Improves long-term memory.
  • Reduces stress by minimizing mental focus on external stressors or threats.
  • Helps control blood glucose, cholesterol and total lipids. This is important as many people with schizophrenia have cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (precursor to those conditions).
  • Minimizes effects of antipsychotic medications (dyslipidaemia, diabetes, and obesity)
  • Improves physical health.
  • Improves sleep.
  • Increases oxytocin, a hormone related to improved mood (some evidence suggests this hormone may be beneficial for schizophrenia).
  • Enhances GABA (gamma‐aminobutyric acid), which is believed to be involved in schizophrenia.
  • The deep inhalation used in yoga can decrease stress.
  • Improves quality of life.
  • Reduces positive and negative symptoms.
  • Offers community/social benefits when learned in a group.

Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline with roots in Hinduism. The practice — which involves breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific body postures — focuses on bringing harmony to the mind and body.

Yoga consists of three primary parts:

  • asanas (postures)
  • pranayama (breathing techniques)
  • dhyana (meditation)

Unlike most types of physical exercise, asanas are done slowly, in conjunction with breathing exercises. These movements are intended to promote relaxation, focus, and an internal state of harmony.

There are many types of yoga from which to choose. Here are a few of the more common ones:

  • Hatha yoga: This is the most popular type of yoga in the United States. It emphasizes the asanas or physical yoga postures.
  • Iyengar yoga: A form of Hatha yoga that uses props (mats, blankets, chairs, blocks) to help beginners learn the asanas gradually and accurately. It involves sitting and standing postures, inversions (shoulder or head stands), breathing techniques, and a short period of relaxation at the end.
  • Vinyasa yoga: Also called “flow,” Vinyasa yoga is a more contemporary form of yoga where the poses flow into one another without any pauses between them.
  • Sudarshan Kriya yoga: Involves a sequence of four breathing techniques: slow breathing, forceful high-frequency breathing, chanting, and a cyclical breath technique. It’s believed that these breathing techniques provide a neurophysiological workout leading to greater flexibility and plasticity in the nervous system.

Benefits of yoga

Research suggests that yoga improves:

And a 2013 systematic review has found that yoga enhances mental functioning and quality of life in people with physical conditions like:

  • menopause
  • cancer
  • pain

It’s important to note that research has shown that meditation can worsen or trigger psychosis in people with schizophrenia.

So it’s best to do yoga that primarily focuses on movement, postures, and light breathing techniques, rather than one with a deeper focus on meditation, such as Kundalini yoga.

Most of the studies looking at yoga for schizophrenia have used a combination of asanas and pranayama, avoiding meditative-focused yoga (like Kundalini yoga).

There are several alternative therapies for schizophrenia that can be added to antipsychotic medication. Expressive therapies allow for creative expression as well as the opportunity to connect with others, such as:

  • art
  • dance
  • drama
  • music therapy

Several supplements may be beneficial for schizophrenia. Many of these help improve the negative and cognitive aspects of the disorder.

  • NAC
  • glycine
  • sarcosine
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • ginkgo biloba
  • probiotics
  • sulforaphane
  • taurine

Be sure to discuss any new supplements with your doctor to be sure they don’t interact with your medication.

This Psych Central article offers more information on supplements for schizophrenia.

The benefits of meditation for mental health are well-documented. Meditation is particularly helpful for relieving anxiety and stress.

One study from 2021 found that a strong meditation habit and physical exercise had a significant positive effect on post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Similar to meditation, yoga helps direct the mind to the present moment, but it adds a significant physical component which helps increase endorphins and lower stress.

But, as mentioned earlier, if you’re at risk for psychosis, it’s best to focus on types of yoga with a primary focus on movement rather than meditation.

Yoga is an effective complementary therapy for schizophrenia, as the practice can improve physical health and help you develop a sense of connection and belonging (if taken in a group setting).

But perhaps most importantly, the practice of yoga can alleviate stress and improve the cognitive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia that are often unresponsive to medication.

If you or a loved one has schizophrenia, talk to your doctor or therapist about starting a yoga therapy class.