Achieving a state of relaxation free from incessant anxiety and self-doubt is a nearly universal goal. Stress-related symptoms account for two-thirds of all visits to family physicians, and relief can seem particularly remote to those suffering from mental illnesses that hobble the recovery process. Entire industries promise to deliver true relaxation for a fee, and millions still search for the precise combination of treatment variables that will help them come closer to achieving a calm mind and a healthy self-impression. Yoga, an ancient practice consisting of strictly regimented exercises in physical, emotional, and spiritual conditioning, has grown increasingly popular as a stress reliever and an addition to standard mental health treatment courses. While it is in no way a “miracle cure” fit to supplant personal therapy, medication and healthy lifestyle choices as an emotional corrective, its overwhelmingly positive influence on the mental health of thousands should be noted.
The psychological benefits of regular exercise are now indisputable - even very light activities like a brisk 20-minute walk can diminish the stress response and improve one’s state of mind at any age. Yoga is, at its core, an exercise regimen that can become an entire lifestyle for its most devoted adherents. Personal testimony unfortunately remains our main source for information about the practice’s benefits as very little existing data has explored the relationship between yoga and the neurological/behavioral effects of mental illness. A few select studies have, however, provided a base from which to conduct further research, and their findings are encouraging. One study noted significant increases in the presence of GABA, a neurotransmitter often lacking in the brains of severely depressed individuals, among those who’d just completed a single yoga class. Surveyed subjects new to yoga have also reported lower levels of anger, depression, and anxiety after only a few sessions, and the practice has been formally considered as a potential treatment for victims of cancer, diabetes, and severe depression.
Chronic anxiety does not only drain the emotions. It also wears the body down, leaving one more susceptible to ailments like general fatigue and the common cold, and contributing to the eventual development of arthritis, stroke, high blood pressure, and various forms of heart disease. Yoga directly counters both short-term anxiety and underlying stress by teaching participants to calm their thoughts and emotions by establishing greater control over their bodies - and it all starts with the breath. Obesity and anxiety disorders in particular can give rise to shallow breathing or breathing “through the chest,” limiting the body’s oxygen intake and heightening the risk of high blood pressure and, in extreme cases, panic attack or stroke. The condition can both stem from and complicate pre-existing anxiety, making it doubly undesirable, and the carefully measured breathing techniques required by yoga may all but eliminate its presence.
The communal aspects of the practice can also benefit those with severe anxiety or depression. While not quite a social outlet, a regular yoga class, like any other workout group, fosters a growing sense of camaraderie over time. Elderly individuals not given to more intensive workouts can treat yoga as both a gentle form of physical conditioning and a great way to avoid social isolation while more intensely dedicated adherents spend years training their bodies to master complex poses. Yoga-based conditioning can also lead to weight loss and counter long-term health problems like arthritis, asthma and general fatigue that contribute to underlying cases of depression. Yoga is not a competitive practice, though individuals looking for a challenge can find one in seeking to push the body further during each session.
Again we must stress: yoga is not a miracle cure or even a “cure” at all. It is a regular, physical practice that can very quickly provide health benefits that only increase over time, particularly for individuals given to problematic anxiety or depression. One may want to study the discipline before signing up for a class as entering without any relevant experience can be frustrating. But one-on-one instruction is often available, and if a first attempt at yoga fails to satisfy, the practice won’t be going anywhere even if health trends at large begin to move in a different direction. Among devotees, it will continue to attract the same degree of esteem it’s held for thousands of years.