Yoga has proven benefits for the body and mind. Among other things, it increases flexibility, strengthens posture and provides relaxation. In addition to the general benefits, yoga can also be used specifically as a therapeutic measure. For this purpose, the yoga exercises are individually adapted to the existing complaint. This is possible not only for physical complaints such as joint or back pain, but also for mental illnesses (Butterfield et al., 2017; Wieland et al., 2017).
Classical yoga usually takes place in a group setting. It is performed together without directly addressing the individual complaints of the participants. In yoga therapy, the sessions are first done one-on-one. In a detailed preliminary conversation, the medical history is discussed. Then individual components of yoga are selected, and tailored to the needs of the patient.
Yoga therapy and classical yoga are composed of different components. In the Western world, we know mainly the so-called asanas, that is, the individual body postures and exercises of yoga. But yoga and yoga therapy offer even more. Besides the asanas, breathing exercises, meditations and the yoga philosophy are important for the holistic effect of yoga.
Pranayama: Pranayama involves special breathing exercises. The breath is felt, deepened and divided into different rhythms. The goal is to connect body and mind through the breath.
Meditation: Meditation means being with yourself and consciously staying with yourself over a period of time. Often pranayama and meditation are combined.
Asanas: The asanas include the various yoga poses. The downward facing dog, the cow, the warrior or the camel are just a few examples. Yoga teachers or yoga therapists often use the Sanskrit names of the asanas, so Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) or Virabhadrasana (warrior). The exercises are performed mindfully and connected with the rhythm of the breath. Thus, the yoga exercises go far beyond mere fitness exercises. The goal is not physical strengthening, but a conscious moving and feeling of the body, the breath and the mind.
Yoga philosophy: The yoga philosophy is composed of various stages that form a kind of code of conduct. At this point, only one example should be mentioned, and that is the handling of suffering experiences in life (in Sanskrit: Dukha). In yoga, it is assumed that suffering is an inevitable part of life. However, every person can decide to lose himself in suffering and thus increase suffering, or to accept suffering, let it go and thus regain freedom of action.
Since a yoga therapy is basically holistic, i.e. addresses body and psyche equally, it always includes all components of yoga.
In his millennia-old writings, the original father of yoga, Patanjali, describes anxiety and depressive moods as the result of a “scattered mind.” The mind has taken on a life of its own, disconnected from the body, and is constantly creating new musings or fearful scenarios. The key to alleviating mental illness, from the perspective of yoga, is to reconnect the body and mind and allow the mind to calm down. But how does that work?
Working mechanisms of yoga therapy
Even if it would simplify the whole, the one mechanism of action does not exist in yoga therapy for mental illness. Rather, it is a holistic change in lifestyle and mindset. The following aspects will serve as an example:
From the perspective of yoga, the combination of breathing techniques, meditation and physical exercises is intended to reactivate the body’s own self-healing powers, release internal blockages and normalize the flow of energy in the body. Another aspect is that the fixed sequence of exercises provides routine and security. In addition, many yoga therapists are trained in therapeutic conversation, so that personal concerns can be dealt with in direct conversation.
Excursus: Part of the effect of yoga and yoga therapy can probably be traced to the vagus nerve in our bodies (Streeter et al., 2012). This nerve runs widely throughout our body and is part of what is called the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is a network of nerves that provides rest and relaxation. Its counterpart is the sympathetic nervous system, which is activated during stress and tension. The vagus nerve we can not consciously influence, but it has been shown that it can be activated indirectly through relaxation and breathing exercises and thus unfolds its relaxing effect.
Yoga therapy for mental illness can be combined very well with the classical treatment methods of psychotherapy and medicine. A great advantage is that the treatment is free of side effects and thus can do no harm. Of course, classical yoga can also be practiced in a group to alleviate psychological complaints! But if it may be something “more” and the yoga practice should be specifically adapted to one’s own psychological condition, then a specially certified yoga therapist can make a wonderful contribution to this.