Therapist

Yoga therapy for mental health

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According to yoga philosophy, mind and body are part of an integrated system; they’re not separate. This means we can work on the mind through targeted practices in the body, and vice versa.

A tool applied in one area—say, a breathing practice—can profoundly affect a completely different area of the body or the mind. For example, a yoga therapist might teach a client a particular type of breathwork (pranayama) to help them address their chronic asthma; if the client practices that breathing exercise regularly, she might find that her long-time anxiety has eased, too.

Yoga therapy can promote general emotional balance and assist with mood regulation. Research into effects on specific concerns is promising, and yoga has been used as an adjunctive therapy for anxiety, depression, trauma and PTSD, insomnia, and other conditions.

 

What Is Yoga Therapy?

“Yoga therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on the integration of mind and body to enhance mental health,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a professor and clinical psychologist in New York City.

This form of therapy draws on yogic principles and practices, such as physical yoga postures, meditation, breathing techniques, and relaxation exercises, to improve mental and physical well-being. 

“Unlike what people tend to imagine, yoga therapy does not look like a typical yoga class. Instead, yoga therapy is usually conducted on a one-on-one basis with a therapist,” says Romanoff. 

Types of Yoga Therapy

While yoga therapy is typically performed on an individual basis, a subtype of yoga therapy includes a group element, where multiple people work together with a therapist in a small group and the power of the group is part of the healing process, says Romanoff.

Techniques

According to Romanoff, yoga therapy can involve several techniques, such as:

The treatment plan and techniques used in yoga therapy can vary based on your age, physical ability, and unique needs, says Romanoff. Furthermore, she explains that all the exercises and postures employed in yoga therapy are designed to maximize the synchronicity of mind and body functioning. 

For example, the therapist will explain the importance and value that each exercise and yoga pose could have in alleviating your concern, thereby creating a bridge between the practice and its cognitive framework. So, for a person experiencing anxiety for instance, the therapist will guide them through poses like child’s pose and tree pose, and explain how the poses help relieve anxiety.

Homework is an important element of yoga therapy so that the practices can be built into the person’s daily life instead of being stand-alone exercises at weekly therapy sessions, says Romanoff.

More traditional forms of yoga therapy can also involve other techniques, such as chanting, prayer, textual study, ritual, imagery, and spiritual counseling.

What Yoga Therapy Can Help With

Yoga therapy can be helpful in the treatment of mental health conditions such as:

In addition, yoga therapy can be particularly effective for treating body-focused conditions, caused due to chronic pain, stress, or trauma that has been stored in the body and manifests through anxiety or depression-related symptoms, says Romanoff.

Benefits of Yoga Therapy

These are some of the benefits of yoga therapy:

  • Integrated mind-body focus: The exercises and postures of yoga therapy focus on the mind and body simultaneously, developing both mental and physical awareness. This helps with mind-body integration and improves mindfulness.
  • Physical health benefits: In addition to helping with mental health conditions, yoga therapy can also improve physical fitness and increase strength, balance, and flexibility. It can also help with physical health conditions such as pain, blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis.
  • Fewer side effects: Medication to treat mental health conditions can have side effects such as weight gain and other metabolic complications that can lead to an increased risk of heart disease. By contrast, yoga therapy has fewer side effects.
  • Alternative form of therapy: A major benefit of yoga therapy is that it appeals to those who might not be ready for traditional talk therapy or those who might find more meaningful results through the mind-body integrative focus, says Romanoff.

Effectiveness

“Yoga therapy does not have as much empirical evidence of its efficacy due to limited randomized control trials relative to more established forms of therapy,” says Romanoff. However, there is a growing body of research demonstrating that yoga therapy may offer benefits. 

For instance, a 2021 study found that yoga can help treat conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol dependence, and schizophrenia. A 2011 study found that yoga could be a complementary form of therapy for mental health illnesses, with fewer side effects than medication.

Things to Consider

“An important consideration is to find a therapist who has adequate training and credentials. You would want to ensure that your therapist is a certified yoga therapist or has comparable training at a reputable training program,” says Romanoff.

Because yoga therapy is quite green, there is some variability in training, explains Romanoff. For instance, she says yoga therapists often begin as psychotherapists, psychologists, physical therapists, or yoga instructors and supplement their work by integrating other elements into their practice. 

Romanoff recommends making certain that you are working with someone you trust and can form a strong therapeutic alliance with, whose work you believe in.

How to Get Started

If you would like to explore yoga therapy, you can look for a certified yoga therapist near you, or ask friends, family, or your healthcare provider for a referral. 

According to Romanoff, yoga therapy is typically used as an adjunct therapy in addition to other forms of therapy. So, if you are currently seeing a therapist, it may be worth consulting them about whether or not yoga therapy can be helpful to you and discussing how it would work in parallel with your current form of therapy.

It’s important to note that you can participate in yoga therapy regardless of your age, flexibility, or strength. Sessions can be simple or advanced, depending on your abilities and needs.

A Word From Verywell

Yoga therapy is a type of therapy that draws on yoga exercises, practices, and philosophies, to improve mental and physical health. While the practice of yoga is commonly associated with stress-relief, yoga therapy can be helpful in the treatment of several other mental health conditions as well. It may be recommended to you in combination with another type of therapy.

You don’t have to be the Yoda of yoga to reap major mental health benefits. Yoga can be an amazing form of therapy for beginners, experts, and everyone in between. Here’s how yoga therapy can help you feel better inside and out.

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What is yoga therapy?

Yoga is pretty much the PB&J of workouts — it’s the perfect combo. The blend of exercise and meditation can help you exercise your body and mind at the same time.

Exercise is a natural way to pump up the volume on your serotonin production. Some research, including a small 2011 study, suggests this can help ease depression symptoms.

Meditation can slow down your thoughts and clear your mind, and research suggests it has mental health benefits.

Yoga therapy uses the same tools as other forms of yoga. It just focuses more on each person’s individual needs. The practice can help address your unique physical, emotional, or mental concerns.

Yoga therapy can help with:

  • mind-body connection
  • overall well-being
  • physical pain
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • stress

Where can I do yoga therapy?

You can do yoga therapy solo or in a group setting. If an in-person sesh isn’t your thing, you can opt for virtual yoga or connect with a yoga therapist online. You can also check out yoga or meditation apps to see if they offer yoga therapy.

How is it different from regular yoga?

Traditional yoga and yoga therapy can both be super soothing and beneficial, but there are some big differences between the two. It really comes down to individual results.

A traditional yoga instructor will focus on the methods and practices of yoga. These classes tend to be geared to a general audience. But in yoga therapy, the therapist will focus on your individual emotional and physical needs.

A yoga therapist will assess your needs before a session so they can optimize your experience. They’ll also go over various healing tools, such as:

  • yoga postures
  • guided energy work
  • meditation techniques
  • breath awareness and control

The therapist will pick the right balance of these tools based on your needs, says certified yoga therapist Sadie Grossman.

A yoga therapist will also give you advice on how to practice on your own.

“I’m a firm believer in patients leaving a session with a tangible intervention that they can practice on their own, making them feel empowered,” says Grossman.

What are the benefits?

Stress reduction

Life is often a stress fest, and yoga therapy is here to help. A consistent practice can help you stay calm, focused, and positive.

In a small 2012 study of 72 “distressed” women, those who practiced yoga once or twice per week for 3 months showed greater improvements in measures of stress and quality of life than those who didn’t do yoga.

Anxiety relief

Many people turn to yoga to reduce anxiety. And with good reason! The calming sensations, focused breathing, and slow movements can help lower anxiety levels.

In a small 2009 study, 34 women who were referred to a yoga clinic for anxiety practiced yoga twice a week for 2 months, while a control group of 31 women didn’t practice yoga. Afterward, the yoga group showed greater decreases in anxiety levels than the control group.

Improved eating habits

Meditation and yoga both encourage mindfulness, and some research suggests that mindfulness can contribute to healthier eating habits and overall lifestyle improvements. This is why yoga is often used in eating disorder recovery — it can help you have a healthier relationship with food and your body.

Bonus: Mindful eating can also help you regulate your blood sugar levels and keep your weight in a healthy range.

Better mood

It’s 100 percent OK to have a crappy day. It happens. Thankfully, yoga therapy can help you nip those bad vibes in the bud. It can help you slay those endorphins and leave you feeling a heckuvalot better.

A 2017 study found that certain yoga poses can increase energy and self-esteem. A full-on yoga therapy sesh? Even better.

Does yoga therapy help depression?

Depression can make anyone feel cut off and isolated. But remember: You are not alone. About 17.3 million adults in the United States are affected by depression every year. Studies suggest that yoga could help you feel better. Here’s how.

Depression can really take a toll on your energy level and ability to concentrate. Yoga might give you the boost you need to get back to business.

Yoga can also help on a chemical level — it can decrease your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is also linked to depression.

Pro tip: Grossman suggests group sessions if you’re experiencing depression, since the group setting can help combat a sense of isolation.

Can you practice regular yoga as a form of therapy?

Yes! Yoga can be used as a type of therapy. But keep in mind that it’s not a cure-all. Yoga therapy might not replace the effects of other treatments (like medication or psychotherapy), but it’s def worth a shot!

PSA: Yoga therapy might work best when combined with other forms of treatment.

Takeaway: Pros and cons of yoga therapy

Yoga therapy can give your mental and physical health a major glow-up. Here’s a deep dive into all the pros and cons to help you decide if it’s right for you.

Pros:

  • helps you establish goals
  • friendly for all fitness levels
  • can improve overall health
  • works out your mind and body
  • can reduce stress and anxiety
  • can ease symptoms of depression

Cons:

  • not the right fit for everyone
  • might be challenging on a physical and emotional level
  • can be pricey (but this depends on the studio or therapist)
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