The Benefits of Yoga for Mental Health and Psychiatric Care

Why Teach Yoga in Psychiatric Settings? 

Generally, many have found that practicing yoga can improve quality of life, as it provides several beneficial physiological effects to the body and nervous system.  These effects include: increased body awareness, stress relief, reduction of muscle tension and inflammation, sharpened attention and concentration, calming of the central nervous system, along with providing a deep state of physiological relaxation.  Additionally, all of these effects can help to contribute to mental health treatment, through the modalities of providing mental clarity and awareness, stress management, and mood enhancement. Thus, many mental healthcare professionals have utilized yoga as a supplemental treatment for psychiatric disorders.

What is the Science Behind Yoga in Psychiatric Settings?

There is a growing amount of research that supports the use of yoga in psychiatric care facilities.  Research by Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has found through several studies, that yoga targets unmanaged stress, a main component of chronic disorders such as anxiety and depression. It does this, he says, reducing the stress response, which includes the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The practice enhances resilience and improves mind-body awareness, which can help people adjust their behaviors based on the feelings they’re experiencing in their bodies, according to Khalsa (American Psychological Association).

As Dr. Khalsa supported in his findings, yoga can help to regulate the stress response in the central nervous system.  In further detail, it is important to understand that the central nervous system is comprised to of two parts, which control how stress is regulated in the body; the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the production of cortisol (stress hormone) and the fight or flight response.  The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our autonomic functions, such as breathing, heart and metabolic rates, and restores balance of cortisol levels.  As stress activates the sympathetic nervous system to increase cortisol production and the body’s stress response, yoga helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system to then regulate cortisol production, increasing the coordination between our minds and our bodies through the physical postures, breathing techniques, and conscious relaxation.

Additionally, yoga helps build for a better sense of self through increased mind body awareness. With this, inpatients may find it easier to control certain behaviors, such as impulse control. They may also develop a stronger sense of awareness and connection to their peers, and be more present in the moment, rather than thinking about the past or the future.

How Do You Measure Results?

In yoga and mindfulness classes provided in a clinical setting, inpatient adolescent and adult students are often taught meditation, breathing techniques, all while holding modifiable and accessible yoga postures within a sequence. By relying on the methods of previous studies on the effects of yoga and mindfulness in clinical settings, qualitative data collection methods have been replicated, collecting data such as self-reporting measures participants to measure the effectiveness yoga has on improving mood. Using the self-reporting data of participants assessing their mood scores from before and after yoga classes, hospital inpatients in these types of programs generally report either a stabilized or improvement on mood in comparison to how they reported feeling prior to the class. Other self-reporting measures include an interview-style approach, in which participants voluntarily provide feedback about their experience in the class.

Through the methods of interviewing, many inpatients in past studies have expressed general enthusiasm about learning about yoga, often with it being their first experience to the practice.  Another benefit to offering yoga in clinical settings is the sense of community that is built through this group activity. As it widely believed that there is a stronger mind-body awareness developed in practicing yoga regularly, that offering these classes in clinical settings, the activity may enhance an increase in social awareness and connection of participants to themselves and their peers.  These classes also incorporate many breathing and meditation techniques that can be learned and utilized both on and off the mat, that may become an effective learned mechanism to self-regulate and cope with stress.