Healing the Mind on the Mat

A yoga class

As a mental health therapist for the past 22 years, I do a lot of listening and talking to my clients, known as “top down” therapy. My clients process their thoughts and emotions, they identify their valued life, and together we come up with strategies to manage their life issues. While traditional talk therapy offers benefits when managing mood issues, sometimes clients are left with a continued state of unease with life. When talk therapy alone isn’t enough, traditional first-line treatment is a combination of talk therapy and antidepressant medication.

As a registered yoga teacher and therapist, I sensed that yoga combined with psychotherapy might be a very powerful tool in the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety. After personally struggling with a year-long bout of clinical depression treated with antidepressant medication, yoga has contributed to my own mood stabilization free of medications for 13 years.

I am not alone in my belief that yoga can help heal students with depression—exciting new research has evaluated the connection between a regular yoga practice and depression symptoms. The research indicates that interactions between the brain and peripheral tissues, including the cardiovascular, nervous and immune systems, contribute to both mental and physical health—the mind-body connection! Therefore, therapies like yoga are proving to have significant potential to positively impact the treatment of depression. Why? Researchers have found that practicing yoga may boost mood-lifting brain chemicals such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA).

In 2007, Chris Streeter, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a research associate at McLean Hospital, studied the increase in GABA in the brain using an fMRI scan after study participants practiced yoga. Dr. Streeter compared the GABA levels of subjects prior to and after one hour of yoga with subjects who did no yoga but read for one hour. She found a 27 percent increase in GABA levels in the yoga group after their session, but no change in the comparison group after their reading session.

The thought is that yoga stimulates specific brain areas which gives rise to changes in antidepressant neurotransmitters like GABA. Yoga soothes the nervous system while stimulating positive mood. Perry Renshaw, MD, PhD, director of the Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital and senior author stated, “The development of an inexpensive, widely available intervention such as yoga that has no side effects but is effective in alleviating the symptoms of disorders associated with low GABA levels has clear public health advantage.

Yoga also promotes powerful mind-training practices such as mindfulness. According to Pawan Bareja, PhD, “Mindfulness is a radical practice where instead of turning away, we actually turn towards our difficult emotions and hold them with curiosity and compassion.” It’s like a superpower or mental Aikido. We take the energy of our negative emotions and transmute them into something positive by holding them tenderly and with compassion.

This research solidifies exactly what I’ve seen firsthand in both my life and my career: yoga has a powerful impact on mindfulness, mood and depression—and there’s great value in having a consistent practice.

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