Mindfulness for Dermatological Conditions

by Nicole Schnackenberg

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27169607

The psychological/emotional underpinnings and ramifications of suffering from various skin conditions have only recently been given serious consideration in the scientific literature. This is despite the fact that emotional correlations with dermatological conditions such as eczema and psoriasis were made more than a 150 years ago when Erasmus Wilson, in 1850, attributed skin manifestations to “disorders of the nervous system, like emotions, especially of a depressive nature”. Closely behind him came Hillier who expressed his conviction that nervous excitement, shock and fear can cause changes in the condition of the skin.

Not only do emotions appear to affect the health of our skin but the health of our skin, also, can have a huge impact on our emotions. People may struggle with shame, distress and low self-esteem if their skin condition is of a visible nature, with hiding and camouflaging being two common responses. Pain and discomfort from the skin condition can also lead to depression and anxiety for some people.

Recently, the field of psychodermatology has entered the psychological and medical arena; it looks closely at the relationship between psychological distress and various dermatological conditions. Doctor Linda Papadopoulos is leading this field in many ways, with her extensive research suggesting an association between stressful life events and the onset of skin conditions, as well as the phenomenon of skin conditions igniting distress in significant numbers of sufferers. Doctor Papadopoulos felt moved to carry out research of this nature when she noted the huge change in the personality and the flailing self-esteem of a family member as a result of the onset of their vitiligo, a long-term condition which causes white patches to develop on the skin. In a recent magazine interview, Doctor Papadopoulos explained, “When the embryo is developing, both the skin and central nervous system develop from the epiderm. That’s why when we’re nervous we sweat and blush. In research we did in the Royal Free we found that your personality really affects the progression of these conditions. If you speak to anyone who’s had eczema they’ll tell you they can map out exacerbation with things going on at home. One of the things my research into vitiligo found was that stress can kick it off, like bereavement, and separation.”

In the recent piece of research linked here, scientists looked at the importance of mindfulness in psychosocial distress and quality of life in people with dermatological conditions. Mindfulness has been shown in multiple studies to have a positive impact on anxiety, depression and stress among a variety of other presentations. Mindfulness has been used in psychosocial interventions to reduce the distress associated with the avoidance and social anxiety sadly found in many skin conditions. Little is known, however, about the relationship between naturally occurring levels of mindfulness and distress in people with these conditions.

One-hundred-and-twenty adult dermatology patients completed items assessing the objective severity of their skin condition, shame, fear of negative evaluation by others, anxiety, depression, quality of life, and levels of mindfulness. Considering depression, 14% reported mild, 5% moderate and 2·5% severe symptoms. For anxiety, 22% reported mild, 23% moderate and 6% severe symptoms. In addition, 33·4% reported clinically significant social anxiety. After controlling for subjective severity, mindfulness explained an additional 19% of the variance in depression, 39% in anxiety, 41% in social anxiety, 13% in skin shame and 6% in dermatological quality of life. One specific facet of mindfulness, namely acting with awareness, was found to be the most consistent predictor of lowered distress. Researchers concluded that their findings suggest that higher levels of mindfulness are associated with lower levels of distress in people with dermatological conditions. This is certainly suggestive that offering mindfulness training for people with these struggles may be helpful in reducing their levels of distress. We are very happy to hear this and to be able to share these hopeful findings with you!

Further research is still needed into the usefulness of particular mindfulness techniques and their application for people with various kinds and levels of severity of skin conditions. Yet, a good start has been made. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the severity of the skin condition does not necessarily predict the level of distress; people can experience extreme distress as a result of even seemingly minor dermatological complaints, whilst those with more overtly severe skin condition may cope very well and experience little impact on their lives. Psychological support, including mindfulness training, therefore, should be made available to all people with dermatological conditions of whichever level of severity. If you or someone you know is struggling with emotional distress related to the condition of their skin, two good places to start are the British Skin Foundation (www.britishskinfoundation.org.uk) and Changing Faces (www.changing faces.org.uk). Namaste.

The ancient art of Ayurveda and its place in modern medicine

Ayurveda is India’s traditional, natural system of medicine that has been practiced for more than 5,000 years. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word and literally translated it means “Science of life” or “practices of longevity”. As the translation may suggest, it emphasizes extension of life span, prevention of disease, and rejuvenation of our body systems.

Ayurveda provides an integrated approach to preventing and treating illness through lifestyle interventions and natural therapies. It is based on the view that the elements, forces, and principles that comprise all of nature are also seen in human beings. In Ayurveda, the mind (or consciousness) and the body (or physical mass) not only influence each other – they are each other. Together they form the mind-body. Ayurveda believes that mental health directly impacts physical health and vice versa.

In Ayurveda your whole life and lifestyle must be in harmony before you can enjoy true wellbeing. Lifestyle interventions are a major Ayurvedic preventive and therapeutic approach, this includes what and when you eat, your sleeping patterns, day to day activities and behaviors, your fitness routine and so on. Ayurveda may also prescribe natural herbal remedies to help treat symptoms and to bring the elements back into balance

Despite its ancient roots, Ayurveda (along with many other alternative therapies) is becoming more relevant than ever in helping to treat modern day illnesses. More and more people are looking for alternatives to mainstream ‘Western’ medicine which often prescribes pharmaceutical drugs that can have harmful side effects. We are seeing a move towards patients seeking safe and non-invasive alternative treatments for modern illnesses, whether that’s alongside, or instead of, modern medicine.

To mark the increasing importance of Ayurveda in modern health care, the Indian Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga, and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy (AYUSH) has declared October 28th Ayurveda Day. Together with the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Indian Traditional Sciences, we are marking this occasion on 27 October by bringing together UK experts on Ayurveda to discuss the principles of this ancient science and to describe how Ayurvedic doctrines and practices can be intelligently applied to modern chronic health problems.

Director of The Minded Institute – Heather Mason – will be speaking at the event and announcing the exciting news that The Minded Institute will be running a 12-month Ayurveda professional training course starting in September 2017 led by Amarjeet-singh Bhamra – a lecturer, practitioner and author of India’s Traditional Sciences. A long time champion of Complementary and Alternative Medicines, Amarjeet recently led a very successful national campaign in the UK to save herbal medicines by launching a million strong petition in direct response to the European Union’s Traditional Herbal Medicines Products Directive. He administers the powerful All Party Parliamentary Group on Indian Traditional Sciences comprising of members of the British parliament from both House of Commons and Lords.

If you would like more information on our 12 month Ayurveda professional training course please contact heather.f.mason@gmail.com

Interoceptive Awareness and Attachment in Early Infancy

By Nicole Schnackenberg

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12959491

Interoceptive awareness describes a lived sense of our bodies from the inside. It includes an awareness of our internal, physiological processes including heartrate, respiration (breathing) rate, body temperature, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, feelings of malaise and so on.
Interoceptive awareness is often found to be lacking in people with a wide range of mental health diagnoses, perhaps on account of the links between interoceptive awareness and our emotions. Emotions use the body as their stage and each of the aforementioned physiological processes alert us to the presence of various emotions in the body; i.e. increased heart rate may indicate feelings of anger, excitement or fear. Mental health struggles are often rooted, to some degree, in denied and repressed emotions. As we ignore and push down our emotions, we also ignore and push down our interoceptive awareness and can become cut off from the lived sensations of our bodies in the process.
A return to our emotions, therefore, necessitates a return to the internal processes of our physical organism, which is something the practice of yoga can support us with beautifully. In this post, we shall take a brief look at interoceptive awareness in relation to childhood attachment; a secure attachment to our primary caregiver enables us to more readily recognise, embrace and respond usefully to our emotions.
According to John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst and attachment theorist, children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others since it is these attachments that will secure their survival. Researchers have now repeatedly found evidence to suggest that secure attachments early in childhood are absolutely integral to healthy psychological development. Attachment security has been estimated to occur in around 58% of the population, with attachment anxiety occurring in 19%, and attachment avoidance in 23%.

It is perhaps not difficult to imagine why children with insecure or avoidant attachments to their primary caregivers might have poorer interoceptive awareness. When an infant cries or seeks assurance from, and attunement with, a primary caregiver, they naturally expect to be seen and soothed. Being contained, and having their emotions contained, by their primary caregiver enables the physiological processes related to stress to return to their baseline. The infant can breathe a sigh of relief – fear and stress typically reduces in tandem with the meeting of their emotional, physical and psychological needs.

If an infant’s emotional, psychological and physical needs are not met, their stress remains un-soothed and manifestations such as increased heart rate and breathing rate may persist. Over time, the infant may learn to ignore these physiological experiences of stress, perhaps shutting out their lived experience of them completely. They may become numb and despondent; what use is there in crying (or expressing any emotion) if nobody is going to comfort them anyway?

The research shows that infants with avoidant and insecure attachments experience an increased heart rate when their primary caregivers are not there to meet their needs, just as infants with a secure attachment do. Infants across the range of attachments experience the same physiological responses to stress; yet the securely attached infants cry out for help whilst many of the insecurely and avoidantly attached children fail to cry. Despite the strong messages of fear from their bodies, these tiny babies learn to ignore their physical sensations and refrain from seeking support. Over time, these physiological experiences may become dampened, or physical illnesses and additional mental health concerns may emerge out of the continuous levels of high physiological arousal without soothing.

Whilst the stage of our interoceptive awareness, therefore, may have been set in early infancy, our interoceptive sensitivities are not set in stone. We can increase our interoceptive awareness, and therefore our ability to recognise, acknowledge and assimilate our emotions, at any age. Yoga is one, highly effective, way of increasing this interoceptive awareness as it aids us in engendering a lived sense of our bodies from the inside, noticing physiological sensations such as breathing rate, heart rate, fatigue and so on without panic or fear. Multiple studies have expounded yoga’s efficacy in increasing interoceptive awareness. Here at the Minded Institute, we are pioneering ways of measuring this interoceptive awareness in various poses to enable us to develop truly individualised programs. We shall share our findings with you as they unfold. Namaste.

Clean Eating Versus Orthorexia: Our Responsibility as a Yoga Community

http://www.orthorexia.com/original-orthorexia-essay/

 

People who practice yoga are also known to be more likely to exercise discernment in relation to their health. They are more likely to eat healthfully, to refrain from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and to generally engage in a healthier lifestyle than other members of the general population.

Looking after the physical health of the body is, of course, deeply important and tremendously commendable. Many of us are leading busy, hectic and stressful lives with longer working hours, less ‘down-time’ and more erratic sleeping patterns than our parents and grandparents may have enjoyed. We are also living in increasingly toxic environments and are exposed to worrisome levels of heavy metals and environmental toxins on a daily basis, particularly if living in big cities as so many of us are. Making considered food, exercise and lifestyle choices can negate some of the negative effects of this stress and toxicity and support our bodies and minds to be healthy and strong.

Healthy eating is high on the agenda for many people who practice yoga. Yoga puts us beautifully in touch with our physical bodies and may ignite a desire within us to take care of this body, this temple of the spirit. As we move towards greater awareness, we often tangentially become increasingly aware of the effects of various foods and nutrients not only on our body but on our ability to think and to be present as well.

Nobody is knocking any intention or action to eat healthfully. To put nourishing foods into our bodies is immeasurably important, vital even. Yet there also needs to be an increasing awareness of the fanaticism and psychological distress that can ensue if certain eating protocols are relied upon and followed to the detrimental of both physical and psychological health. There is a growing concern, particularly around so-called ‘clean-eating’ in the mental health community, around the diagnosis of ‘orthorexia’. Orthorexia, as defined by Steven Bratman in 1996, indicates an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. The term is derived utilizing the Greek ‘orthos’, which means ‘right’ or ‘correct’ and is intended as a parallel with anorexia nervosa. Bratman and a growing number of mental health professionals now recognise the term as identifying a genuine eating disorder.

The primary distinguishing feature of orthorexia is an obsession about purity. People with orthorexia constantly struggle against feelings of being unclean or polluted by what they have eaten, no matter how carefully they monitor their diet. An orthorexic feels compelled to achieve ever great heights of dietary perfection; to feel entirely clean and pure. Sometimes people recovering from anorexia move towards orthorexia, keeping their disordered eating habits and moving the focus from weight to a sense of purity.

Only last month, the BBC aired a documentary entitled ‘Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets’. It explored, among other things, the struggles of people obsessed with clean eating and the intensely negative impact on their lives, including spending hours each day on the Internet researching which foods are the ‘healthiest’ and ‘safest’ to eat, avoidance of socialising due to possible meals being involved, losing vast amounts of weight and becoming malnourished, and spending untold amounts of money on cleanses, colonics and other treatments alongside a plethora of other aberrant behaviours. The psychological impact of orthorexia is often extensive, including obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviours, depression, anxiety and flailing self-esteem. In the documentary, Emmy Gilmour, Founder and Director of ‘The Recover Clinic’ for eating disorders in London, explained that they have seen a massive increase in people requiring treatment for orthorexia and, perhaps even more shockingly, that many of the big celebrity names in ‘clean eating’ are struggling with orthorexia themselves.

It is important to be aware of orthorexia as a yoga community as our peers and/or clients may be struggling with these issues as. As with other presentations of disordered eating, it is important to voice our concerns to the person in question and to signpost towards the appropriate psychological help. It is also important for us to refrain from giving nutritional guidance and advice if we are not trained dieticians or nutritional experts. The number of yoga studios now offering fasts and cleanses is growing and is extremely worrying. Let us please not forget the death of Kelly Parisi in 2012 at the age of twenty-one, who died suddenly during a juice cleanse recommended by the yoga studio in which she was practising. Please let us stick to what we know and are qualified to share, and let us be willing to have difficult conversations with people who appear to be struggling with these distressing and life-threatening issues. Namaste.

Mindfulness for Suicidality

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27592123

Suicide is the intentional ending of one’s own life. It is a serious and growing problem. The highest suicide rate in the UK is for men aged 45-49. Whilst male suicide rates have decreased slightly in the past couple of years, female suicide rates have recently increased. According to the UK’s leading charity for suicide, the Samaritans, the recent rise in female suicide could be an indication of the picture of suicide risk changing. It now appears that male rates are decreasing and female rates are increasing. However, we must be mindful that these changes are based on year-on-year data, which could be natural fluctuations, rather than the beginning of a longer-term trend. This trend, clearly, needs careful monitoring. Men remain more than three times more likely to take their own lives than women across the UK and the Republic of Ireland, but we must pay attention to the risks in both genders. Research suggests that social and economic factors influence the risk of suicide in women as well as men, reinforcing the need to address inequalities to reduce suicide.

In the US, suicide ranks as the tenth most common cause of death, and the first most common cause of death in active military personnel. Despite these shockingly high statistics, there are surprisingly few evidence-based therapies addressing suicidality. The development of new treatments is also pitifully limited.

Beginning in 2005 (in no small part due to US military combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan), the incidence of suicide deaths in the US military began to increase sharply. Unique stressors, including combat deployments, have been assumed to underlie the increasing incidence. This long-held assumption by researchers in this area, that specific deployment-related characteristics such as length of deployment, number of deployments, or combat experiences are directly associated with increased suicide risk, has been contested by some of the more recent research. More recently, risk factors for suicide in military personnel are consistent with civilian populations, including a higher prevalence in males and the presence of mental disorders. Multiple studies have shown a marked increase in the number of diagnosed mental disorders in active service-duty members since 2005, paralleling the incidence of suicide. This would suggest that the increased rate of suicide in the military may be largely a product of an increased incidence of mental disorders in this population, possibly resulting from cumulative stresses both in terms of deployment and home-station environments over years of war. In this way, the stresses of living in and being active in war would appear to lead to mental disorders which in turn make members of this population more likely to commit suicide. This is a very tragic state of affairs indeed.

In this linked paper, a clinical trial testing a novel therapy for reducing suicide risk in military veterans, namely Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Preventing Suicide Behaviour (MBCT-S), is planned. The ten-week intervention was adapted from an existing treatment for depression, MBCT, which has been gaining massively in popularity for a range of presentations in recent years. MBCT is rooted in Eastern culture and is characterised by a non-judgemental, purposeful, present-moment awareness as originally described by John Kabat-Zinn in 1990. MBCT is a groups skills training program, usually consisting of eight weekly sessions, which integrates elements of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for depression into the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training program developed by Kabat-Zinn with others. In MBCT, however, there is little emphasis on changing the content of thoughts; rather, people are taught to recognise that thoughts and feelings are events in the mind and not truths per-se nor aspects of the Self. Such an approach typically de-centres views, leading to new beliefs such as ‘thoughts are not facts’ and ‘I am not my thoughts’. People gradually learn to look ‘at’ thoughts rather than ‘from’ thoughts, thus identifying with the deeper Self beyond these thoughts as opposed to tangling up the thoughts with the sense of who they intrinsically are.

In this study, 164 high suicide risk veterans have been randomised to either treatment as usual or treatment as usual plus MBCT-S. Researchers were looking at whether MBCT-S would impact upon suicide-related events, suicide preparatory behaviours, self-harm behaviours with suicidal or unclear intent, suicide-related hospitalisations and emergency department visits. Measurements of each of these facets have been taken at baseline and will also be taken 12 months after baseline. Whilst the results are not yet in, we harbour a strong hope that MBCT-S could potentially be an efficacious intervention for reducing suicide risk. We will post the results here as soon as they are released. We believe that MBCT may achieve this reduction through increased awareness of internal experience (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations (interoceptive awareness)), an awareness that has been shown in other populations to facilitate a move from automatic to conscious processing and thus allow for increased space to make choices. MBCT has been regularly found to help participants develop a different relationship with the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that would normally ignite a downward, depressive spiral which deepens hopelessness and the sense of entrapment. This change may be particularly relevant for people whose suicidal thinking rapidly evaporates once a crisis is over.

Suicide is a growing problem yet is infrequently talked about in Western society. Perhaps it is time to take our heads out of the sand and commit to research and openness in this vital area. We invite you to share your comments and be willing to engage in this most difficult, yet most important, of discussions.

The Science of Yoga: Why we need to bridge the worlds of medicine and yoga

According to a recent 2016 survey, one-in-ten people in the US are currently practising yoga, which is double the amount of just a few years ago. Yoga is becoming increasingly popular across modern, Western society whilst concurrently being increasingly subjected to rigorous scientific trials. Yoga has been shown by over 3,000 scientific studies to have a far-reaching range of benefits for both physical and psychological health. As study after study demonstrates yoga’s tremendous and unparalleled benefits for a wide range of ailments, both scientific researchers and the medical community at large wish to determine the exact mechanisms that enable yoga to soothe so many physical and psychological complaints. This ‘how?’ is on the lips and in the hearts of many of those who wish to expound yoga’s benefits and ensure that it reaches the people who need it the most. As countries across the globe begin and continue to seek ways of embedding yoga into healthcare we are called as a yoga community to delve into these connections between modern scientific innovations and yoga. Concurrently, we are invited to utilize this knowledge and employ these innovations with compassion and tenacity.

In our new Science of Yoga training, conceived of and delivered by Heather Mason, we open our arms to the findings gleaned from the scientific and medical communities and delve into ways of creating individualised yoga therapy for each client seeking our support. Heather Mason, who is a medical physiologist and yoga teacher with a background in neuroscience, has conducted extensive research into breathing practices and techniques and will share with us how precise breathing assessments can give us a unique and sophisticated picture of a person’s particular needs and the specific yoga practices that will be of most benefit to them. In addition, Heather uses heart-rate monitors to assess which yoga poses are best suited to each client’s needs; a skill she will also share with us in the course of this training.

By measuring the alterations in a person’s breathing and heart rate whilst in different poses, we are able to determine both which poses most effectively calm and soothe their nervous system and how long would be optimum to hold them in each pose. From these innovative techniques, which are not currently being used in this way anywhere else in the world, we are equipped to meet every person’s unique physiology and needs and, thus, provide them with an evidence-based and personally-tailored practice to support their physiological and physical health needs and propensities.

We are extremely excited about our Science of Yoga training, which will be held across five days in London next year, April 2017 (dates to be announced). Practitioners will leave brimming with new techniques and assessment tools alongside a wide range of yogic practices for a host of physical and psychological health conditions.

Yoga and Exercise: The Benefits of Yoga Above and Beyond that of Common Forms of Exercise.

Yoga is a spiritual discipline with its roots in India. The word ‘yoga’ is found in India’s earliest known scripts, the Vedas, which date from the Vedic period which began in 1500 BCE. Composed in Sanskrit, the Vedas are the oldest writings of Hinduism.

The word ‘yoga’ is most commonly translated as meaning ‘to yoke’ or ‘to bind’. For many years, yoga was more of a notion of meditation and a religious practice as opposed to the postures (asanas) we typically associated with it in current Western society. It was around the 5th century that yoga became an established practice among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. Importantly, these ancient versions of yoga were spiritual practices with the primary aim of yoga asana being to prepare the body for an extended period of meditation. During the medieval period (500-1500AD), different schools of yoga emerged. Hatha yoga appeared in Buddhist texts around the 8th century; a combination of asana, breathing and meditation and possibly the closest to what we, in the Western world, most commonly associate with yoga today.

Much more could be written about the origins of Yoga – we haven’t even mentioned Patanjali, Swami Vivekananda or the eight limbs of yoga… perhaps a deeper exploration is warranted within another blog post at another time. For now, suffice to say that yoga itself absolutely and undeniably sprang from roots of an intensely spiritual nature. We shall bear in mind yoga’s roots as a spiritual discipline as we explore its physical and emotional benefits above and beyond exercise in this blog post.

A systematic review due for release next month (Larson-Meyer, August 2016) has looked at the energy cost and metabolic intensity of yoga. Seventeen studies were reviewed, concluding that few yoga sequences/poses, including Surya Namaskar, meet the criteria for moderate to vigorous-intensity activity in accordance with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association (AHA) physical activity guidelines. Our fear here at the Minded Institute is that these results may inhibit medical professionals from recommending yoga to their patients, which could certainly be the case if yoga is viewed in a one-dimensional way as an exercise practice aimed at achieving the daily recommendations for moderate- or vigorous-intensity physical activity. As we hope will become clear as we move through this article, yoga as a physical, psychological, and spiritual discipline is so very much more that this and has a wealth of benefits above metabolic intensity to offer.

A growing body of research suggests that yoga has the potential to improve both physical and mental health through a range of mechanisms, including the down-regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) nervous system (SNS). Physical and/or psychological stressors trigger the HPA axis and SNS resulting in a range of physiological, behavioural, emotional, and psychological effects, primarily as a result of the release of stress-related hormones including cortisol. Such a response leads to the classic ‘fight or flight’ response which, over time when repeatedly stimulated, can cause a state of hypervigilance leading to a dysregulation of the system and, ultimately, health challenges including anxiety, depression, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular disease to name just a few. It is also particularly worthy of note that yoga has been found to increase brain GABA levels, which are associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. In research by Chris Streeter and colleagues in 2010, for example, a 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a metabolically matched walking exercise.

Given yoga’s clear benefits to physical and psychological health, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is often viewed purely as an exercise practice by people in the Western world. Indeed, some yoga classes in gyms do not allow the spiritual elements of yoga to be part of the programme, forbidding elements such as chanting. Interestingly, in research involving the health benefits of yoga, exercise is the most common intervention used as a comparison. Ross and Thomas (2010) conducted a review of studies on yoga and exercise and found twelve studies comparing the effects of yoga and exercise, nine of which focused on adults and three on seniors. 597 of the 873 subjects who participated in the twelve studies were women. Exercises used as a comparison included aerobics, walking, running, dancing and cycling. Overall, in these reviewed studies, yoga was found to be equal or superior to exercise in relieving symptoms associated with diabetes, multiple sclerosis, menopause, and kidney disease. Yoga was found to have beneficial effects on blood glucose levels in people with diabetes and other chronic health conditions, on oxidative stress, and on cholesterol. Furthermore, yoga was found to be relieve the symptoms of mental illness including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. Comparing yoga and exercise groups, yoga groups often score significantly better than exercise groups on social and occupational functioning, and psychological, social and environmental measures of quality of life, suggesting that yoga has something to offer above and beyond exercise. In research exclusively on healthy individuals, yoga has been shown to be as effective as or superior to exercise on nearly every outcome measured

Why is yoga able to offer additional benefits to exercise such as aerobics, walking and jogging? The answer is both simple and clear. Yoga is an embodied practice of mindful movement, incorporating movement with the breath. By bringing attention to and coordinating the breath with the movement of the body, a profound sense of embodiment can be fostered which can facilitate improved emotional health and a transcendent sense of self. In Patanjali’s yoga sutras, asana is described as ‘Sthiram Sukham Asanam’, meaning that which gives steadiness, stability and joy. Yoga is a practice for unifying body, mind and spirit. Meditation, which is a limb of yoga, also provides additional spiritual, physical and psychological benefits which have been highlighted extensively in the mindfulness literature in particular.

From a physical perspective, exercise stimulates the SNS, raising plasma levels of ‘stress’ hormones such epinephrine and norepinephrine. Yoga on the other hand, has been shown to lower sympathetic stimulation, significantly lowering levels of plasma norepinephrine and epinephrine. Given its linkage to the breath, yoga can also be thought of as a ‘training ground’ for the nervous system; whilst the sympathetic nervous system may be stimulated by the asanas (particularly in more arousing forms of yoga like Vinyasa or Kundalini), balance can then be restored by marrying the movement with long, deep, mindful breathing. In this way, yoga can teach us how to regulate the nervous system in a way that other forms of exercise cannot.

It is undeniable that exercise can have profound benefits for physical and emotional health. This is without question and not the argument being presented here. Rather, the desire is to highlight the additional benefits that yoga can have for both mental and physical health over and above what exercise can offer us, whilst keeping in mind that yoga is not, at its core, an exercise practice but a spiritual discipline. It is important to educate medical professionals about the additional benefits of yoga, who may otherwise simply view it as a practice synonymous with typical exercise and fail, therefore, to make a particular recommendation of yoga to their patients.

We would additionally like to highlight that people uninterested or even adverse to the spiritual facets of yoga can indeed engage in yoga as a purely physical practice should this be their desire at the current time. It is also worthy of mention that people sometimes come to the spiritual aspects of yoga ‘through the back door’ so to speak, perhaps signing up to their first yoga class in order to increase flexibility or decrease body mass, only to find so very much more. Here at the Minded Institute, we meet every person at the stage of their journey they are at, whether their desire be to improve their physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual health or, in our opinion, optimally, all of these.

References

Larson-Meyer, D. (2016). A systematic review of the energy cost and metabolic intensity of yoga. Medical Science Sports Exercise, 48(8), 1558-1569.

Ross, A. &, Thomas, S. (2010). The Health Benefits of Yoga and Exercise: A Review of Comparison Studies. The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, 16(1), 3-12.

Streeter, C. et al. (2010). The effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomised controlled MRS study. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(11), 1145-1152.