Yoga as a practice is ancient. But today, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social workers, and other clinicians are embracing the healing powers of Yoga in clinical practice to treat everything from depression to food addiction to autism.
Yoga has been recognised as a legitimate treatment for depression and anxiety. More recent studies have shown that yoga increases the levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. This is significant because people who are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are all found to have low levels of GABA.
Yoga can treat this, regardless of which came first and what is causing the addiction: the underlying condition or the hijacked brain. A regular Yoga practice also helps people develop the discipline needed to succeed in 12-step programs, which often are used as the primary method of treatment for many substance users. The mindfulness practices taught in Yoga and the slow, controlled breathing are tools to help curb impulse control — something with which all substance abusers struggle.
It also empowers clients, providing them with real-world tools they can use anytime, anywhere on their own because Yoga asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) are readily accessible when a therapist or sponsor isn’t. People begin to learn the difference between pain and discomfort, to sit with discomfort instead of running from it as they experience different asanas. They are able to fully control their experience, modifying poses in ways that feel good for them and stopping when it hurts.
Yoga takes advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity, which is often the same characteristic that makes change so difficult. Depression, anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions activate the body’s nervous system in addition to emotional regions of the brain. The body eventually settles into these patterns, and even if the mind has insight, the body will continue to activate these physiological patterns unless this insight is embodied—literally. While traditional therapies work only with the mind, Yoga works with the mind and body simultaneously, allowing for the embodiment of insights.
The effect of Yoga on neuroplasticity becomes even more important when the mind-body connection is further explored. Yoga also can have a positive effect on the lymphatic network, nervous system, and the immune system, all of which work together to play a role in emotional well-being and overall health.