Yoga & Mental Health

Yoga can be an extremely beneficial practice for both body and mind. There have been dozens of studies attesting to the helpful influence yoga can have on someone's life, with many of them concluding that yoga is more beneficial than a metabolically equivalent modern physical fitness session.

Yoga is a very old set of practices and philosophies that are aimed at improving physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. While yoga has existed for several thousand years, the basic text of modern yoga is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, which was assembled from works originally written between the 2nd century BCE and the 5th century CE. While the original Sanskrit word “yogah” can be translated several different ways, one interpretation means “harnessing one’s mental faculties to a purpose”, and modern American yoga is more focused on the physical aspects of the teachings in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. While the mental and spiritual aspects are still very much important to overall health and wellness, there has been much evidence showing the beneficial effects on the brain and body of practicing the physical components of yoga. We will examine how practicing yoga may help promote healthy practices and improve overall mental health, and provide some helpful yoga-related resources.


The Physiological Effects of Yoga

Practicing yoga has been shown to increase levels of several neurotransmitters, particularly the neurotransmitter GABA, a neurotransmitter whose deficiency has been implicated in many different mental health and substance abuse issues.

Can Yoga Help With Co-Occurring Mental Health & Substance Abuse Issues?

Yes, it can. In particular, symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and cravings for drugs and alcohol have shown great improvement when yoga is practiced regularly.

Yoga Recovery Resources

Yoga has proven to be very effective at improving mental health, aiding substance abuse treatment, and improving co-occurring disorders.

Further Resources

Also check out our BIPOC section, as well as our lists of accredited dual diagnosis treatment centers and inpatient rehabs by state for other great resources.

What Is Yoga?

In Hinduism, yoga is a theistic philosophy that emphasizes the intentional suppression of mind, body, and will so that a practitioner, or yogi, may differentiate the self from any one of these three aspects of being. In America, when someone uses the word “Yoga” they are typically referring to the physical component of yoga which is a system of exercise that includes physical postures, breathing techniques, and possibly meditation. While these practices are all part of traditional Hindu or Buddhist Yoga, they are most often practiced independently of the rest of Hindu or Buddhist practices in America and many Western countries today.

The Physiological Effects of Yoga

Like all exercise, yoga can affect neurotransmitters in the brain and body, leading to direct changes in mood, emotional state, and wellness. In particular, yoga is commonly used to reduce stress and anxiety and it has shown to be very effective in this application. It has been so effective at improving these issues as well as other physical health issues that the National Center for Integrative and Complementary Health has ongoing research programs investigating the beneficial effects of yoga on a variety of health issues including diabetes, HIV, and arthritis among others.

A study published in 2010 compared yoga to walking for improving mood, anxiety, and increasing levels of the neurotransmitter GABA and found that yoga was more effective than walking at improving all three of these factors. In particular, the increase in GABA is noteworthy, as recent research is showing that many mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are very strongly linked to GABA dysfunction. For decades it has been common to prescribe medications to increase GABA levels for issues such as anxiety disorders, some types of depression, and nerve pain conditions. The addition of a non-pharmaceutical method for increasing the levels of GABA is a very powerful tool for modern medicine. Additionally, the fact that someone can do yoga anywhere, anytime means that it can be more helpful to more people than medication, although yoga is not a replacement for medication.

Yoga has also been shown to improve physical health as well. Among people with certain health issues such as chronic back pain and chronic nonspecific neck pain, when they practiced yoga it was more effective than many traditional physical therapies with regard to their pain and level of disability. The benefits from yoga also persisted for longer than from other types of pain management practices.

Can Yoga Help With Mental Health Issues?

Further studies have gone on to clarify the application of yoga on mental health issues with very promising results. One study published in 2015 found that among adolescents and children who were suffering from anxiety issues, their subjective experience of anxiety was improved with yoga interventions. In particular, adolescents suffering from eating disorders found a great deal of relief from anxiety related to their eating disorder by practicing yoga. Finally, this study also showed that groups who practiced yoga more frequently and for longer periods received a greater improvement in their anxiety. Additionally, among women diagnosed with breast cancer, yoga was found to reduce depression, anxiety, and fatigue more effectively than traditional counseling.

Yoga Recovery Resources
Information Source: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health – Yoga and Wellness

Can Yoga Help With Substance Abuse Issues?

There has been some promising research done that indicates yoga can be beneficial for people struggling with substance use disorders. In particular, studies have shown that people struggling with alcohol and nicotine addictions can experience reductions in depression, anxiety, and cravings. Additionally, practicing yoga was also shown to increase the study participant’s motivation to quit using nicotine.

More recently, there has been a substantial volume of research done regarding mindfulness and meditation as a complementary treatment for substance use disorders alongside more traditional approaches. Some studies have found that the more meditative and philosophical aspects of yoga can be deployed alongside the physical component toward this end, helping to reduce drug and alcohol cravings and bolster relapse prevention strategies. Studies have shown that yoga can improve awareness, emotional regulation, reduce stress, and promote contemplation. All of these benefits can be of immense help to someone trying to overcome an addiction and co-occurring mental health issues, and having more tools available to help people struggling with substance use disorders can increase their chances of a successful recovery and help them renew their lives.

Yoga Resources For Recovery

There are many different groups that have already begun using yoga as a complementary mental health and substance abuse treatment practice. While yoga is not intended or even recommended to take the place of more traditional mental or behavioral healthcare, it can be a very powerful adjunct to these approaches to treatment. Some helpful resources that use yoga to help mental health and substance abuse recovery include:

  • NamaStay Sober: A group founded to increase access to yoga among the recovery community, they host online yoga classes and allow people to join virtually for a very low cost.
  • Yoga 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR): A fairly new recovery fellowship, they practice a version of the 12-steps combined with yoga philosophies, this organization provides donation-based meetings in-person all over the country and virtually.
  • Recovery Dharma: A recovery fellowship that uses Buddhist principles and practices to help people recovery from addiction, they also utilize yoga in many meetings.
  • Hazelden Betty Ford: A non-profit addiction treatment center, their site provides a helpful article about using yoga to aid recovery from substance abuse.
  • Buddhist Recovery Network: A Buddhist-inspired recovery fellowship, their website provides helpful material and information about meetings all over the world.
  • Yoga Journal: A yoga website, they have several helpful articles and testimonies about yoga helping people recover from drug and alcohol addiction.
  • YogaFit Worldwide: An organization that provides yoga classes and seminars to businesses, they also have a yoga instructor training course that is covered under the MyCAA bill for spouses of military personnel.
  • Hip Sobriety: A digital recovery program, yoga is a major component of the Hip Sobriety program. Their site also has testimonials and stories from people about how yoga has helped their recovery.