Study: Yoga Therapy Shows Promise in Treatment of Mental Illness

Studies have shown yoga asanas to be effective in treating depression, anxiety and psychological distress. According to a recent research review, yoga therapy may be a helpful complement in the treatment of one of the most challenging mental health disorders as well—schizophrenia.

The review, published in the International Journal of Yoga, compiled the evidence across all studies on yoga in the treatment of schizophrenic patients. Taken together, the studies included in the review showed that yoga is a feasible adjunct to the treatment of schizophrenia; the practice yields repeatable results, and typically produces better results than other forms of exercise. The researchers concluded that yoga offered superior benefits over other adjunct treatments. They recommended that “Yoga-based, stand-alone or add-on treatments should be provided to the psychiatrically ill in the hospitals… National mental health programs must include this feature for the service of the mentally ill.”

Of all the mental illnesses, schizophrenia has been the most difficult to treat medically.  Doctors divide the symptoms into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ effects. The ‘positive’ effects, such as delusions, hallucinations and paranoia are generally treatable with drugs. The ‘negative’ effects of schizophrenia, such as depression, weight gain, and lack of motivation have not been treatable with drugs, partially because the symptoms may be caused by or at least exacerbated by the drugs which treat the delusional thinking.   Now doctors are looking at a third area of symptoms: cognitive, which includes the ability to recognize facial expressions and react in useful ways in society.  Yoga is being touted by researchers as very worthy of further trials in the treatment of the negative and cognitive effects of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia strikes five out of ten thousand people in the general population, its symptoms most often appearing during the patients’ early 20’s. Its causes are not entirely known, but it is thought to some extent to be hereditary and can also be brought on or worsened by drug abuse. Though it is most treatable at the onset, very few people recover entirely.  Patients are often unable to care for themselves or to interact in a useful way with society, causing a burden to families and to society as a whole.

Many of the studies involved groups of severely affected patients in an institutional setting, paired with control groups from the same setting practicing other forms of exercise. Both groups improved in cognitive abilities such as accurate interpretation of facial expressions and therefore in social interactions. Yoga practitioners improved considerably more than those who engaged in other forms of exercise.

How does yoga therapy help reduce the negative effects of schizophrenia? And why might yoga be more effective than other exercise regimes? Researchers aren’t sure.  Some think it may be caused by a rise in oxytocin levels during and after the practice of yoga asanas. Oxytocin is a brain chemical thought to play a role in reducing stress and depression. Oxytocin causes a feeling of general wellbeing, helps strengthen social interactions, and the hormone could account for both the cognitive improvement and improvement of mood seen in studies on yoga therapy for schizophrenic patients.  One of the studies included in the review published in the International Journal of Yoga tested oxytocin levels in two groups of schizophrenic patients, a control group and a group of yoga practitioners. While no change was found in the control group, oxytocin levels were significantly improved in the yoga group.  

Other clues to the effects of yoga therapy on mental health may lie in the holistic nature of yoga. Yoga postures not only strengthen the muscles and increase flexibility, they also have balance brain function, improve hormonal balances, and stimulates and tones the organs.  Yoga improves posture, energy flow, breathing, blood flow; it reduces stress and often helps facilitate emotional and mental tranquility.  It is not just the gentle and non-competitive nature of yoga practice, which produces inner peace and greater wellbeing but the overall healthful integration of mind, body and spirit.   

Scientific medicine has often focused on isolating a specific chemical compound to treat a specific symptom. While this has produced some success, medical treatments are often confounded by the interrelatedness of the symptoms, and the need to add more drugs to offset the side effects of previous drugs.  It’s no wonder that doctors are feeling positive about the use of yoga therapy as a holistic practice to deal with the negative symptoms of both illness itself and the side effects of the drugs used to control it.

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