Given the rise in attention to client preferences in medical treatment and the shift in focus toward health promotion, it is not surprising that the use of complementary health approaches have increased in the past several years. Yoga is among the most prominent complementary health approaches.
Modern medical treatment now highlights the importance of maintaining mental and physical wellbeing in addition to mitigating ongoing disease and psychopathology.
BIOMEDICAL TO BIOPSYCHOSOCIAL
Previous conceptualizations of health care emphasized the biomedical model, which proposed disease was a derangement in an underlying physical mechanism. There was a lack of treatment available other than psycho-pharmaceuticals, which led to a failure to adequately address mental health issues, and thus, to the emergence of a paradigm shift from authoritative to more collaborative.
From this, resulted the bio-psycho-social model, a more comprehensive, multifactorial, holistic approach to treating pathology, with an awareness that both mental and physical health interact. With this shift from conventional medicine to mind-body medicine, came the mindfulness meditation movement, positive psychology, and yoga as feasible and available ways to treat and maintain health.
In both previous and recent models of disease and health, evidence based practice has been a critical component in influencing and disseminating the most effective treatment strategies.
Over the past ten years, there has been a three-fold increase in the number of publications on yoga research, with mental health disorders among the top three disorders addressed in these yoga intervention studies. Yoga, an ancient practice with its roots in India, originated as a discipline to help relieve suffering and disease. Under the umbrella term of “mind-body practice”, yoga includes physical movement (asana), meditation (dhyana), and breathing (pranayama).
Yoga is an approximately 5,000-year-old ancient “science, art, and philosophy” derived from East Indian culture. The father of yoga, Patanjali, devised yoga to be one of six philosophy systems to unite the body and mind and to also unite the personal spirit with the Universal spirit. The word yoga translates from Sanskrit to English as “to yoke”, reflecting its purpose in joining the mind and body in harmonious relaxation.
STYLES OF YOGA
Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced style of yoga in North America. It is intended to create physical and emotional balance between body and mind. Iyengar is known for developing Iyengar yoga, a popular type of Hatha yoga that focuses on “technical alignment” of the body. He is also revered for promoting the practice of yoga as a form of health care throughout the world. Ashtanga and Vini- yoga are also popular types of Hatha yoga and focus on movement between the postures. Regardless of the style of Hatha yoga, a contemporary practice involves concentrated breath work through a variety of standing, seated, and balancing postures followed by forms of twists and backbends or inversions, and ends with a relaxation or meditation posture.
The Sanskrit word prana signifies the spirit and has various English meanings including “breath … life … energy”. Yogic breathing techniques may be stimulating and create energy, such as Ujjayi breathing, while other techniques may be calming and create balance, such as Bhastrika breathing. Accordingly, the ability to rhythmically control the breath through inhalation, exhalation, and retention in an effort to reach a pure mind is important; mastering the breath squelches cravings and distractions in the mind and fosters control over the senses, leading to a state of concentration.
A mind that is clear and free from thoughts and cravings may be considered pure: carefree, motionless, and mindless; this mind is ready for concentration, meditation, and self-examination (Iyengar). Reaching this state is important because concentration restores tranquility in the mind.
The physical postures, known in Sanskrit as asanas, positively alter “flexibility, strength, coordination, balance, and circulation” of the musculo-skeletal system. Each posture was created to serve a purpose: exercise of a distinct body part. Other physical training tools are unnecessary, as the body and its limbs provide the required tools. As a result, postures can be weight-bearing, stabilizing, or mobilizing.
While the postures benefit the body physically, they also benefit the mind. For example, physical postures can stimulate psychological and emotional responses and can change energy levels. Postures can be sequenced to induce a variety of effects, such as to ground, soothe, stimulate, or revitalize one’s energy level. Specifically, forward bends have a calming or soothing effect; backbends and inversions are invigorating; and balancing postures help develop psycho-emotional poise and strength.
Once the body, the mind, and the senses have been stilled through the physical postures and the concentrated breath work, meditation can begin. Meditation is an advanced state of contemplation reached through sustained concentration over a period of time. In the deepest state of meditation, the body and the senses are relaxed, and the mind is alert but not distracted.
BENEFITS OF YOGA
Current scientific research has confirmed what ancient yogis have thought for centuries: practicing yoga may reduce certain forms of pain, improve quality of life, reduce stress, and relieve symptoms of a number of psychological disorders.
There have been an abundance of studies examining yoga as an effective clinical treatment intervention for psychological and physiological concerns. Khalsa completed an extensive review of the literature examining all of the clinical studies published that used yoga as a therapeutic intervention for psychological and physiological concerns. He found that there is some evidence to support the use of yoga as a treatment intervention for popular physical health concerns, such as cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, as well as for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and addiction (Khalsa, 2004).
Yoga is an effective method for reducing muscular tension, which may precipitate pain, and therefore, may have important therapeutic implications for a variety of issues such as chronic pain and headaches. Yoga appears to have benefits in treating internalizing disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Additionally, yoga has been shown to be effective for reducing anxiety symptoms in specific populations. Findings also suggested that a 60-minute yoga session in experienced practitioners is acutely associated with a 27% increase in GABA levels, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that induces relaxation and reduces stress and anxiety.