Since the 1970s, meditation and other stress-reduction techniques have been studied as possible treatments for depression and anxiety. One such practice, yoga, has received less attention in the medical literature, though it has become increasingly popular in recent decades. One national survey estimated, for example, that about 7.5% of U.S. adults had tried yoga at least once, and that nearly 4% practiced yoga in the previous year. Yoga is a great way to unite your mind and body through different poses and controlled breathing. Practicing yoga for just five or 10 minutes a day can help you relax and feel more at peace with yourself.
Available reviews of a wide range of yoga practices suggest they can reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses and may be helpful for both anxiety and depression. In this respect, yoga functions like other self-soothing techniques, such as meditation, relaxation, exercise, or even socializing with friends. By reducing perceived stress and anxiety, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems. This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal, for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration. There is also evidence that yoga practices help increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly. Most individuals already know that yoga produces some kind of a calming effect. Mentally, people feel calmer, sharper, maybe more content. Findings suggest that yoga has positive effects on mild depression and sleep problems, and improves the symptoms of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and ADHD.
For many patients dealing with depression, anxiety, or stress, yoga may be a very appealing way to better manage symptoms. Indeed, the scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are not just closely allied, but are essentially equivalent. The evidence is growing that yoga practice is a relatively low-risk, high-yield approach to improving overall health. Embracing yoga as a complementary treatment for mental disorders is not uncommon. Yoga is a feature in many veterans’ centers throughout the country, backed by research funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Huffington Post reported that many troops use yoga as a form of treatment for PTSD, for example, with companies like Warriors at Ease training instructors in yoga techniques specifically catered to those in the military. A study published earlier this month of 70 active-duty troops found daily yoga eased anxiety and improved sleep.
In order to explore the widely held belief that practicing yoga can relieve mental stress, a research team at Harvard University reviewed more than 100 studies on the effect of yoga and mental health. They focused on 16 studies that recorded the effects of practicing yoga on mental-health issues ranging from depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, sleep complaints and eating disorders to cognitive problems. They found positive effects of the mind-and-body practice for all conditions with the exception of eating disorders and cognition. Those studies involved too few participants or produced conflicting results to draw any meaningful conclusions. Some of the studies included in the analysis even suggested that yoga might affect the body in ways similar to antidepressants and psychotherapy. For instance, yoga may influence brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters (boosting levels of feel-good agents like serotonin), lower inflammation, reduce oxidative stress and produce a healthier balance of lipids and growth factors, just as other forms of exercise do.
Yoga classes can vary from gentle and accommodating to strenuous and challenging; the choice of style tends to be based on physical ability and personal preference. Hatha yoga, the most common type of yoga practiced in the United States, combines three elements: physical poses, called asanas; controlled breathing practiced in conjunction with asanas; and a short period of deep relaxation or meditation. Make sure to start slow and be in control of your body to avoid injury. Yoga is not about being perfect, but respecting what your body tells you. If you can’t fully achieve a yoga pose, its okay, do what feels right for you. Although many forms of yoga practice are safe, some are strenuous and may not be appropriate for everyone. In particular, elderly patients or those with mobility problems may want to check first with a clinician before choosing yoga as a treatment option. Please read the following general practice guidelines before starting a yoga practice.
General Practice Guidelines for Yoga
Please read the contraindications for each posture before doing it. Menstruation, pregnancy, high blood pressure and injuries to the knees, shoulders, and neck are all conditions where certain postures must be avoided and special care must be taken in all postures. If you have any medical condition, you should check with your health care professional before starting a yoga practice.
Modify the postures for your body
The instructions and pictures of the yoga postures are the “goal,” meaning the direction you are going towards, not where you need to be. Experiment and explore different positions and alignment to make the posture work for your body.
Moderate the level of intensity
You can make your yoga practice as challenging and vigorous as you want. We recommend you start slowly and make sure you understand the alignment of postures. There are three ways to increase the intensity of your practice: one, hold postures for longer and longer periods of time; two, slowly build your practice up to more advanced and challenging postures; three, move quickly between postures. Read our Challenge Yourself article.
How to choose postures
Choose to practice postures that look like you can do them. Postures done on the floor are going to be easier than standing postures, as they do not require as much strength or balance. Also, postures that have longer recommended hold times (in breaths) are going to be easier to do.
Use our yoga posture sequences as a starting point and foundation for your practice sequence.
Duration of practice
Your daily practice should be between 15 to 90 minutes long and done 1-6 times per week, depending on your schedule, goals and ability. Practicing more frequently with shorter practice times will yield greater results that practicing less frequently with longer practice times.
What to wear
Loose, comfortable clothing or tights / unitards work best. Its important to wear something that will not restrict your movement.
Drinking and eating
It is not advisable to eat or drink right before a yoga practice (especially if you are practicing inversions). Eat no less than 1-3 hours before and drink only small amounts of water before practice, and do not drink during your practice if possible. NAMI (2015)
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What is Tai Chi?
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing. Tai chi, also called tai chi chuan, is a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion. Tai chi has many different styles. Each style may have its own subtle emphasis on various tai chi principles and methods. There are also variations within each style. Some may focus on health maintenance, while others focus on the martial arts aspect of tai chi.
Tai chi is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints, making it generally safe for all ages and fitness levels. In fact, because tai chi is low impact, it may be especially suitable if you're an older adult who otherwise may not exercise. Although tai chi is generally safe, women who are pregnant or people with joint problems, back pain, fractures, severe osteoporosis or a hernia should consult their health care provider before trying tai chi.
Why try Tai Chi?
When learned correctly and performed regularly, tai chi can be a positive part of an overall approach to improving your health.
The benefits of tai chi include:
Some evidence indicates that tai chi also may help:
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