Many see yoga as a fad or simply a health enhancer. But a number of scientific studies have found it effective as a therapy in treating mental and psychiatric disorders.
“Some believe that yoga should be used only for prevention and health promotion and not as a therapy for illnesses,” said B.N. Gangadhar, who heads the psychiatry department at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore.
“The reality is that it is being increasingly used as a method for treating various disorders, either alone or as in addition to other therapies, including psychiatric ones,” Gangadhar, also director, Advanced Centre for Yoga at NIMHANS, told IANS.
A study co-authored by Gangadhar and three associates examined the effect of yoga as a therapy supplementing medical treatment of schizophrenia, a severe mental condition, which registers failure rates as high as 50 to 60 percent. The condition is ranked as the ninth leading cause of mental disability worldwide.
Roughly half of 61 schizophrenia patients were randomly assigned to yoga therapy and the other half to physical exercise for four months. Ten from each group had dropped out during the therapy.
The yoga therapy group showed significantly greater improvement in mental or behavioural disorders than those in the physical exercise group. The yoga group also performed better in social and occupational functioning.
Some of the symptoms of schizophrenia are hallucinations (hearing voices), delusions (often bizarre) and disorganized thinking and speech, which render the patient’s life chaotic and distressful.
Another study led by Gangadhar found that Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) significantly lowered stress by bringing down high plasma cortisol levels among patients, which indicate stress or illness.
SKY is a method of breath control pioneered by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation.
Similarly, M. Javanbakht, a psychiatrist at Iran’s Islamic Azad University, and others found yoga eased mental conditions such as depression and anxiety in women.
Participants in Iran were assigned to two groups: one that went through two yoga sessions of 90 minutes each every week for two months and another which did not do any yoga. Women in the yoga group registered a significant decrease in anxiety and depression levels.
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which includes yoga, is now being increasingly used for easing anxiety, stress and depression. Some studies suggest that the percentage of patients availing themselves of CAM could be as high as 60 percent, said Gangadhar.
“A functional brain imaging study at NIMHANS demonstrated that chanting of Aum deactivated certain brain areas bearing on our emotions, particular anger and fear, (and producing a calming effect),” said psychiatry associate professor Shivarama Varambally.
“This indicates that Aum chanting may help in emotional control and reduce negative emotions,” Varambally added.
Johns Hopkins University’s Arthritis Centre reports that scientific studies on the effect of yoga on rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are “promising,” with results showing “some improvement in joint health, physical functioning, and mental/ emotional well-being”.
The centre suggests that such studies show yoga is a “safe and effective” way to increase muscle strength and improve flexibility, areas of core interests to arthritis sufferers. Besides, yoga can increase mental energy and help a patient develop positive feelings and help keep negative feelings in check.
Yoga, derived from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘yoke,’ is designed to integrate one’s body, mind and soul so that the entire system functions harmoniously.
“Many might argue that such a time-tested practice does not require any proof, but contemporary medicine can accept yoga only after thorough validation through scientific tests,” Gangadhar concluded.