Yoga and Psychological Well-Being

Hand meditating

By Frank Schwoeri, PhD

Some may be wondering why The Temenos Center has been offering Yoga and Meditation as adjuncts to our psychotherapy services. Yoga practices, which include breathing practices (pranayama), posture practices (asana), and meditation (dhyana), are well known to foster physical health and well-being. Less well known is the recently growing research evidence for yoga’s positive effect on mental health. Recent studies have shown yoga practices to be of significant benefit for persons with anxiety, depression, PTSD, addictions, and eating disorders.

But just how does yoga help with these issues? Here are some of the ways:

Anxiety and Stress: Yoga posture practices, and especially breathing practices, are a great way to develop a calm body and quiet mind. Stress is the culprit in the development of very many physical problems, and greatly contributes to emotional distress of all kinds as well. Numerous studies have shown the strong connection between the breath and emotions–and changing how you breathe directly and quickly changes the nervous system’s activation. The yogic approach to learning breath control is a highly refined science which clinicians in the West are beginning to employ to great effect in treating emotional issues.

Depression: Yoga practices can help lift depressive moods, through increasing one’s sense of efficacy, calming depressive worry and pessimism, and energizing the physical self, countering depressive lethargy and heaviness.

PTSD: A 2014 study by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a world expert on trauma and PTSD, found that yoga significantly reduced PTSD symptoms. The study found effect sizes for yoga interventions larger than for any drug study with PTSD. Much of the effect comes from improved emotion regulation and emotion tolerance with yoga practices.

Alcohol and Drug Problems: Yoga greatly helps with calming the nervous system, which goes haywire in early recovery, causing anxiety and sleep disturbance. The improved emotion regulation which yoga supports is especially helpful; persons in addiction recovery find that yoga can help to change what can be changed, and to tolerate and accept with equanimity what life throws at them, without resorting to drugs or alcohol.

Eating Disorders: Yoga practice emphasizes awareness of how you feel, not how you look, and helps with acceptance of one’s body, as well as body awareness which is central to recovery.

A common factor in the healing effect of yoga for all of these issues is its ability to develop increased awareness of the body and its inner sensations- called “interoception”–which is central to emotion awareness and emotion regulation and to self-regulation in general. This is especially important for those with eating disorders, as well as PTSD, since persons with both problems greatly benefit from befriending the body and becoming more aware of body sensation.

A related common factor in the healing effect of yoga is what yoga calls the development of “witness consciousness,” the capacity to be steady and unmoved through life’s vicissitudes, objectively experiencing events without being carried away by one’s emotional responses. This is the capacity to observe oneself experiencing, rather than identifying with the state evoked by the experience. It’s the ability to know “I feel angry,” rather than “I am angry”- a subtle but important difference. This capacity is especially helpful to persons with alcohol and drug problems, as well as trauma-related problems. Experiencing life with equanimity is a central component of emotional maturity.

We invite you to take advantage of our offerings in yoga and meditation in your pursuit of personal growth.