Yoga helps relieve stress


For years, yoga devotees have been telling us that bending and twisting our limbs into gravity-defying contortions is a great way to develop the perfect body. Now things have gone one step further, with a new wave of teachers claiming that yoga also offers a fast track to a beautiful mind.

Everyone from fraught mothers to stressed-out hedge-funders is catching on to the benefits of yoga therapy, a fusion of deep breathing, invigorating postures and self-help. This version of the ancient Indian practice is gaining credence within the medical community for helping with a range of issues, such as recession depression and anxiety, through to bipolar disorder and other mental-health problems.

In London, yoga therapy is now being offered at a number of NHS hospitals, while in New York, patients seeking help for depression and anxiety are as likely to find their hard-nosed psychiatrist treating them on a yoga mat as on a couch. It’s not surprising. We might all be sick of hearing about the economic climate, but it is undeniably taking its toll. We are currently in the biggest anxiety matrix the country has seen for more than 50 years. In recent months, mental-health charities have reported a surge in people seeking help for stress and depression. And after all the scare stories about the side effects of antidepressants, patients are increasingly wary of using medication to solve the problem.

Jane Kersel runs courses in Central London,  “The beginners courses are so much fuller right now because people are finding new ways to deal with anxiety and depression. Yoga encourages sufferers to reconnect the mind with the body,” she explains.

Yoga therapy to the rescue? Well, yes, actually. A new study from the Bronx Psychiatric Center in America suggests that yoga therapy can help improve negative symptoms and quality of life in patients with chronic schizophrenia. And while a bit of iyengar or ashtanga is certainly going to help ease your aching limbs, yoga therapy is specifically designed to capitalise on the positive effect it can have on the brain. Robin Monro, director of the Yoga Biomedical Trust, which promotes the development of yoga therapy in the UK, has seen a huge growth in the popularity of yoga therapy. “We get a lot of self-referrals, people who work in the City who have very stressful jobs and need tools to cope,” he says. “And, increasingly, psychiatrists and GPs are referring patients to our therapists, too.”

So how does yoga therapy differ from your usual weekly class? “You don’t need to know anything about yoga,” says Heather Mason, who runs courses designed to combat depression and anxiety. “But anyone who has some yoga knowledge might notice that the sequence of poses is very deliberately designed to move quickly between those that speed up the heartbeat and those that demand controlled breathing.

“This re-creates the same sort of physiological conditions that occur at times of emotional stress and teaches students that they can actually exert some control over what might seem an involuntary response. The idea is that having learnt this sort of control in class, students can apply it when they are feeling anxious or stressed.”

What about those who feel too vulnerable to be in a room full of yogis? Kersel recommends a one-to-one for a more personal, specialist session. “If someone is highly depressed, they’re better off having a one-to-one where you can offload and talk to the teacher in private. It’s helpful to have a sounding board, someone there to listen.” The yoga instructor Janine Thomas agrees. “Health issues can be addressed individually in a private class. For example, a student suffering from anxiety needs to learn how to lengthen the breath to slow the heart rate and calm the nervous system. They will also benefit from relaxed, restorative postures, especially forward bends, which naturally encourage a long exhale, and meditation techniques. Once they have mastered these skills on the mat, they can then apply them to stressful situations in daily life.”

Mason also believes that yoga therapy is one of the few treatments that genuinely offers a holistic cure. “If you work only on the body, you’re not addressing the thought patterns that cause stress. And if you deal only with the mental side of things, you’re ignoring the biochemical and physiological changes that emotional trauma can bring. Yoga therapy addresses both aspects of the problem.”

It’s an approach that has worked very successfully for Amanda Lyddon, a 47-year-old aromatherapist who has suffered from mental-health problems for most of her life. “My yoga is not just about what I do on my mat, it’s given me skills that I can use every day,” she says. “If I feel anxious, I know what to do to calm myself down. That’s life-changing, empowering.”

In 2000, Lyddon was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After lithium left her feeling suicidal, she decided to look into alternative ways of managing her condition. She started practising yoga and noticed that she felt calmer as a result. “I had long periods of depression, when I couldn’t get up, couldn’t work, couldn’t look after my children, and other episodes when I would just party all the time and burn myself out,” she says. “Now things are on more of an even keel.”

Morag Jameson, 34, another yoga therapy devotee, agrees. “After years of panic attacks, becoming aware that I could control my breath was very empowering. Gradually I began to feel in control of my body, instead of feeling as if my body was controlling me. Working through a series of postures, combined with breath work, makes me feel grounded, centred and free.”

One of the key principles of yoga therapy is working with the breath, known as pranayama, which is an integral part of all types of yoga. It seems there is some logic behind your mum’s advice to stop and take a few deep breaths when you’re starting to panic. “In stressful situations, we tend to take shallow breaths from the chest rather than full breaths from the abdomen,” says Mason. “This sends a message to the brain that we are in danger and kicks off stress responses. Conversely, when you breathe from the abdomen, you’re sending a message to the brain that everything’s okay.”

Learning how to breathe properly can change the biochemistry of the brain. “More challenging yoga poses put the body under physical stress,” admits Mason. “But by making my students aware of this and encouraging them to breathe properly, I’m training the nervous system to keep both the breathing, and consequently the body’s physiological response, relaxed at times of stress.”

Lyddon believes that this approach has helped turn her life around. “Before, day-to-day life was a struggle, but now I’m beginning to feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life. I’m going back to university in October, and I honestly feel that I now have the tools I need to stave off relapses.”


Claire Coleman

1 Comment
  1. I am going to speak to my partner about this

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