Yoga is an ancient science that is validated by evidence based research. It offers self health practices tailored to need which are cost effective and simple to administer. The Yoga Foundation provides access to yoga as one of the key elements of a multi-disciplinary approach to self managed healing.
Among the tools that have been used with such success for thousands of years are yoga meditation, yoga breathing, yoga postures, deep relaxation and visualisation.
What differentiates yoga in method and outcome from general exercise programs is the functional relationship it promotes between body, breath and mind. This is especially evident among:
Yoga and the Mind – Ancient wisdom
The Yoga Foundation adheres to the wisdom of The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali.
The classical tradition of yoga is all about the mind. Tools of yoga including asana, breath, meditation and sound, support the mind to become calm. This calming affect may be of particular value to the beneficiaries we support; people living with anxiety, depression and hardship. The state of yoga is more readily achieved when practice is tailored to an individual’s life stage, physical health, mental health and agility.
Relevance of Yoga Today
As a result of increasing rates of mental and physical health problems, growing numbers of Australians are searching for healthier lifestyle options. And while rising health costs are refocusing government attention on preventative healthcare models, yoga’s popularity is growing.
There is growing evidence of yoga’s effectiveness in changing attitudes and responses to health status, self-health management, lifestyle habits and social outcomes.
Yoga participation in Australia has grown rapidly in recent years. According to Australian Sports Commission more people do yoga (practiced by 2.9% of the population) than play Australian Rules (2.7%) or go fishing (2.1%).
The Yoga in Australia survey found that one in five yoga participants indicate a specific health concern or medical reason for practicing yoga, most commonly stress, anxiety and depression, sleep and anxiety disorders, or back, neck and knee problems.
Eastern and Western approaches to health care are increasingly merging. More scientific attention is being focused on preventative health. Government policy reflects the need for this shift, with a stated goal of Australia being the healthiest country by 2020.
The focus on prevention and self-healing is particularly important as Australia’s population ages. Reliance on a curative approach will put unsustainable pressure on the hospital system.
Despite Australia’s very high standard of living, anxiety, suicide levels and mental illness are all on the rise.
In the light of this, psychology is turning its attention to techniques that promote sustainable happiness including mindfulness, conscious breathing and physical exercise, areas in which yoga’s time-tested body, mind, breath tools have a key contribution to make.
Yoga can be taught in such a way as to develop one’s own capacity to maintain good physical and psychological health, either in small groups or individually as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to chronic disease management and/or recovery.
Depression & Anxiety
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines depression as “ a mental disorder that presents with depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy and poor concentration”.1 Anxiety disorders are defined as having feelings of tension, distress and nervousness.
2Nearly half of all Australians (45%) will experience some form of mental disorder in their lifetime.3 One in five have experienced some form of depression or anxiety episode in the past year alone.
Mental health is characterised by multiple social, psychological and biological factors. They can be caused by individual or societal factors, such as economic disadvantage, poor housing, lack of social support and the level of access to, and use of health services. People of lower socioeconomic status are also more likely to suffer from mental disorders.
Yoga practitioners have long been claiming that yoga has positive effects on stress, anxiety and depression; and over the past ten years, many studies have aimed to gather scientific data and evidence to support this claim.
There have been three main findings regarding yoga’s effectiveness as an intervention; its ability to decrease feelings of depression, anxiety, stress and negative mood; to improve cognitive functions; and to increase brain GABA levels. GABA, short for gamma aminobutyric acid, is your major inhibitory or relaxing neurotransmitter (brain chemical).
One study found that subjects who participated in a yoga program for just two and a half weeks reported decreases in depression, anxiety, negative mood and tiredness.4 In addition, subjects who practiced yoga displayed higher levels of cortisol in the morning compared to the control group at the end of a five-week course. Higher morning cortisol levels suggest improved self esteem and coping mechanisms compared to low morning cortisol levels, which are associated with depression and emotional instability.
Another study tested the effect of a yoga program on the cognitive functions of patients diagnosed with Major Depression.5 Cognitive functions normally are impaired with patients with Major Depression, meaning any improvements can be seen as a positive effect of an intervention. The effectiveness of a course of yoga classes was compared to the effectiveness of anti-depressant medication in improving cognitive functions. At the end of the study, both groups showed improvements in the majority of neuro-cognitive tests, but the yoga group showed more significant improvements in executive functions such as attention span and manipulation of information in the verbal working memory. This suggests that yoga can certainly be effective as a complementary intervention alongside anti-depressant medication.
Yoga has been found to increase brain GABA levels.6 Low GABA levels are seen in patients diagnosed with depression and anxiety. A study compared yoga practitioners who completed a 60 minute yoga class to subjects who participated in a 60 minute session of reading. Brain GABA-to-creatine ratios were taken immediately before and after each session, and the subjects in the yoga group experienced a 27% increase in ratios, whilst no change was experienced in the reading group. This suggests Yoga substantially increases brain GABA levels, which could be extremely beneficial to people experiencing low GABA levels, such as those suffering from depression and anxiety.
1 World Health Organisation (2010) “Depression” Mental health, World Health Organisation Website, accessed 25 November 2010
2 Australian Bureau of Statistics “Australian Social Trends, March 2009”, Canberra, ACT:Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) viewed 25 November
3 Australian Bureau of Statistics “National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007”, Canberra, ACT: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) viewed 12 August
4 Woolery, A, Myers, H, Sternlieb, B and Zelter, L. “A yoga intervention for young adults with elevated symptoms of depression”, Alternative Therapies 10 no. 2 (2004) 60-63
5 Sharma, V. K, Das, S, Mondal, S, Goswami, U, Gandhi, A. “Effect of Sahaj Yoga on Neuro-cognitive Function in Patients Suffering from Major Depression”, Indian Journal of Physiological Pharmacology 50 no. 4 (2006) 375-383
6 Streeter, C. C, Jensen, J. E, Perlmutter, R.M, Cabral, H.J, Tian, H, Terhune, D.B, Ciraulo, D. A, and Renshaw, P, F. “Yoga Asana Sessions Increase Brain GABA Levels: A Pilot Study”, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 13 no. 4 (2007) 419-426