Aerobic movement of any kind helps to relieve depression and anxiety by boosting our brain’s dopamine levels and providing endorphins. But some types of exercises are superior for healing chronic conditions, mood disorders, and addiction. Yoga’s therapeutic benefits have been studied in recent decades, with much of the research being in randomized controlled trials — the most rigorous for proving efficacy.
There are many types of yoga, of course — from the more aerobic power yoga to a meditative gentle yoga. Hatha yoga, the most studied, combines physical postures (asanas) and controlled breathing with short periods of deep relaxation. I have found the most benefit from Bikram yoga, or hot yoga, a sequence of 26 Hatha yoga positions and two breathing exercises designed by Bikram Choudhury to engage and heal all of the systems of your body.
According to Sara Curry, Bikram yoga instructor and creator of the Sober Yogis program in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, medical miracles can happen when a person commits to a regular practice. In her TEDx talk, she tells the story of David, one of her yoga students who had a pacemaker surgically implanted in his chest. Six weeks after surgery, he began to practice with her six days a week. After only four weeks of yoga, David returned for a checkup with his cardiologist, and the doctor took him off three of his six medications and cut the remaining dosage of the other three in half.
“Our bodies can recover from tremendous amounts of trauma and chronic abuse,” Curry explains in her talk.
Curry and a team of counselors work with addicts on using Bikram yoga, group therapy, and meditation to help them stay clean. According to her exploratory study, hot yoga appears to decrease the length and intensity of symptoms of post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). These protracted withdrawal symptoms that include depression, anxiety, irritability, and sleeplessness can last up to two years after a person gets clean, and are the primary reason for relapse. Participants reported significant reductions in PAWS symptoms that negatively correlated to the number of classes taken a week.
I was inspired by her talk not only because I struggle with addiction, but also because yoga is one of the critical tools I have employed to manage my depression and anxiety more naturally as of recently. In the last nine months that I have been practicing consistently (for the last five months, I attend class five or six times a week), I have been able to significantly reduce my psych meds, wean off of a medication to control growth of a pituitary tumor, and have decreased my medication for an underactive thyroid.
I’m fascinated by the science of yoga — what specifically is happening in our bodies that makes these changes in us. Why is yoga more beneficial in relieving depression and anxiety, and controlling addiction, than, say, running six miles a day like I used to? What about hot yoga, in particular, is so transforming?
Yoga Helps With Detoxification
“Ninety-five percent of all disease is a result of nutritional deficiency or toxicity,” explains Steven J. Saltzman, MD, an anesthesiologist with an interest in integrative medicine who practices Bikram yoga himself, in a question-and-answer session about the medical benefits of hot yoga that I recently attended. Most of our toxins are stored in fat cells just beneath the skin, so we release them by sweating the way we do in a 105-degree room.
It Gets the Blood Flowing, Boosting Your Health
Yoga redistributes blood flow, increasing oxygen delivery and improving the circulatory system. All of the postures in the Bikram sequence work to increase the flow of fresh, oxygenated blood to every part of the body. Bikram calls it extension and compression. In all of the postures, we are creating a tourniquet effect — cutting off the blood supply to different organs and glands. Then, after 20 seconds holding the posture, the blood’s volume and pressure have reached maximum capacity and the newly oxygenated blood rushes in and floods our system. According to Bikram, “no other form of exercise can create this volume and force.” Until listening to Dr. Saltzman, I was unaware that the recovery phase of yoga or any interval training program is as important as the maximum performance phase. The built-in Savasana in yoga trains and establishes our heart-rate variability, a predictor of heart health and of general health.
Yoga Helps You Control Your Breath and More
Learning how to breathe is a critical component of the yoga practice. If we stay on our mat and don’t lift a leg, but can maintain calm, stable breathing in the hot room, we are still receiving medical benefits from the class, a yoga teacher told me recently. Why is the breathing so important?
“By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain,” explain Richard P. Brown, MD, and Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, in their book, The Healing Power of the Breath. “In this way, breathing techniques provide a portal to the autonomic communication network through which we can, by changing our breathing patterns, send specific messages to the brain using the language of the body — a language the brain understands and to which it responds.”
Bikram designed a breathing exercise, pranayama, to introduce each class because he believes that “improving the function of the lungs is almost always the first repair that needs doing.” Properly functioning lungs send fresh oxygen throughout the body, purifying our blood.
It Tames the Stress Response
Unlike some aerobic activity that increases cortisol levels, yoga tames the stress response by priming the parasympathetic nervous system. “It is established science that yoga destroys and metabolizes stress hormones,” explains Dr. Saltzman There is a meditative element of yoga that promotes mindfulness (helping us to stay in the present moment) that is effective therapy for depression and anxiety. Yoga moderates our stress response systems which, in turn, decreases physiological arousal — like reducing heart rate and lowering blood pressure. As mentioned above, yoga also increases heart rate variability, which can be an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress and an overall gauge for emotional resilience.
Yoga Provides You With a Caring Community
“The yoga community is one of the most supportive communities of compassionate individuals you’ll ever meet,” explains Sara in her TEDx talk. “We all struggle, thrive, fail, and persevere on the mat together. That’s how to learn what we say in yoga, Namaste, ‘the light within me acknowledges the light within you.’”
I have found this to be the case with my own group of yogis. There is a group of us that show up at 9 a.m. almost every day to fight together. Many of us are battling some kind of chronic illness, and all of us are trying to clear the mental clutter from our brains to make room for more positive and peaceful emotions. It’s extraordinarily encouraging to me to have them beside me as I meet my demons on the mat.
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